At loss for words
August 5, 2018 9:31 AM   Subscribe

 
what I love about this list is how eloquently (with only ten words) refutes the notion that somehow our culture is the superior culture. It's not. If it were, our go-to language would include these words, because they're all useful, they all make sense, we shouldn't need a paragraph to explain things so ... human. If nothing else, it's encumbering our poetry.
posted by philip-random at 9:56 AM on August 5 [2 favorites]


They're easily translatable into English. The article itself does exactly that for each one of them.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 10:07 AM on August 5 [34 favorites]


Of course, the beautiful thing about English is that if we decide culturally we need to express those exact sentiments in a single word, we'll just hijack the word and bring it right in.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 10:08 AM on August 5 [24 favorites]


They're easily translatable into English. The article itself does exactly that for each one of them.

I'm not sure you can call it "easily translatable." Sure, I can read and comprehend each of those explanatory paragraphs, but most of these concepts are so foreign to me that I can't conceive of them.

I've never experienced "hours of talking, drinking, and joking." When anyone I've ever heard of "strive[s] to achieve the bella figura," it's reviled as the worst of evils. What does it mean to be able to say "I am calling it a day" and just walking away? Can anybody seriously look at England or America and pretend to see "pragmatic cooperation despite differences"?

These are concepts that do not even compute.
posted by ragtag at 10:14 AM on August 5 [11 favorites]


For once, the comments are worth reading. They have a number of other good words and cover some parts of the globe that the original article missed.
posted by TedW at 10:16 AM on August 5 [1 favorite]


They're easily translatable into English. The article itself does exactly that for each one of them.

This is such a MetaFilter comment.
posted by Pendragon at 10:22 AM on August 5 [21 favorites]


The description of polderen is concise and well rounded. Good work.
posted by jouke at 10:33 AM on August 5 [3 favorites]


They're easily translatable into English. The article itself does exactly that for each one of them.

in a paragraph or more.
posted by philip-random at 10:34 AM on August 5 [5 favorites]


Ta’arof

Oh there’s a word for my personal idea of hell, that’s good

polderen

And a word for what I want to yell at all non-deplorables!

tiáo 条

And now my mind is delightfully blown
posted by schadenfrau at 10:40 AM on August 5 [4 favorites]


Polderen is a good one but they should have included, also from Dutch, gezelligheid.
posted by beagle at 10:54 AM on August 5 [5 favorites]


So since Spanish has a single word (antier) for "the day before yesterday" that implies Spanish speakers have a deep and complex relationship to 48 hours ago that English speakers cannot grasp? I mean, they have one word for that and we need four... now that it is Sunday, can I really understand the concept of Friday like my buddy Javier can?

in a paragraph or more.

The definition of any of these terms in their native languages would also require a paragraph or more. But since speakers of those languages know what the word means, they don't need to write it out. We do the same thing in English. Every culture has words that serve as shorthand for cultural concepts that require a lot of unpacking. It doesn't make them untranslatable.

I get the romance of the idea that speakers of other languages are so unlike us that there is a gap that cannot be bridged, but the fact is that argument is A. unsupported by linguistic evidence* and B. most often employed by people who want to dehumanize speakers of another language as a convenient pretext to enslave or slaughter them.

*see strong vs. weak linguistic relativity (colloquially the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) - yes, there is a small gap but no, it's not remotely unbridgeable
posted by lefty lucky cat at 10:58 AM on August 5 [35 favorites]


Having a German-speaking wife, we have some favorite untranslatable words. Hers is:

Backpfeifengesicht - "the quality of possessing a face badly in need of a slap or fist"

And mine?

Quadratscheiße - an uptight person. Literally, a "square shitter".
posted by JoeZydeco at 11:17 AM on August 5 [27 favorites]


As a Canadian, I propose: "hoser" and "hosed."

I guess originally, it was used for the losing hockey team, who had to hose down the rink (I'm from the West Coast, so this is a totally alien concept to me), and was made famous by Bob and Doug McKenzie.

It's a term of derision and endearment, and also a verb. Something broken or screwed up is "hosed"; a very tired person is "hosed"; a drunk person is "hosed." A good friend might be a hoser; an enemy never is.

Nowadays, there's an extra level of irony to the word. We know that Americans think Canadians run around calling eachother "hoser," even though we never actually did, and think it's funny to do the same. So now we do it because the Americans do it, with three levels of comic meta-irony.

But I actually use the word earnestly when I'm exhausted: "I'm going home, I'm totally hosed!"
posted by klanawa at 11:27 AM on August 5 [10 favorites]


Citing German examples is cheating because those word are sentences really.
posted by glasseyes at 11:50 AM on August 5 [8 favorites]


One of my favorite untranslatable Italian words is "boh". (I would include the idiomatic "what are you gonna do?" as another meaning in addition to those at the link.)
posted by camyram at 11:53 AM on August 5 [1 favorite]


I love all of these.

Feierabend truly does not culturally translate to Americans. I‘ve tried many times to explain the appeal and the concept, but I can tell nuances and emotional texture are missing. You flatten out the concept by explaining, it just doesn’t work. Not everything is an universal experience and that‘s OK.

Other concepts - like Schadenfreude or Fremdschämen translate seamlessly, though.
posted by The Toad at 11:54 AM on August 5 [2 favorites]


My Norwegian friend has been trying for years with limited success to get a made up word into the Norwegian language. My gift to you is Humsk, something that is very fishy or suspicious. Use it with joyous abandon.
posted by arcticseal at 12:04 PM on August 5 [2 favorites]


This is such a MetaFilter comment

No, it’s a basic knowledge of linguistics and human languages comment. As lefty lucky cat notes above, this is Sapir-Whorf nonsense that refuses to die. An idea requiring more than one word to express in one language is not a gap in comprehensibility.

It’s bizarre that people fixate on number of words as a relevant measure or sign of anything, and the way this thread immediately fell into rants about cultural superiority handily demonstrates how corrosive this deeply incorrect conception of language is.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:15 PM on August 5 [33 favorites]


I have a whole book of these kinds of things. One of my favorite is "tartle", which the book claims is a Scottish term - it's a word for when you are at a party talking to an acquaintance and someone else you know comes up to say hi, and you go to introduce the first person to the second person - and you completely draw a blank on their name.

The fact that they actually have a word for that is the best thing ever.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:20 PM on August 5 [11 favorites]


of the languages I know, and know about, what jumped out from me in this list, is the unexpected recognition of the Russian 'toska'. Malay/Indonesian has 'rindu' and it feels just about the same, though it's stronger on the longing and less on the ennui, but it can be for a person, a concept, a period of time. I say unexpected because I can't exactly draw a direct connection between the three languages. Of the others that I can, I did crack up at ta'arof, because Malay Muslims have a similar cultural norm (won't be surprised if that was shared) -- ever want a Malay to actually accept anything, is to offer it three times. And the way Chinese has shapes as counter words, well, so does Japanese and Malay/Indonesian.

Sometimes, a concept can be so prosaic in one language and so mysterious in another, because maybe the mysteriousness is due to its unusualness in that language, and that leads to hilarity in (bad) translations. One classic here is that movie 'The Day After Tomorrow', which basically got translated into 'lusa'. Which is exactly what the day after tomorrow is called in Malay.
posted by cendawanita at 12:24 PM on August 5 [2 favorites]


So since Spanish has a single word (antier) for "the day before yesterday" that implies Spanish speakers have a deep and complex relationship to 48 hours ago that English speakers cannot grasp? I mean, they have one word for that and we need four... now that it is Sunday, can I really understand the concept of Friday like my buddy Javier can?

No, but there's a difference here. Having these simple words for somewhat complex concepts can mean an easier mental or emotional access to and grasp of them. "Two days ago" is one syllable more than "antier" and they both cover a very very simple and everyday idea. Romance languages' greater reliance on compound construction doesn't hinder any understanding of things happening in the past.but a word like Tíao can alter in some small way the manner by which one views the world, which is cool. "Polderen" can seep into the culture not just as an idea but as a shared value, all the more easily because there's a term for it which evokes shared cultural history. Others may be expressable in many languages (as they say, "Shoganai" may be expressed as "c'est la vie" or "it is what it is" and sisu may be "grit" in English but both doubtless have a ton of their own nuance and weight in their respective languages.

"Sobremesa" and "hygge" describe in some ways very similar concepts: taking the time to have drinks and spend time with friends with no specific goal beyond spending the time with them, because it's worth it to do so. But the two concepts are very different in feeling, execution, and connotation.

As always, the best explanation I can think of for this (weak-kinda-sorta Sapir-Whorf phenomenon) is that our understanding of color classification depends on the language in which we were brought up. So while native English-speakers register pink as a separate color from red, light blue and navy blue will still be "blue", though not to Russians, for whom those are as distinct as pink and red are to the Anglos.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:28 PM on August 5 [3 favorites]


As a Minnesotan, I understand implicitly what the word “ta’arof” is describing. I’m delighted that there’s a word for that. Clearly our Iranian brethren are cut from a similar cloth.
posted by Autumnheart at 12:45 PM on August 5 [7 favorites]


An idea requiring more than one word to express in one language is not a gap in comprehensibility.

no, but it points to a cultural difference in emphasis that can speak volumes ... until it doesn't anymore ...

Of course, the beautiful thing about English is that if we decide culturally we need to express those exact sentiments in a single word, we'll just hijack the word and bring it right in.

and in that light, here's hoping that polderen does indeed get adopted

a word for what I want to yell at all non-deplorables!
posted by philip-random at 12:56 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]


Re: tartle. I find myself from time to time engaged in conversation with a stranger when it dawns on me that I don't know what their name is and that now it seems too late to actually ask them. I thought it was an English thing, perhaps it is just British.
posted by epo at 1:08 PM on August 5


Which language has a word for that feeling when you're trying to say that there's no single English word for a thing, but you leave it ambiguous enough that you immediately get accused of subscribing to some version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?
posted by sfenders at 1:12 PM on August 5 [10 favorites]


One of my favorite untranslatable Italian words is "boh"

So that's what Kimi is saying all the time. I guess it means the same in Finnish.
posted by sfenders at 1:15 PM on August 5 [2 favorites]


What about phrases that literally cannot be translated into another language not because of cultural differences because they depend on the grammar or vocabulary of the language in question? For example, one of the classic Twilight Zone episodes is "To Serve Man," the climax of which hinges on how that phrase could have two meanings in English. But it's not something you could translate into Spanish, even if "servir" could be used both ways, because in one meaning, you'd serve man (the dish) and in the other, you'd have to stick an a or al in there (another example, if you're stuck in seventh grade and taking Latin, is how semper ubi sub ubi can only get its seventh-grade meaning if quasi-translated into English).
posted by adamg at 1:16 PM on August 5


Yeah, I don't think it's so much about "having a word for X" as it is about "having a society that would value X enough to have a word for it".
posted by ragtag at 1:17 PM on August 5 [5 favorites]


Put another way, the word umami coming into common usage didn't change the way a burger tastes, but it changed the way we think about how a burger tastes. Is that the same thing? Maybe a philosophical question.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:44 PM on August 5 [2 favorites]


Kwan? That's your word?
posted by dry white toast at 1:53 PM on August 5


> lefty lucky cat:
"So since Spanish has a single word (antier) for "the day before yesterday" …

It's 'anteayer', as in 'ante' (before) + 'ayer' (yesterday).
posted by signal at 1:55 PM on August 5 [5 favorites]


the word umami

I think this example will lead down a rabbit hole. "Umami" is a neologism in Japanese, too. Our understanding of taste has changed not because of the word but because of research showing a specific capacity to taste glutamates distinctly from salt. Our understanding of the world changed language, in this case, not the other way around.
posted by howfar at 2:01 PM on August 5 [4 favorites]


It's 'anteayer', as in 'ante' (before) + 'ayer' (yesterday).

Both spellings are acceptable regional variants, I think.
posted by howfar at 2:03 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]


I think this example will lead down a rabbit hole. "Umami" is a neologism in Japanese, too. Our understanding of taste has changed not because of the word but because of research showing a specific capacity to taste glutamates distinctly from salt. Our understanding of the world changed language, in this case, not the other way around.

Maybe a rabbit hole, but it wasn't "our" understanding. It was a relatively small group of researchers' understanding, which an appropriate word made public knowledge, which then changed our global understanding.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:05 PM on August 5


Well, yes, language can be used to communicate ideas. But our understanding of taste could have been as easily changed by the word "savoury", which was already in English and is an excellent translation of "umami" (and predates it by centuries, which from a linguistically relativistic stance would seem to suggest that English speakers already understood something about taste that Japanese speakers didn't until the 20th century*). The word was a part of the conceptual change, but I'd suggest that its origins and morphology have almost nothing to do with how our view of flavour has changed.

*To be clear, I don't think this is a good argument and I don't support it.
posted by howfar at 2:18 PM on August 5 [4 favorites]


Both spellings are acceptable regional variants, I think.

Apparently anteayer is used in Spain and antier in Latin America. The dictionary of the RAE does include both.

FWIW, lately the pianist James Rhodes has become a kind of celebrity in Spanish twitter and he's fascinated by words like merienda (the snack around 18h that comes between lunch and dinner) or tiquismiquis (somewhere between punctilious/ pernickety with undertones of being fearful).
posted by sukeban at 2:22 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]


"Shoganai" may be expressed as "c'est la vie" or "it is what it is" and sisu may be "grit" in English but both doubtless have a ton of their own nuance and weight in their respective languages.

I don't know Japanese, but there seems to be an equivalent to "shoganai" in Chinese: "mei ban fa" ("there is no choice"), which is used exactly as flippantly as the English phrase "it is what it is". I'd say that the difference in the phrases isn't how they're used but how they're received by the listener. I often disagree with someone who says "it is what it is", but I'm more willing to empathize with someone who says "mei ban fa".
posted by Tha Contender at 2:27 PM on August 5 [3 favorites]


The minor effect on language's effect of shaping perceptions can be seen in studies of native speakers of gendered languages. The researchers would take a photo of, say, a bridge, and ask the participants to describe it.

French and Spanish speakers, for whom the noun is masculine (el puente, le pont, respectively) were shown to be more likely to use traditionally "masculine" traits to describe the bridge (e.g. strong, sturdy) while German speakers, for whom the noun is feminine (die Brucke) were more likely to use traditionally "feminine" adjectives (e.g. beautiful, ornate.)

I don't know the p-value of these findings. Nor do I know how the effect would apply, if at all, to something like "das Mädchen," in which the noun for "girl" is not feminine but rather neutral.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:31 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]


I'm going to assume "mo ban fat" but if the saying is what I think it is, I feel that there is an added element of trying/striving against the situation. "There are no options, there are no workarounds" contra a passive "It is what it is" that just accepts the situation.
posted by porpoise at 2:39 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]


lately the pianist James Rhodes has become a kind of celebrity in Spanish twitter and he's fascinated by words like merienda (the snack around 18h that comes between lunch and dinner)

So English doesn't have a word for that because if you're hungry and it's six o'clock you just call it dinner.
posted by madcaptenor at 2:44 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]


Our dinnertime (cena) is around 22h. If you can't wait for the cena you can have a merienda cena. If you are still hungry at 2AM what you do is to eat a recena. We're hobbitses, almuerzo is the second breakfast.
posted by sukeban at 2:47 PM on August 5 [8 favorites]


when do you sleep!?
posted by ragtag at 2:53 PM on August 5 [6 favorites]


Navelgazer - FYI, "das Mädchen" is the diminutive of "die Maid" (archaic word for young woman), which is feminine. Applying the diminutive "-chen" or "-lein" in German turns all genders neutral.

Also you're talking about Lara Boroditsky's research (Stanford I think?) Saw her speak on this topic once, and I thought it was fascinating. I also remember I managed to annoy her about something... maybe it was the Mädchen issue.

She had a great joke I've used since in discussions about this: She was talking about "table" being masculine in German, and she kind of bent sideways to look under the table next to her, like she was looking for its balls... like you'd do with a dog. Anyway, fun research.
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 2:56 PM on August 5 [3 favorites]


when do you sleep!?

That's what the siesta is for, duh.
posted by sukeban at 3:07 PM on August 5 [4 favorites]


kleinsteradikaleminderheit, thank you! Also, I reversed the nouns for French and Spanish in my example above, and apologize for my sloppiness though know that no one here was likely to be confused.
posted by Navelgazer at 3:07 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]


> sukeban:
"Our dinnertime (cena) is around 22h. If you can't wait for the cena you can have a merienda cena. If you are still hungry at 2AM what you do is to eat a recena."

In Chile on Sundays it's common to have an 'once-comida', or 'tea-dinner' around 5 or 6, usually with a lot of marraqueta or hallulla, maybe some paltas, manjar and/or some egg based preparation. Maybe sopaipillas in the winter.

This is in lieu of an actual dinner, though you'll probably eat some sort of snack later on.

Sounds good, in fact, gonna heat up some marrraquetas.
posted by signal at 3:30 PM on August 5 [2 favorites]


Man, these lists always pick the worst examples for Japanese. It’s not like English doesn’t have thought-terminating clichés! Instead, hey, let’s just pick a phrase that implies that Japanese people are uniquely passive. Any reinforced stereotypes are just a coincidence! There was nothing we could do!

Here’s a much better example of a word that is hard to translate: 安心 (anshin). It nominally means “relief” or “peace of mind,” but it’s much closer to something like “a state of mind where you are comfortable in the knowledge that there’s no need to even worry.” It’s often paired with 安全 (safety) to reinforce “safe in a way you’ll never even have to think about.” There’s no good English equivalent (imagine a supermarket advertising “safe foods”) and it drives me up a wall because it shows up ALL THE TIME
posted by DoctorFedora at 3:31 PM on August 5 [13 favorites]


> howfar:
"Both spellings are acceptable regional variants, I think."

Did not know that, stand corrected about my correction.
posted by signal at 3:32 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]


Oh yeah, for English, might I propose “to make sense”? It’s a remarkably versatile phrase — it can be used to express a judgment of internal logicality or correctness, but it can also be used just as easily to express agreement or acknowledgment of a good point someone else has made. What a useful phrase!
posted by DoctorFedora at 3:49 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]


In Chile on Sundays it's common to have an 'once-comida', or 'tea-dinner' around 5 or 6,

Seems strange that a meal eaten at 5 or 6 would have 11 in the name. It looks like they just took the word "elevenses" and translated it.
posted by madcaptenor at 5:07 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]


Chinese measure woooords *shakes fist* 条 is one of the few I managed to commit to memory, mainly because of 油条, Chinese crullers (literally "oil stick").

Back when I was first learning Chinese (this was a super long time ago before there was much in the way of quality instructional materials for English speakers learning Mandarin) measure words were presented to me as this uniquely Chinese thing, which made it much more difficult to assimilate them into my own vocabulary. I wish someone would have pointed out that in English we sometimes use similar constructions and the difference is that in Chinese you always (well, nearly always) do. I could have used that existing schema to help me learn a new one. Alas I am old now and my significantly less plastic brain just uses 个 for everything and I sound like an idiot in Chinese.
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:25 PM on August 5 [3 favorites]


Our dinnertime (cena) is around 22h. If you can't wait for the cena you can have a merienda cena. If you are still hungry at 2AM what you do is to eat a recena. We're hobbitses, almuerzo is the second breakfast.

Merienda cena doesn't really happen in English culture, I think. I've picked up goûter from my french family, which is basically a sugar injection via chocolate biscuit* at 4.30pm to get you through to dinner at 9pm, which I think is similar.

We do have something else in England though, tea, which is usually a light meal at around 5-6pm which is instead of dinner. You can have your tea at teatime, or your dinner at teatime, but then it's called dinner not tea. You can't have tea at dinnertime, because that's always dinner, unless it's a light meal, in which case it's really supper, had at suppertime. You can have a fish supper when you like, but not breakfast. Of course, you can actually drink tea any time you fancy a brew, at which point that's nominated teatime, even if you're having coffee, which is different from the time you have your tea, unless of course you're also eating tea and having a cup of tea with it, in which case it's just... tea. If you're having tea in a teashop though, it's commonly had mid afternoon, often as a cream tea with pastries and/or scones, clotted cream and jam, though some like to drink more uncommon teas than the comforting brown breakfast tea with milk we drink all the time.

Almuerzo sounds like an upgraded elevenses, which I can definitely get behind.

* It seems mandatory to have a Prince or knock-off biscuit, which is not like an english biscuit aka the heavenly McVitie’s chocolate digestive**, but a pair of soft large non-chocolate biscuits with a chocolate cream filling. Um, for Americans, that would be a really large oreo, but plain, and chocolate filling instead of vanilla? Maybe you have something like that already.

** Developed to aid digestion, and once thought to have health benefits. It doesn't, especially once you cover the top half in milk chocolate and dip it in your tea.
posted by Absolutely No You-Know-What at 5:42 PM on August 5 [3 favorites]


These are lovely words.
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:56 PM on August 5


measure words were presented to me as this uniquely Chinese thing, which made it much more difficult to assimilate them into my own vocabulary. I wish someone would have pointed out that in English we sometimes use similar constructions and the difference is that in Chinese you always (well, nearly always) do.
"Two breads, please!"
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:14 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]


Measure words just make me think of the tavern scene in Inglourious Basterds. Like, I'm sure I'd never find myself in a situation where my screwing them up would quickly lead to me and everyone around me getting shot, but, you know, movies can leave an impression.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:36 PM on August 5 [3 favorites]


I've never experienced "hours of talking, drinking, and joking." When anyone I've ever heard of "strive[s] to achieve the bella figura," it's reviled as the worst of evils. What does it mean to be able to say "I am calling it a day" and just walking away? Can anybody seriously look at England or America and pretend to see "pragmatic cooperation despite differences"?

These... seem like perfectly normal concepts and behaviors to me, an American.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:48 PM on August 5 [4 favorites]


Yeah. I don't really do selfies, but I make a point of calling my workday at 6:00 (I have jobs that tend to start at 10:0) and definitely spending hours talking and drinking with friends just to do so is a big part of my American social life.

But that doesn't make those times Sobremesa or Hygge, and doesn't make my own work ethic Feierabend. It at best makes them comparable.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:09 PM on August 5


Back when I was first learning Chinese (this was a super long time ago before there was much in the way of quality instructional materials for English speakers learning Mandarin) measure words were presented to me as this uniquely Chinese thing, which made it much more difficult to assimilate them into my own vocabulary.

Really? Out of all the annoying things about learning Chinese (the tones and writing characters being the main two), I thought learning measure words is sort of neat. It's like learning all the words for groups of animals (a school of fish, a pack of wolves, a murder of crows) but for EVERY noun. Once you get around to some intermediate level and you look at lists of measure words like this, it becomes like a game of trying to find the most obnoxiously obscure and least likely to use one.

My favorite measure word is probably 坨 (tuo2), which means lump or pile and is almost exclusively used for shit/poop/manure. The shit emoji 💩 is exactly what I'm imagining when I say it. So if I get a soft-serve chocolate ice cream cone, I'll tell my wife, "這坨巧克力霜淇淋的味道真的很濃" i.e. the flavor of this tuo (i.e. conjuring images of emoji shit in your mind) of chocolate ice cream is really strong.
posted by alidarbac at 7:22 PM on August 5 [5 favorites]


Here’s a wonderful story about an Englishman’s experiences with ta’arof that I have my students read when we cover intercultural communication.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:23 PM on August 5 [2 favorites]


I've never experienced "hours of talking, drinking, and joking." When anyone I've ever heard of "strive[s] to achieve the bella figura," it's reviled as the worst of evils. What does it mean to be able to say "I am calling it a day" and just walking away?

These... seem like perfectly normal concepts and behaviors to me, an American.


Ditto. It's really too bad for ragtag.

Also bella figura is two words, and this article is . . . not the most rigorous treatise on comparative linguistics.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:35 PM on August 5


You’re walking down the street and someone’s coming the other way - you jig one way, they jog at the same time - then do it the other way, then you smile in recognition of the thing as you negotiate past each other. There should be a word for that.
posted by parki at 8:56 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]


The temporary forgetting of well-known names phenomenon referred to up-thread would be called jernteppe in Norwegian. It means iron curtain, and refers to the literal theater feature, not the political divide during the Cold War. So you can just exclaim "jernteppe!" as a shorthand for "I know this very well, but the iron curtain has just come down" and people will understand what the problem is.
posted by Harald74 at 11:01 PM on August 5 [4 favorites]


OH here is another good Japanese word: 違和感 (iwakan). It basically means "a feeling of incongruity," but it's an everyday word meaning something feels out of place, weird, or unnatural. It can apply equally to an old-fashioned part of town with latticed wood storefronts having a very modern dental office, or to something feeling kind of weird inside my leg when I thought I might have a blood clot. It's akin to "something feels off," but a bit more versatile inasmuch as it can be something obvious rather than just ineffable.
posted by DoctorFedora at 11:30 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]


Thinking that there's a good English translation for some of these concepts is accepting a black & white photograph instead of colour.

I love that there is now a gentle rebuke when someone is being ta'arofi' I've only heard in in Iranian immigrant communities so I wonder is it by contrast with western customs or is it used in Iran too?
posted by Wilder at 12:01 AM on August 6 [2 favorites]


You’re walking down the street and someone’s coming the other way...

Did you just say droitwich?
posted by ambrosen at 12:01 AM on August 6 [5 favorites]


Just trying to unpack the connotations of swear words can illustrate the point I made about black and white vs colour... consider in Spanish 'me cago en la leche !! often shortened to la leche !
Lit: I shit in the milk! , milk!

I've never forgotten the mild revulsion when a professor proposed a sacrilegious origin ( Yada, yada la Virgen de la buena leche) which of course conjured up mediaeval portraits of the virgin literally squeezing breastmilk ( from afar!) into the mouths of pious saints.... so therefore polluting that by shitting in it.... shudder!

It's probably a lot more prosaic milk being healthy, wholesome, basic farming foodstuff but all of that history can be unpacked behind the swearword.
posted by Wilder at 12:15 AM on August 6 [2 favorites]


Just coming in to say that, yes, there are untranslateable words and concepts in other languages. And it has nothing to with Sapir-Whorf which is used as a universal rebutal.

I follow Lyne Murphy on Twitter who writes about the differences between American and British English. Sometimes the same word has different nuances across the pond, as it does even regionally. You can produce a dictionary definition of course, but that still doesn't define it, in that you now know when to use it appropriately and when it is something else. That is because words and ideas carry lots of baggage of culture with them. If this is the case with varieties of English, why is it difficult to imagine that it is even more so across different languages?

I mean, I would still have trouble even defining 'cheeky' in the sense the English use it -which is somehow both impudent and delightfully illicit.

For Portuguese, Miguel Cardoso for example writes about 'Ja Agora' which roughly translates as 'right now' but of course it is not that at all. It carries behind it the entire weight of when it is appropriate to demand, about bounds of politeness, about the role of time in social interactions. I'm learning Portuguese, but there are a lot of phrases I don't use because I don't know enough culture yet to know how to use them or to unpack what they really mean.

Likewise, Octavio Paz has written extensively about the Mexican 'fiesta'. Again loosely translated as 'party' except that even a funeral is a type of fiesta. Again, to get deep into the nuance involves an exploration of conceptions of life and death, the transience of life, the scars of the Mexican revolution. It is all there in one word. I attended a lecture once by Carlos Fuentes in which he was attempting to tie together Mexican fiestas and Bakhtin's Carnivalesque. It might not have been completely successful, but he showed there is material there to be mined.

To me, attempts to dismiss all these differences is to flatten the world. It sounds like an attempt to undervalue the cultural concepts inherent in language. Let's just translate everything into English and be done with it. Nothing will have been lost if everything is so easily translatable into (British?) English. The truth of course it that everything will have been lost.

We learn most of our language not by consulting definitions but by participating in its usage and playing with it in a variety of social circumstances. Sometimes otherwise simple words are given the heavy duty work of standing in for a more complex construct, an edifice built upon layers of other social norms and attitudes. To us fellow humans, even from another culture, yes, they can be made comprehensible but is also makes sense that there isn't necessarily a shortcut to fully understanding these types of ideas.
posted by vacapinta at 1:35 AM on August 6 [17 favorites]


Feierabend can definitely be translated to English. As my former coworkers might say at the end of a shift: Heppy Fire Evening!
posted by starfishprime at 1:57 AM on August 6 [2 favorites]


Having married a South African-born Canadian, I have been delighted to discover in my thirties that there are English phrases that don't translate into American English. One in particular is the South African-English phrase "just now". As in, "I am heading to Woolies just now, do you want me to pick up some biltong?" My American brain feels that sentence contains an internal contradiction, because "just now" should be for actions recently completed, right?

Instead "just now" is a future tense construction where plans for specific time points dissolve into Heisenbergian wave functions. It can mean anything from "in a few minutes" to "within the next few months" and requires an intuition of the speaker's personal situation that borders on clairvoyance. It typically signals intention, but can also be a way of proposing a course of action, mixed with a sense of eternal uncertainty about the future. It is ineffably South African.

Not all time constructions in South African English are so subtle. There's the brilliant solution adjective phrase "now now", which means exactly what you think it does.
posted by Enkidude at 2:07 AM on August 6 [2 favorites]


There's also the South African "usedn't to," which made my brain twist when I first heard it, partially because I immediately understood it intuitively, like seeing a new color for the first time.
posted by DoctorFedora at 2:12 AM on August 6


"So since Spanish has a single word (antier) for "the day before yesterday" …

It's 'anteayer', as in 'ante' (before) + 'ayer' (yesterday).


So, yesterdayeve?


You’re walking down the street and someone’s coming the other way - you jig one way, they jog at the same time - then do it the other way, then you smile in recognition of the thing as you negotiate past each other. There should be a word for that.

Impasssodoble?
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 3:00 AM on August 6 [2 favorites]


So, yesterdayeve?

A little bit of digging about suggests the archaic "ereyesterday", which along with the delightful "overmorrow" for the day after tomorrow, is long due for a resurrection.
posted by entity447b at 3:44 AM on August 6 [6 favorites]


Dutch kind of still has those: eergisteren (the day before yesterday) and overmorgen (the day after tomorrow. Yesterday and tomorrow are gisteren en morgen.
posted by rjs at 5:38 AM on August 6


In Norwegian the day before yesterday is forigårs and the day after tomorrow is overimorgen. Seems to be from the same roots as Dutch.
posted by Harald74 at 6:03 AM on August 6


I'm amazed that there's debate in this thread over the overly literal notion that these are "untranslatable." Of course they're translatable, but they're also singular words for cultural concepts that yes, can be described, but no, may not exist in other cultures. That's the damn beauty of cultures and words.
posted by entropone at 6:25 AM on August 6 [4 favorites]


see: Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon Princeton University Press, 2014
posted by mfoight at 7:04 AM on August 6


The Singaporeans have kiasu; it was explained to me as a very local trait and is basically a grasping person who doesn’t want to miss out on anything. Eg, that person is so kiasu, they took every single prawn from the buffet! (this actually happened at a hotel buffet I went to, I watched some people there literally pile their plates up to overflowing with every last piece of lobster, oysters and prawns - I’d never seen anything like it.) I should add that Singaporeans also have many wonderful qualities! Not judging - it’s their phrase!
posted by Jubey at 7:26 AM on August 6 [1 favorite]


Bella figura: Such importance is placed on keeping up appearances and the finer detail that for unwitting foreigners there’s a sense of being sized up in everything you do, even going as far as to what you eat and drink and at what time of the day you indulge in such activities.

“What matters is not what you do but how you appear,” said an Italian friend, likening it to posting the perfect photograph on social media. It’s a tactic that enables people to get promoted at work and politicians to win over admirers while giving the impression that they are achieving something.


This is very much describing class differences in the US that exist just the same. What time you eat dinner is a class marker in the US, and 'doesn't matter what you do but how you appear' is also a class marker, because for the upper class, the idea that its going to be available and affordable and (relatively) tasty are 'default yes', so what your food conveys beyond that is class-markers. The definition is describing social climbing as far as I can tell. I'm not surprised that there is no US word for this, because that would negate the US cultural idea that everyone , except for a hidden privileged few, is middle class.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:39 AM on August 6


shoganai
The definition aspect of this seems to be exactly describing 'it is what it is', especially since it doesn't seem to convey just fatalism (probably not an English word for that) but rather has (I guess) expanded to include unexamined acceptance of banal problems (maybe there is nothing that can be done about tsunamis, but there certainly are things that can be done about traffic and evenings in the office (cf: the German word higher up in the article).
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:44 AM on August 6


Can you explain the dinner eating thing to this non American? Poor people eat dinner at a different time to others?
posted by Jubey at 7:45 AM on August 6


Can you explain the dinner eating thing to this non American? Poor people eat dinner at a different time to others?

Yes, if you are strictly adhering to class standards. The lower class eat earlier (generally with children), upper class dinner is 9:00pm or later.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:48 AM on August 6


Not to mention that poorer-background country people might have dinner at noonish and supper later.

You can produce a dictionary definition of course, but that still doesn't define it, in that you now know when to use it appropriately and when it is something else.

Sure, but that's true within the same language or to/from individual speakers. A simple and direct translation of "fiesta" will miss a lot of nuance and baggage, sure, and so be not "really" translatable into standard American English. But just asking "What are you doing for Mother's Day?" will carry dramatically different nuances and baggage depending on which specific person you're asking, and the question might be anywhere from carrying loads of shared joy to neutrally polite to an intentional and deep cruelty. You could argue as easily that it's impossible to translate the question from one person to another.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:56 AM on August 6 [1 favorite]


There doesn't have to be a lot of nuance and cultural specificity for something to be "untranslatable". In the game of Go (as it is usually called in English...) there is a type of move you can play called the "hane". It isn't anything complicated, but it takes a few words to describe. It's where you have a stone immediately adjacent to an enemy group of one or more stones, and then you play in such a way that your move is one space diagonally away from your own stone, and also adjacent to the same group of enemy stones, as if wrapping around a corner of the enemy group. That's a hane. The English-speaking Go world is full of people who try to replace all the usual Japanese words with English ones, on the theory that it's going to be easier for people to put up with some slightly ungrammatical and awkward phrases rather than learn a handful of new words, but even they haven't come up with anything to replace "hane".

So if you were, for some reason, to try and translate a description of a game of Go, in which there might be a dozen or more hanes, you'd be out of luck unless you borrowed the foreign-language word that does the job, or invented a new one to stand in for it. It's untranslatable, as well as trivially simple and clear in meaning.
posted by sfenders at 8:22 AM on August 6 [1 favorite]


... and something I just remembered having heard long ago. Apparently, in the poorer parts of Kolkata, a densely populated city, they have many words for hunger, but none for loneliness. But a quick Google seems to contradict this, while suggesting it may be true of Middle English.

Another thing that comes to mind is from an English comic who had moved to a small town in New Brunswick, Canada. Apparently whenever he asked someone for directions, they'd always say something along the lines of, "go down the road a few miles to where the old school used to be". They'd never say what was there now, just what used to be. I feel we need a word for this.
posted by philip-random at 9:03 AM on August 6


There is nothing quite like it when a German slaps his hand on the desk while rising and proclaims, „So da! Feierabend!“
In my mind he‘s not gleeful or excited; he‘s firm. Firm as a rock. Nobody‘s going to mess with his Feierabend, dude is done.

Other German speakers, Swiss people, say...they don‘t do that.

And don‘t get me started on „Brotzeit“ (Elevenses?). My friend was a middle manager at a car manufacturing plant and he called in a meeting in the morning. „Boss,“ his employee exclaims, radiating shocked disapproval, „it‘s Brotzeit!“

Might be a regional thing?
posted by Omnomnom at 9:05 AM on August 6 [2 favorites]


They'd never say what was there now, just what used to be. I feel we need a word for this.

Boomer navigation?
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:38 AM on August 6


You can produce a dictionary definition of course, but that still doesn't define it, in that you now know when to use it appropriately and when it is something else. That is because words and ideas carry lots of baggage of culture with them. If this is the case with varieties of English, why is it difficult to imagine that it is even more so across different languages?

I would call what you're talking about indeterminacy of translation, which is a very different issue to the notion of incommensurability of meaning and impossibility of translation between languages. The reality is that all we know about the meaning of all words to other people is how they use them. There is no way to determine the fundamental corresponding cognitive content that maps to the word "rabbit", even if we can all agree on how to use it and when. That doesn't make words untranslatable, it just means that there are certain things that words do that are not susceptible to identification and so do not fall within the remit of translation. All words have cognitive effects that cannot be translated, because translation is something done to words, not the content of people's brains.
posted by howfar at 10:00 AM on August 6 [3 favorites]


All words have cognitive effects that cannot be translated, because translation is something done to words, not the content of people's brains.

Exactly. You have the same experience teaching children their colors, but most can get close enough to have conversations about color.
posted by The_Vegetables at 10:15 AM on August 6


Another thing that comes to mind is from an English comic who had moved to a small town in New Brunswick, Canada. Apparently whenever he asked someone for directions, they'd always say something along the lines of, "go down the road a few miles to where the old school used to be". They'd never say what was there now, just what used to be. I feel we need a word for this.

When was in high school and moved to Bartlesville, OK in the mid-nineties, I was just learning to drive, and everyone gave me all their directions based on "the old wal-mart." Now, I'd never been around when this Old Walmart was still a building with markers on it that functioned as anything at all, so it was a lot of fun for me a month or so in to discover that the "old Wal-Mart" was literally across the street from the bright shiny obvious-for-miles new one.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:22 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


Another thing that comes to mind is from an English comic who had moved to a small town in New Brunswick, Canada. Apparently whenever he asked someone for directions, they'd always say something along the lines of, "go down the road a few miles to where the old school used to be". They'd never say what was there now, just what used to be. I feel we need a word for this.

It's called "giving directions in Pittsburgh." It's a local sickness.
posted by soren_lorensen at 12:58 PM on August 6


It's called "giving directions in Pittsburgh Philadelphia." It's a local sickness.

FTFY.
posted by madcaptenor at 1:03 PM on August 6


Ta'arof is the worst and if not having a word for it means you're all spared this tedious and terrible social ritual, you can count yourselves blessed. I hate it and have always hated it, and nothing my mother says will convince me to make more than the most cursory of gestures towards it. I refuse to spend five minutes going back and forth on whether or not someone actually wants tea or not. To me, it's an astonishingly wasteful expenditure of social energy, and is a courtesy so nakedly artificial as to render it meaningless. I am glad my older cousins and my generation have largely dispensed with it, just straight up telling our close relatives "I'm not doing the ta'arof thing, please just have some tea or whatever if you want it, don't if you don't."
posted by yasaman at 1:06 PM on August 6 [6 favorites]


measure words were presented to me as this uniquely Chinese thing,

i feel like the chinese would like you to think of them as uniquely chinese, but they're quite present in korean and japanese

---

also re: shō ga nai (also shikata ga nai), the korean phrase 어쩔 수 없어 (eotjjeol su eobseo) means pretty much the same thing.
posted by anem0ne at 9:21 PM on August 6


also, i've always been partial to the korean concepts of
  • han (한): a sort of inchoate rage and resignation and grief coupled with a sense of eventual vindication
  • nunchi (눈치): kind of like reading the room, but on steroids? it's knowing how to react properly to a situation by understanding everyone else's feelings', contexts, and interactions.
there's also words like wansui (萬歲)/manse (만세)/banzai (ばんざい) that have translations that don't capture the whole thing. they're literally translated to "ten thousand years", but the concept they capture includes contexts like "long live the [ruler/nation/people]" as well as cheer like "victory".

while not a word, a common korean construction is to use "our" in place of "my" when it comes to many things--one will speak of their own mother as "our mother", their house as "our house" when speaking to others. there's a bbc article that briefly touches on this. it's not quite translatable because the way it'd be translated to english and other languages would just be "my mother" or "my house", but there'd be a loss in that connection that exists in that context--that of how koreans tend to view everyone korean to be, more or less, one big group, one jeong.
posted by anem0ne at 9:40 PM on August 6 [2 favorites]


while not a word, a common korean construction is to use "our" in place of "my" when it comes to many things--one will speak of their own mother as "our mother", their house as "our house" when speaking to others.

Malay has that too! Nice. But our usage is driven by politeness, to describe it in one sense. Like, a typical native Malay speaker would never use 'i*' directly but refer themselves in the third person (eg their own name) but it should translate as 'my house' even though literally it sounds like 'mike's house/house of mike'. The funny thing is we're one of those languages that has clusivity, and both forms of 'our' do get used this way but it's got no additional contextual meaning if it's used this way or that, other than regionalism and dialect choice.

*How ridiculous is the coded humility is that our word for 'i' is another word for 'slave'
posted by cendawanita at 4:40 AM on August 7 [2 favorites]


Coincidentally, my son just encountered his first measure word this morning (he goes to a Chinese language magnet school and I'm having him do the Hello Chinese app on our morning bus ride so he hopefully forgets less over the summer) and it got me wondering why they are not more commonly taught the same as gendered articles in Romance languages. Like, he learned 猫 (cat) like 8 lessons ago, and we're just now getting to 一只猫 (one cat, 只 is the measure word). Wouldn't it be better to teach "one cat" as 一只猫 the first time around and then make the distinction between "a cat" and "one cat" from there, after 只 and 猫 are linked in memory? It's way easier to drop a word that you already know in certain situations than learn a whole new word to insert after the fact.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:47 AM on August 7


in defense of English, i haven't heard of a good translation for "internet" in other languages. many just say "internet", or their pronunciation equivalent of it. in Vietnamese we say "mạng" as a slang for it, which means "web", as in spiderweb.
posted by numaner at 9:04 AM on August 7


and in Vietnamese, we have "ngại", which is the idea that you don't want to be burdensome so you don't ask someone for something
posted by numaner at 10:03 AM on August 7 [2 favorites]


huh, i was just reading about the german word "dabei" (after looking up the russian "davai" ;)
posted by kliuless at 2:46 AM on August 8


Ooh other good words in Japanese are ごまかす, 空気を読む, こだわる/こだわり…

I’ll get around to explaining them some other time when I’m not about to head to bed. I guess the second one there is basically “read the room” though.
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:26 AM on August 8


and in Vietnamese, we have "ngại", which is the idea that you don't want to be burdensome so you don't ask someone for something

ah yes this is also the entire english language as it's spoken in Minnesota
posted by entropone at 9:06 AM on August 8 [5 favorites]


Of course, the beautiful thing about English is that if we decide culturally we need to express those exact sentiments in a single word, we'll just hijack the word and bring it right in.

"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." - James Nicoll
posted by escape from the potato planet at 9:31 AM on August 8 [4 favorites]


Entropone: for further details, there's always How to Talk Minnesotan
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:57 PM on August 8


Re: politeness, in Chile we do fake-politeness by default, and you're not supposed to answer a request with a flat 'no', but rather soften it, maybe switch the no for a 'sorry', as in 'sorry, I don't have any change', or 'sorry, I have to wash my hair and can't come over to babysit for you'.
I, being an odd chilean and a bit anti-social, often answer just plain 'no', which gets me stares, people stuttering and repeating their request as if I hadn't heard it the first time, and generally works as a social wrench.
posted by signal at 9:27 AM on August 9


nunchi, my SO claims it's my sekrit superpower, and now it has a name! Yay!
posted by Wilder at 2:16 AM on August 19


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