Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Good Days

I'm now in another country. And not just visiting. My wife has a job teaching at a university and I've taken a break from teaching to finish my own studies and writing. Except that now that I'm in this country, I'm taking a language class. It's an odd experience, as I've never taken a language class. I took Old English, which used to be a language, but now she's dead.

Of course, while taking this class I have to bite my tongue when the teacher says something about her language (or anyone else's) that my linguistic training has taught me to bark at like a drug sniffing dog.* It hasn't been too much of a challenge because her opinions are moderate and a lot of her views are in line with current linguistic theories and accepted facts.

The first good sign was when on the first day of class she mentioned that Turkish is not a difficult language. "It's just different" she said. Good I thought. She's not going to brag about her language being more sophisticated, or other languages being less logical. Of course less than twenty minutes after saying this, she did say "Russian is a very hard language!" Merely a venial sin. There's usually a detoxing session after the class when Buffy will turn to me and say "I was wondering what you thought when she said…" Which is a nice sign that my ranting and raving has made an impression on my loved ones. They're starting to recognize what sorts of pitches I like to take a swing at.

*Don't they actually just sit down next to the drugs when they find them? Without barking? I don't know if that's true, but it feels true right now.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Thirteen untranslatable words

I'm a language lover. I have been since I was a kid. Just about eleven months after being born, I started saying words and I've been using them ever since. I probably use words every day and I've gotten pretty good at it.

But there's still so much for me to learn. And learning languages other than English is always a fun challenge. But what makes it so much harder is that a lot of languages have words in them that we just can't translate into English. Who knows if it's because we don't have the concept in English (which makes it impossible to make up a word to label the concept) or, more interestingly, maybe we don't have the concepts in English because we don't have the word! History's first linguist, a guy named Sapir Whorf, discovered that without a word, we can't think.

So in my research I went out and found some of the most amazing untranslatable words in the non-American speaking world. Here they are, in no particular order.

  1. Mamihlapinatapei
    This is one of the first words I learned about as an untranslatable word. It's spoken by using a ancient and primitive language from Chile, in Tierra del Fuego. (Tierra del Fuego, by the way, means "Fire, Having Land/Earth/Dirt, Which Land/Earth/Dirt Is Being This Land/Earth/Dirt".) The word, mamihlapinatapei, is unfortunately untranslatable.

  2. Toska
    This is a Russian word. It means… uhhh… it's sort of like… hm. Well it's a cool meaning, but you have to know Russian to understand it.

  3. Iktsuarpok
    The Inuits only have one word for this, and therefore altho we can't know what this word means, we do know that iktsuarpok isn't important or familiar to the Inuits, otherwise they'd have 231 words for it.

  4. Shlimazl
    The Yiddish word is used next to schlemiel a lot, both of them meaning something related to each other. The meaning is something close to… uhhhh… dammit this post is hard to write.

  5. Friolero
    No idea. Looks Spanish.

  6. The
    You might recognize this word, but there is no English translation of it. It is similar to 'a' and 'an' but it has a meaning that those two words just don't quite capture.

  7. Tartle
    Scotts talk funny, don't they?

  8. Torschlusspanik
    Germans use this word. You might notice it has the word "panik" in it which is close to English "panic" but those other parts mean some other sorts of things.

  9. Wabi-Sabi
    In Japanese culture, you have… there are these… ummm… It rhymes with itself. Like that other untranslatable word Oingo Boingo.

  10. Hwæt
    This Old English word used to be English when English wasn't yet old. Once it became old, hwæt became impossible to use.

  11. Cafuné
    Not even speakers of Portuguese from Portugal can understand this word. Only speakers of Portuguese from Brazil know what it means.

  12. L’appel du vide
    Altho the French have one translation of this that they can share with us (the call of the void), they have since given it another more interesting meaning that they are keeping from us.

  13. Schadenfreude
    This weird German word roughly translates into the English word, 'schadenfreude'.