Tag Archives: German language

Cool words from other languages that have no decent English equivalent!

19 Mar
King Gorm the Old recieves the news of the dea...

Image via Wikipedia

I was having dinner with an old school friend last night, and on the way home, I realised that we’d been talking partly in Wenglish, which is English, but smattered with Welsh words, phrases and very occasionally, some unique syntax (word order).  (Wenglish speakers have a lot in common with Yoda – you’ll often hear phrases that start with either the verb or the object – ‘Gorgeous, he was, gorgeous!’ or ‘Lovely day, it was.’)

There was one word in our conversation with no obvious English equivalent – hiraeth.  It means a sense of longing for one’s country, but often tinged with a sense of loss and longing for the past.

It got me thinking – what words exist in other languages that have no obvious English translation?   English has always borrowed words from other languages (and increasingly, other languages borrow from English) – but what cool words and phrases are there that we should use now?

One obvious example is Schadenfreude – a German word for taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune.  (something which I’m sure we’re all guilty of from time to time.)

Esprit d’escalier – ok, a phrase, not a word.  This is the expression for those situations where you think up exactly the right, witty retort to someone – but only after the conversation is long over!  It literally means ‘the spirit of the staircase’ – that is to say, only when you’ve walking away up the stairs does the inspiration strike you!  Again, this is a situation I’m sure we’re all too familiar with.

Another Welsh word I love is cwtch. It means to snuggle up next to someone or have a lovely cuddle.  It literally means ‘a safe place’ – so as well as asking your beloved to come closer on the sofa for a cwtch, you’ll also put your coat in the cwtch when you come home!

I’m not making any claims that any of the following are true (they’re all from the web) – but they did make me smile.  Do they provide an insight into other cultures?

Yoko meshi – the Japanese expression for the stress involved in having to speak a foreign language.  It literally means ‘a meal eaten sideways’.

Tingo – this is from the Easter Islands, and means (this is brilliant) to borrow objects one by one from a neighbour’s house until there is nothing left

Rujuk – a word from Indonesia, which means to remarry your ex-wife.

I also came across the German word Handschuhschneebalwerfer.  This is used to refer to a coward – but when you translate it directly, it means ‘someone who wears gloves to throw snowballs’.  What a great description!

Let me also throw ‘gorm’ into the mix as a cool word that did exist in English, but we’ve lost.  However, we still talk about the absence of ‘gorm’ when we refer to people as ‘gormless’.  Gorm is an old word for understanding – and to call someone ‘gormless’ is to suggest they’re an idiot.  (There’s also a famous Danish king called Gorm, who I believe was the founder of the current Danish royal line).

Does your mother tongue influence how you think?

13 Feb
The gender of countries in the French language...

Image via Wikipedia

The New York Times recently ran an article on this interesting, if highly controversial, topic that your native language influences how you think about the world.

One of the reasons this is controversial is that, as some languages do not distinguish between past, present and future (I did; I do; I will do), it was thought that the native speakers of those languages could not themselves distinguish between past, present and future, so lacked any inherent sense of time.

This theory is largely discredited now – but the article does pose some interesting ideas.

For native English speakers, as the majority of our nouns are neuter, does this force us to think differently about gender? So, if I said I spent the evening with a neighbour, you might wonder or make presumptions about whether my neighbour was male or female.  But if I were speaking French, I would automatically convey the gender of the person (voisin; voisine) – so you wouldn’t have to think about it at all.

In Spanish, a bridge is a masculine noun; in German, it’s a feminine noun.  In a study, when asked to describe the characteristics of a bridge, Spanish speakers chose more manly attributes, German speakers more feminine.  Is that a thought process that’s inherently influenced by whether the noun is masculine or feminine in your mother tongue?

The article also gives the example of an aboriginal language from Queensland, AustraliaGuugu Yimithirr – which completely lacks terms like ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’ (which are known as egocentric co-ordinates as they rely on where the speaker is positioned) but instead only uses geographic coordinates (north; south; east; west), which are fixed, regardless of which way the speaker is facing.

So, if you’re asked ‘where are my glasses?’, you might get the response ‘on the table to the north of you’, rather than ‘on the table behind you’.

Does this mean speakers of Guugu Yimithirr (and the other languages around the world that only use geographic coordinates) have developed a completely different sense of space?

Read ‘Does your language shape how you think’ in full.