The Culture of Language: Lost in Translation?

English: Language of the world.

English: Language of the world. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently read an interesting article in the Globe and Mail about language. Specifically, it concerned words in other languages that can’t be translated into a single English word. A well-known example is the German “schadenfreude” which means the feeling of pleasure at the expense of the misfortune of another. Admit it, you’ve felt it, I’ve felt it. It’s mean but delicious.

But, and here is the point of this post, are Germans more predisposed to this emotion? Is that why they came up with a one-word label for this feeling? Or, are they just more honest and therefore were able to name it and put if out there, so to speak?

Ok, let’s stop picking on the Germans, and find another example. “Viitsima” is an Estonian word whose meaning is summed up by the phrase “just can’t be bothered” It’s a mix of laziness, malaise and slight depression. It comes and goes. Do Estonians get this way more than the rest of the world? Does their chilly climate make them more likely to throw up their collective hands and say “to hell with it” I’m too viitsima to take the garbage out?

And how about the lovely Welsh “Hiraeth” which is a yearning for the past, a feeling of incompleteness and longing for something that might never return. Who hasn’t experienced that one? The soulful people of Wales put a name on a complex heartache we’ve all felt (especially parents, I might add).

I think the way we live, our values and history, influence how our language develops. Along the way, we create words that are closely knit into our culture. But of course, other cultures share them. In opening up our eyes and ears we can enrich our own language and our understanding of others.

Here’s one more gorgeous example of a word we can’t convert in English. Amae is a Japanese word for the feeling a person gets when asking a friend for a favour, and also the feeling the friend gets when asked. But this example is different, and has been categorized by language experts as a culturally unique emotion. Being asked for a favour; a big, long-term favour, is a positive sign in a Japanese relationship. Being asked, and asking, both are signs of honour and importance and are looked upon with pride and pleasure. Ahem, can we say the same? ‘To a point’ would probably sum up the reaction of the average North American.

Uh oh, maybe we need to come up with an English word that describes the guilt felt at not relating to another culture’s positive emotions! In the meantime, let’s keep learning about each other to keep inspired and tolerant.


About christinewoodley

I love books, film, design, architecture and writing. With this blog, I'd like to inspire people to look at the world around them in a new light. I live in the Greater Toronto Area and love to use the city as a personal treasure trove of culture. I hope you enjoy reading my blog.
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One Response to The Culture of Language: Lost in Translation?

  1. Pingback: How language drives biology and culture | Tim

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