The Language We Speak Shapes Us

interesting words in other languages

When I was in elementary school, my cool cousin Arlene attended high school in Germany as a foreign exchange student. The whole concept of leaving one’s home and one’s language was inconceivable to an anxious little kid like me. Arlene’s coolness factor instantly became far vaster.

I saw her when she came home that summer. It was one of those extended family get-togethers where younger kids eat at separate tables, but I did my best to stare at her from afar. It was obvious to me her time in Europe had already made her more sophisticated than our not-well-traveled adult relatives. I’d always wanted to be like her (and like her older sister Laura and our second cousin Linda) but that jig was up. I could never hope to be as confident and poised as she was after her time abroad. I listened carefully when she answered a question about polishing her language skills. I’ve never forgotten what she said.

“You know you’ve got it when you start to dream in another language.”

To speak another language seemed amazing . To dream in it was, to me, unimaginable.

Our thoughts, or at least our perspectives, may very well be shaped by the language(s) we speak. The structure of language matters because of the way it categorizes and labels —shaping our view of reality.

One recent study looked at people who spoke both German and English, as well as those who spoke only one of those languages. Research subjects were shown video clips of people walking towards their cars, cycling towards stores, and so on. Because of the way the separate languages work, German monolingual speakers tended to describe the entirety of the scene, including the person’s action as well as their apparent goal. English monolingual speakers tended to describe only the person’s actions. When it came to people fluent in both languages, Germans who spoke English were goal-focused when tested in their home countries unless they were primed to speak and think in English, in which case they were action-focused. And English speakers who spoke German were more action-focused unless they were primed to speak and think in German, in which case they were more goal-focused. So the language they were using to both think and speak affected they way they described a scene. Okay, maybe that’s just semantics.

But there are enormous benefits to thinking in another language. For example, people who are bilingual appear to make better choices when they think them through in a non-native language. Researcher Boaz Keysar who studies decision bias, writes,  “A foreign language provides a distancing mechanism that moves people from the immediate intuitive system to a more deliberate mode of thinking.”

And there are drawbacks. The language we speak may affect how we think about and see other people. Even people of our own ethnicityResearch shows that Israeli Arabs who speak both Arabic and Hebrew show weaker positive associations with common Arabic names when tested in the Hebrew language. This research says a great deal about culture as well as language.

Our words come not only from our mouths, they come from our worldview. In the Mohawk language, for example, the individual doesn’t stand alone but is in spoken of in relationship to a larger whole.  While in English we’d say “to bury,” in Mohawk it is said as “to wrap his body with the blanket of our Mother Earth.” And when one is ill, it’s not said, “I am sick” but instead, “the sickness has come to me.”

I am sadly monolingual now that my Spanish lessons from middle school have faded from memory. But I am fascinated by language, especially terms for which there are no equivalents in English. We’ve all experienced ideas too large to explain and feelings inexpressible through mere words. Surely every language contains words that convey something crucial yet untranslatable, concepts that are perfectly clear in one tongue yet come out as awkwardly clumped phrases in other languages. They are unique to the geography and culture, yet globally relevant. Here are a few examples.

The Turkish word huzur literally means “presence” but takes on larger connotations having to do with serenity, particularly the inner peace that comes from living in a routine.

The Indonesian word jayus refers to a joke told so poorly that others cannot help but laugh.

The Irish word leaspáin describes those illusory flickering lights that dance before one’s eyes, caused by exhaustion or a knock on the head.

The  Yup’ik word name Ellam Yua is not only the name for the deity considered “person of the universe” but also has to do with one’s spiritual debt to the nature, an outlook of generosity or grace, and awareness of the soul inherent in all beings and things.

The Italian word commuovere often translates as “heartwarming,” but is typically used to refer to a story that moved you to tears.

The Welsh word hiraeth is translated as “homesickness” but means much more. It implies a sense of belonging to the land itself and, when away, an emptiness that can only be filled by returning to Wales. Even then, it’s a yearning that can’t entirely be met, a wistfulness for something that no longer exists.

The Japanese word tsundoku is leaving a book unread after purchasing it.

The Greek word μεράκι (meraki) means enthusiasm and attention to aesthetic outcome when performing a task, however ordinary.

The Iroquois or Haudenosaunee word ondinnonk can refer to the innermost aspect of one’s nature as well as to a soul wish as expressed in dreams.

The Swedish word gökotta means to wake up early specifically to go outside and hear the first birds sing.

The Thai word nam jai translates literally as ‘water heart,’ and refers to the selfless nature of a person who gives without any expectation of anything in return.

The Korean word hwabyung describes the stress-induced illness of repressed anger, particularly related to unfairness that cannot be addressed.

The Russian word poshlost means what is trashy and vulgar but pretends to be profound or beautiful. To apply the deadly label of poshlism to something is not only an aesthetic judgment but also a moral indictment.

The Italian word vendemmia simply translates to “grape harvest,” but means much more — the sense of community and celebration that comes with the harvest.

The Yiddish word trepverter means a witty retort you think of only when it’s too late to use.

The Tamil word kindal is to praise a person so much that the praise turns into a insult or teasing.

The German word torschlusspanik translates as “gate-closing panic” and is used to describe the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages.

The Hokkien (Chinese dialect) word lau hong translates as “leaked air” and describes food that’s meant to be crispy or hard, such as crackers, turned soft.

The German word kummerspeck refers to excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally, grief bacon.

The Portuguese word saudade refers to an intense, overwhelming longing for something that may never exist, such as an impossibly perfect soulmate.

The Japanese word yūgen names the sense that nature possesses a mysterious beauty that can be seen but not understood.

The Yup’ik term ataucimek umyuarluteng means being of one mind. It refers to the the way people in relationship, whether a couple or a village, flourishes when they function in agreement rather than pushing one’s own purpose ahead of others.

6 thoughts on “The Language We Speak Shapes Us

  1. I know what you mean about cultural issues affecting how a language evolves… The English have a horror of appearing rude or unfeeling because of staring at another. The Spanish don’t even have a word for staring, and will happily stand gawking at an afflicted other for half a day, until their interest and curiosity are exhausted… I speak a smattering of three languages other than English, and it’s very interesting to me to observe that the words I retain and use most frequently in each of them are different!

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  2. Fascinating!

    Your stories remind me of someone very dear to me who speaks many languages. In English she is soft-spoken and polite. When speaking her native Russian her voice and intonation are so different that it seems she is angry, or at least vehement (to my English-speaking sensibilities) until I recognized that it was simply the way she came across when speaking Russian. Silly me.

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  3. I’ve always liked those meanings. And then the words we lose as cultures change, as Robert MacFarlane wrote in Landmarks.
    I wished it was true about that decision making thing. I speak three languages but have hard time with decisions no matter which one I use. 🙂

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  4. Learning another language and inevitably another culture with it is one of the best ways to challenge provincialism and bigotry. In the 1990’s I came to know several Iranian people through friends, including a family with three teenagers whose father had absconded. I came to pick up some of their father’s slack as a mentor-father figure and they remain an important part of my life.
    Out of curiosity I taught myself a bit of Farsi (Persian) including the Arabic alphabet it uses. It’s difficult to convey how much my modest efforts were appreciated. One of my best friends married a Persian woman and asked me to be best man. When her mother discovered I could speak a smattering of Farsi word spread like wildfire through the guests and for that day I was an absolute rock star with them – one of the most remarkable episodes of my life.
    But imagine had I made no effort to get beneath the lurid headlines (not to diminish the grim realities of the old country in any way) and just stewed in alienated resentment from a distance. I am now working on a book that probes what undermined the region’s prodigious efforts to modernize.

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