A word is worth a 1000 insights 4

Do you know what the word gökotto means? It’s Swedish and refers to the act of rising early in the morning to watch the birds or go outside to appreciate nature. How about iktsuarpok? It is a term from the Inuit language, describing the feeling of anticipation that leads you to keep looking outside to see if anyone is coming. The website Wordporn regularly publishes examples of words that cannot be translated to English, while the underlying “ideas” are immediately recognizable for most people, no matter what languages they speak. Some German examples that made it to the page, by the way, are Fernweh and Waldeinsamkeit

There is even a word that describes the absence of an appropriate word for an object or a feeling. Linguistically, it is called a lexical gap. The internet community, however, prefers the term sniglet, which became popular in the 1980s and is paraphrased as “words that don’t appear in the dictionary, but should”. Many examples of sniglets can be found by browsing the Urban Dictionary, and there are numerous sites explicitely dedicated to collecting these inofficial neologisms, for example Bert Christensen’s Truth and Humour Collection with more or less sophisticated entries, e.g. irant for a seamless pistachio.

What’s in a name?

The experience of suddenly being introduced to a word for something that we only had a vague feeling of previously occurs frequently when we learn new languages. Words – most obviously, nouns and adjectives, but on a more abstract level, all other word types and even grammatical constructs such as tenses as well – do refer to specific “clippings” of reality. You could even say that, to some extent, words do “deconstruct” the world into concepts that can be rearranged in order to talk about their relations and connections. However, many concepts are not clearly distinguishable, but rather located somewhere on a (multi-dimensional) spectrum.

Names for colours are interesting examples of the blurry lines between concepts. Most European languages have one word for light rays with wavelengths between approximately 600 and 700 nm: red, respectively rouge, rot, rojo etc. There is definitely some fuzziness at the edges of that spectrum – where does “redness” stop and “pinkness” start – but that’s usually more of an individual question. The Hungarian language, however, comes with two words for that spectrum – vörös and piros – and unlike the English pair red and scarlet, none of the Hungarian words is a sub-type of the other. A native speaker will have no difficulties to decide if a red object is “piros” or “vörös”. Deriving a general rule of when something is classified as one or the other, however, is widely acknowledged as impossible.

Learn a new language, get new eyes for free

Learning a language, therefore, does not only keep surprising you by providing words for formerly nameless concepts. It can also make you aware of nuances and of a certain randomness in your own native language – just like travelling often teaches you just as much about your own origin as it does about the culture you are immersing into. And by that, a new language has the potential to give you new views on the world – or at least a new angle that lets you perceive things that you haven’t seen before.

The graphic novel The Encyclopedia of Early Earth recounts the quest of a Nordic storyteller in search of a part of his soul that got lost when he was a child. His shaman has given him a magic stone to take on the journey. Whenever the storyteller places that stone in his mouth, he is able to flawlessly switch to the language of his current environment. Needless to say that such a device would spare us many efforts and laybacks of language learning, boost global understanding, and therewith, presumably world peace. But it’s also worth mentionning that it would deprive us from the benefitial side effects of diving into another language that result in new, sharpened views and more conscious understanding of our reality.

Do you have words in your language that you find impossible to translate? Or any other observations or fun facts about words? Share them with us in the commets section!

Image credits: Header: Royalty free, Picture 1

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