Language is amazing. We never really stop to think about how amazing it is – maybe because reading, writing and speaking are instinctive to us. But with language, humankind has found a way to cheat death: to impart knowledge down centuries, millennia and aeons. The true power of language is its timelessness.
Language isn’t just an incredible tool that connects minds over the vast expanse of time – it’s amazing for its variety. Each language has evolved in its own way to fit and even shape the culture it’s born in. And in that birth and evolution, words form in such staggering variety and depth of meaning, that direct translations for some become impossible.
So, let’s explore that wondrous variety of words with no equivalent – and those poached from other languages to make up for having no native match.
Often, one language will borrow words from another language – either because there’s no alternative or because it’s had a cultural impact since being introduced. This happens quite frequently in modern languages, such as Japanese, where English words are “Japanised” to feed a growing demand for western cultural phenomena. Japanese, among several other foreign languages, becomes quite poetic when translating the impossible – which we’ll come to in the next section of this post.
Farsi, as another example, contains a huge amount of French words that are used in standard, everyday vocabulary – baffling, considering the enormous cultural and geographical chasm between the two languages.
Farsi bears grammatical and structural similarity to French and other European languages because they’re actually related, although very distantly. Even still, the vocabulary of modern French words seems quite curious.
The answer? In the 19th and 20th centuries, the French language was the de facto language in many consulates, widely spoken by all manner of foreign delegates. French was also the source language of science books and literature circulated in Iranian schools, and many words had no direct equivalent – making the borrowing of words inevitable.
Over time, the sporadic, academic use of French became quite a la mode, as it were. As a result, everyday objects and phrases came to be known by their French counterpart words, even if perfectly good Farsi words for them were in use. Fashion in this case, helped dictate the course of a language.
Words with No English Equivalent
By far, the most interesting area of study for most people are the words that English just can’t replicate. It’s because the results are often poetic, beautiful and romantic in some way – a way that makes you look at things differently. Here are some of the most wonderful words that English cannot match.
Koi no yokan (Japanese) – it means “the feeling upon meeting someone that falling in love with him or her is inevitable”. It’s beautifully romantic, with no direct counterpart.
Yūgen (Japanese) – it describes the feeling you get when contemplating the enormity of the universe, itself an indescribable feeling.
Schnapsidee (German) – a plan hatched under the influence of alcohol, usually something zany or impossible.
Waldeinsamkeit (German) – this word describes the feeling of connection to nature, while alone in the woods.
Pena ajena (Spanish) – feeling embarrassed on someone else’s behalf. Quite a universal emotion, with no direct English counterpart.
Hygge (Danish) – difficult to pin down, even with a sentence, hygge describes the act of becoming cosy with family and friends, of entering a relaxed but not solitary state of mind. “Cosiness” may be the closest word to it, but is still too broad.
English Words with No Direct Translation
The English language isn’t free of foibles and irregularities, it does throw out some unique and at times amusing terms; terms like slubberdegullion, kissingcrust and slapdash are rare phrases with no equivalents. Some may have fallen out of vogue, others may only be relevant to bakers and builders, but nevertheless, they have no analogue in any other language.
Some languages have no words for some of the most commonly used words in English – like in Polish, where “lunch” is an impossible translation. Traditionally, there’s no midday meal in Polish culture, so there’s no word for lunch.
And in most Chinese languages, “dying” has no equivalent. Dead, died and all other forms are present, but the act – the process – has no translation.
In Farsi, “windscreen wiper” translates extremely awkwardly, literally becoming “snow wipe-do”.
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