Journal: News & Comment

Monday, April 16, 2001
# 1:06:00 PM:

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Beyond the wall of words

Those of us who speak only one language (I used to be nearly bilingual in French, my first words were in Finnish, and my grandmother tried to teach me German, but I've largely lost all three) rarely realize how our mother tongue limits us. A language is not just a way of expressing thoughts -- it also constrains them. The way we think is, in part, shaped by the languages we learn.

Good examples come in words from other languages that have no direct analog in our own. Sometimes, as with words such as mantra, we adopt them. English is particularly good at that -- in this century alone we've absorbed thousands of foreign terms, from bikini to karaoke.

In other circumstances, words with delicious and universal meanings never quite make their way onto our home turf. They remain exotics, but useful ones in context. For instance, why explain a feeling of "taking delight in the misfortune of others" when German has such a great word for it: Schadenfreude?

This week's e-mail newsletter from Word Wide Words, my favourite language site, discusses an entire book devoted to such words, Howard Rheingold's They Have a Word for It.

It may be a good reference if you've ever wanted a word for concepts as disparate as:

  • Being so agitated by someone looking over your shoulder that you screw up when you otherwise wouldn't.
  • A meaningful look expressing mutual unstated feelings between two people.
  • The mistaken belief that a symbol and what it represents are the same thing.
  • A guilty peace offering from husband to wife.
  • Something nearly irreparably wrecked by someone trying to fix it.

From the looks of it, German, Yiddish, Japanese, and Sanskrit seem to be particularly fruitful sources of untranslatable words. What does that say about how differently speakers of those languages think than we English speakers do?


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