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'.


  1. Oh drat. I'm waiting on "Wabi-Sabi art workshop" from my library. I had no idea it would be untranslateable! That gives me the heebie-jeebies! :^o

    1. sorry to be the one to tell you that the book will be gibberish.

  2. If we could pry apart the a & e in hwaet, would it become translatable?

  3. On the eleventh: Cafuné is that relaxing head massage. But it at the same time a special way to show love :) We do cafuné on those cloest to us - siblings, spouse, relative, great friends... those we care about. Thus, cafuné is a very practical way to say someone matters and we wanto to stay close to them.

  4. Are you saying the language of Shakespeare can't express the meaning of Mamihlapinatape?

  5. As a german living in Sweden, I'm quite sure that there is no translation - neither german nor english - for the swedish word "lagom" (which means: exaktly right. Not too warm, not too cold, not too high, not too low... ).
    In Sweden it's a quite important word, frequently used - and there are those saying, that "lagom" is the swedish heart and soul (meaning: as a swede, you are not supposed to aim higher. You want to be "lagom").

    "Torschlusspanik" and "Schadenfreude" - o.k., glad the list is not including "Besserwisser"...


    1. I had trouble understanding everything after "which means:"

    2. Given the definition, sounds like Swedish "lagom" is synonymous with English "perfect". Though the usage could be more nuanced, just going off the definition and example.

  6. Your brilliant translation of "Tierra del Fuego" reveals your deep reverence of that Sapir Whorf guy! (Either that, or your Spanish teacher was a Finnish impostor on Mezcal.)

  7. BTW: You might want to consider adding the Spanish "vergüenza ajena" to your list. It used to be utterly untranslatable in German because we didn,t have any such concept. Then some clueless idiot who didn,t grasp the notion of untranslatability must of messed up big way, because a couple years ago suddenly the term "Fremdschämen" appeared and has been spreading ever since. It,s still untranslatable in English, tho. (Sorry, keyboard without apostrophes.)

  8. I disagree: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000393.html


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