I love the Internet. It does this magical thing where it takes people millions of miles away and connects them. Like you (whoever is reading this article) and I, through a shared medium; in this case, this article.
It gives many people who will never venture outside of their physical borders, insight into what else might be out there in the world.
While once a person would be exposed to perhaps a few hundred people over the course of their entire life, now each and every person with a smartphone in their pocket and a social network sending them way too many notifications each day is exposed to millions of people. Hundreds of millions. – Colin Wright
I’ve been lucky enough to grow up with the Internet and build one world through it. But I’ve also been lucky enough to explore much of the physical world and travel to more places than many people would hope to in their lifetime.
Yet no matter how much I travel, whether it be across physical borders or to new communities on the web, I consistently run into one wall: my bias. Sometimes conscious, often unconscious, sometimes certainly negative, while other times resoundingly positive﹣I’ve come to learn that many of my biases come simply from where and how I grew up.
For a long time, I lazily chose to resolve that there were just too many microcosms in my life to properly analyze or derive tangible understanding from. It was easy to take the stance “I am who I am”, instead of evaluating what precursors continuously shape my perspective.
One of these often-overlooked influencing functions over one’s life is language. A majority of language is shared across borders, but upon traveling more, I’ve become fascinated by the things that are in fact, not shared. The words that don’t translate.
Eunoia: Beautiful Thinking
Around a year ago, I decided to aggregate a list of these untranslatable words into a project called Eunoia. Eunoia itself is one of those words, meaning “a well mind; beautiful thinking”, derived from ancient Greek. (Fun fact: It also happens to be the shortest word in the English language that contains all six vowels.)
I built Eunoia during a 24h startup challenge, while live-streaming with people from all over the globe. In the spirit of digital collaboration, we crowd-sourced the seed data of about a hundred words. Since then, Eunoia has grown as a database to over 500 words across 50 languages and 50 tags, and has been viewed by over 20k people, across over 150 countries. If you’d like to explore immediately, hop directly to the Eunoia or my 30 favourites below.
Eunoia has become the vehicle for me to become fascinated with the diversity of untranslatable words, ranging from the familiar (think: Nintendo and Ubuntu) to the lesser-known. But perhaps more importantly, I’ve learned that each of these words offers a window to understand different cultures, which can influence anything from the way you make decisions to the habits you form.
By the end of this article, I hope you’ll also have a newfound appreciation of how language closely intertwines with culture, and also how these two partners impact each of our own unique wiring.
Have You Heard?
So, what exactly are untranslatable words? These are words so unique, that they have no direct equivalent in other languages. You’ve probably heard of a few of these before, without even knowing. I bet many people have happily played Mario Kart or installed Linux without realizing that Nintendo and Ubuntu were two of these untranslatable words.
These words, past their initial intrigue, offer us a looking glass into specific cultures. After all, for a culture to come up with a word, something must happen often enough. And for it not to exist in other cultures, it must not have passed that intangible threshold. This very concept means that with untranslatables, we very likely experiencing a distinctive feature of a culture; intricacies.
“What do you do when you can’t express yourself with a given set of words? Well, if it comes up enough, you come up with your own.”
For example, in Persian, there is a term for “a camel that won’t give milk until her nostrils have been tickled”. This word simply wouldn’t and hasn’t developed where I grew up in Canada, because it isn’t encountered frequently enough. Similarly, bowing is such a precise science for the Japanese, that they’ve created an array of words for the practice. Other cultures have come up with entire mini-languages, like the Inuit with over 30 words for snow and the Albanians with 27 different words for moustache.
To give you a better sense of the beauty in these untranslatables, here is a snapshot of a few of my favourites. You’ll find a longer list at the end of the article and you can always explore the full list at Eunoia. Perhaps you’ll find, as I do, that some of the words seem to resonate with their origins.
- Friluftsliv (Norwegian): “Free air life,” signifying a fundamental understanding of the positive impact of being in nature
- Gökotta (Swedish): To rise at dawn in order to go out and listen to the birds sing
- Arbejdsglæde (Danish): Literally “work happiness”; the feeling of happiness provoked by a satisfying job
- Yugen (Japanese): A profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe…and the sad beauty of human suffering
- Torschlusspanik (German): The fear that time is running out on achieving life goals
- Ellipsism (English): A sadness that you’ll never be able to know how history will turn out
A Looking Glass
With a single untranslatable word, some may get brief insight into a specific feature of its origin. But what happens when you aggregate hundreds of these? As someone who loves data, I wanted to find out.
I took it upon myself to classify the 500+ words in the database. I must admit that this analysis isn’t without fault. The labeling was at best subjective and at worst inconsistent. The database isn’t what I would call robust at 500 entries. But I wanted to share the results, because I think they provide a foundation for the key point I’m trying to convey in this article.
When I started to look at the data, a few things stood out. At the very least, certain stories emerged. For example, Northern European countries are often regarded as some of the happiest people in the world. This showed up. Certain cultures seem to have more negative or adverse terms. Others were more focused on beauty or nature or love.
While the analysis is certainly not deterministic, it invites us to spot trends in the fringes of these languages. I invite you to explore these yourself by going through any of the specific languages on Eunoia, like Japanese to see if anything stands out to you. Without too closely targeting any individual data point, let’s further consider what untranslatable words can teach the rest of us.
How Languages Impact Your Environment
Although many of the untranslatable words have no practical applications, I do think that they provide us a basis from which to learn.
Consider first the concept of language. There are over 7000 languages in the world, differing in form across vocabulary, but also velocity, sentence structure, and much more. Humans learn language before we even learn to walk, and this establishes our ability to communicate and contribute to the world. We often think of language as a means to an end, but rarely take the time to consider whether language in itself is influencing our thoughts, not just enabling the sharing of them.
Let’s further consider the plausibility that the relationship between language <> thought <> culture is not linear or uni-directional, but instead a virtuous cycle. In fact, this was hypothesized by Edward Sapir in 1929 and then furthered by Benjamin Worff. Although controversial and often disputed, the Sapir-Worff hypothesis or linguistic relativity, argues that the “structure of a language determines a native speaker’s perception and categorization of experience”. Others have communicated this by saying that language is a filter, enhancer, or framer of perception and thought.
“Language is a map in itself. Our experience is shaped by the words we use. How words shape their experience of the world.” – Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***
Allow me to try convincing you that although language is likely not deterministic, it can have an impact on the way you think, the way you learn, the habits you pick up, and the decisions you make﹣especially if we don’t actively try to expand our horizons past that which we’ve been served.
“The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same worlds with different labels attached” – Edward Sapir
What are Words?
Have you ever considered what a “word” is?
The definition of a word is: a single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others (or sometimes alone) to form a sentence and typically shown with a space on either side when written or printed.
Words allow us to take something we experience, ranging in complexity, and translate it to another human (or ourselves) in familiar terms. We often don’t even notice this phenomenon happening. For example, instead of saying the “the protein filament that grows from the follicles on your body”, you’ll just say “hair” and other people understand what you’re talking about.
“Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon the absolute truth.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
As aforementioned, we create these words once they pass a certain threshold of importance. The invisible Pareto principle is active, where we likely have created words for the twenty percent of possible situations that make up 80% of our collective experience. Once concepts pass a threshold of need, words will naturally be created to fill the void. We can liken this to the concept of doing things manually and only automating when it happens often enough.
But consider the implications of us codifying experience into words. We are taking the intricacies of something much more nuanced and parsing it into something much simpler. And even though we have hundreds of thousands of words to convey the diversity of our experience and thought, we are still removing a layer.
“The claim isn’t that it’s impossible to have a thought unless you have language for it, but rather that having language for something makes it easier. It’s a close relative of Kolmogorov Complexity and a variety of theorems from machine learning regarding hypothesis classes – different languages have more or less effective ways to express the same concept, and choosing a language with better notation for a given topic can make that topic easier to handle.” – @saulrh
Speaking in Colour
Let’s remind ourselves that colour is a continuous wavelength, despite our vocabulary bucketing it into labels. Even though our biological make-up allows us to see millions of colours, we only articulate a few. We don’t say wavelength 534nm or RGB(52, 235, 85), but instead green. Or in other cases, pink. Or maybe we add an additional adjective like bright purple.
Russian utilizes 12 basic terms to represent colour. In English, we typically reach for 11: black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, orange, pink, purple and gray. If you’re someone that interacts with colours often like an artist, by which differentiating between them becomes an essential part of your life, you may instead actively utilize dozens of these terms. Words like periwinkle, taupe, cyan become part of your immediate vocabulary. Our experiences allow us to see “shades of grey” that were always there, but never highlighted or categorized.
By contrast, the Berinmo language (Papua-New Guinea) has five colours, Tsimane (Bolivian Amazon) has three, Dani (Papua-New Guinea) operates with only two. Dani’s spectrum is composed solely of mili and mola, cold and warm colours, respectively.
- Serandu: reds, browns, oranges, and some yellows.
- Dambu: variety of greens, reds, beige and yellows.
- Zuzu: most “dark” colours, like black, dark-red, dark-purple, dark-blue.
- Vapa: some yellows and white.
- Buru: a collection of greens and blues.
Since the Himba tribe doesn’t differentiate between blue and green in the same way, as they both fall in “buru”, they were found to distinguish between the two. Interestingly enough, they are instead able to parse differences between greens that a Westerner may think is identical.
In the below image, there is one square that differs from the others in both circles. It’s also in the same place in both circles of squares. Due to the way the Himba tribe labels colours, they were actually able to spot the unique green square on the left relatively easily. However, they had much more difficulty doing so on the right-hand side.* To them, the dambu outlier on the left-hand side stood out like a sore thumb, in the same way that the blue square stands out for most people reading this article. It’s mind-blowing to most individuals that operate off of green and blue labeling, but to them, it’s a matter of buru and dambu.
*Note: This study has been debunked, but I’ve left it in this article as I think there are still elements to learn from. Even if it’s as simple as learning that the world doesn’t think in the same colors as we do. While we have 12 colors, the Dani only have two.
By the way, if you find this stuff interesting, you should read up on the origins of the colour blue.
Time: Another Social Construct
Let’s consider another example: time. Time, similar to colour, is a social construct. Something that certainly exists, but is made tangible and acted upon through humans’ ability to communicate it. Many mammals can see colour and might have some vague awareness of time, but humans have created language to communicate and discuss these concepts at a deeper level. However, similar to colours, the way humans communicate time is not always equivalent or universal.
If you grew up with English as your first language, as I did, you probably can relate to three dimensions of time: past, present, and future. This seems obvious and almost factual if you were brought up in this frame of mind. Now consider that in Mandarin, there are no verb tenses or conjugation. And even more notably, in Yimas (Papua New Guinea) there are actually not three, but instead 8 tenses: three present tenses, three past tenses, and two future tenses.
Present tenses, for example, are distinguished by their “level of completed action”:
- Present perfective = completed events
- Present imperfective = ongoing events
- Present habitual = regularly scheduled and occurring events
It would be naive to believe that exposure to these intricacies didn’t have at least some impact on our approach to thinking or perceiving. In fact, Keith Chen has put together research which indicates that speakers of certain languages which “encode the future and present separately behave more recklessly with respect to their health and money”.
There are many similar parallels in other aspects of our life, which many of us assume are comparable across cultures. Korean, for example, has 7 speech levels depending on who you’re talking to, while the Vietnamese have 18 words for “you”. Language doesn’t dictate what you’re allowed to think, but can be an invisible filter on what you pay attention to.
Outliers: Optimizing Your Brain Cache
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, offers us some additional insight into how language can inconspicuously have tangible impact on outcomes.
Gladwell explains that Chinese-speaking children tend to learn counting earlier than their English-speaking counterparts, simply because Chinese numbers are more “regular and transparent”. Eleven, for example, is literally “ten one” in Mandarin, feeding directly into a system for quick mental math. Moreover, their ability to recite a series of 7 consecutive numbers had a higher success rate, due to the simple fact that in Mandarin, they fit within the two seconds of dependable brain retention.
“And Chinese speakers get that list of numbers—4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6—right almost every time because, unlike English, their language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds.” – Outliers
Similarly, he identified that certain Australian languages lend to better space orientation, due to the languages having “absolute spatial deictics”. Even in darkness, their keen sense of direction can identify north from south, as they’re accustomed to saying “the object to the south” or “that person to the north”, instead of simplifying to “that”. The requirement to be aware of direction in order to communicate effectively has this embedded in their prioritized consciousness or “brain cache”.
To reiterate, language does not have deterministic outcomes; English-speaking children are not guaranteed to learn math at a slower rate, but it would be doing ourselves a disservice to completely ignore the ability of language to draw focus or attention to certain aspects of our lives.
The Power of Habit: Emotional Granularity
Now let’s consider that although the impact of language is often subtle, it permeates our every day. And without an intentional awareness of it, it can have significant impacts on our lives, through the formation of habits.
“Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them.” – Charles Duhigg, the Power of Habit
Charles Duhigg, author of the Power of Habit, wisely identified that in fact, a community was simply a “giant collection of habits occurring among thousands of people that, depending on how they’re influenced”. In the same book, he reminds us that habits often “emerge without our permission”, the same way that language can influence our lives, without our active consent. Now, this isn’t some big cautionary tale, as most of the time the intricacies of language are not harmful, and perhaps just slight changes that enable the diversity of culture that we need in the world.
The recommendation here is simply to take a step back and consider the shaping influence of language and analyze how language may be impacting our lives, through habits, for better or for worse.
Lisa Feldman Barret, author of How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, has performed research that shows that our ability to label our emotions can greatly impact our ability to effectively process them. She explains that “Emotion vocabulary is a bit like a directory, allowing you to call up a greater number of strategies to cope with life”, emphasizing that a person’s emotional granularity can have tangible benefits on their ability to respond to those emotions.
Consider once more that the language that we have at our disposal is the language we have day in and day out. It helps us convey our emotions, but can also enable . and feed our emotions. The cyclical nature of emotions can drive us into places we never expected and often the end to these cycles lies in being able to render an explanation of that emotion: to label it. So when you’re stressed that you’re running out of time to achieve your life goals, label it “torschlusspanik”. Or, if you experience the fear that everything has been done, think “vemödalen”.
Translating the Untranslatable
So what’s the takeaway here? I think untranslatable words offer us the opportunity to expand our horizons, through simply learning about and questioning that which we were not previously exposed to.
“The feelings we have learned to recognise and label are the ones we notice – but there’s a lot more that we may not be aware of. And so I think if we are given these new words, they can help us articulate whole areas of experience we’ve only dimly noticed.” – Tim Lomas
What can we learn about how we can find success or perhaps even more valuable, happiness, through the pursuit of Ikigai; a concept without presence in other languages?
Similarly, what can we learn from the Danish term Arbejdsglæde? Literally meaning “work happiness”; a concept completely foreign in nature to some, but clearly common enough in Denmark for the Danes created a term for it.
On the other end of the spectrum, how can we learn about the state of humanity through the Japanese word Karoshi, meaning “overwork death”, attributed to the widespread occurrence of people literally dying on the job?
Or perhaps Gökotta, a Swedish term, meaning “to rise at dawn in order to go out and listen to the birds sing”. Is it possible that the simple fact that there is indeed a word for this makes it more likely for the Swedes to incorporate this act into their daily lives? I don’t have all the answers, but I want people to be asking these questions.
My World, Your World
In learning about untranslatable words, we are getting to explore new worlds and through introspection, a window into ours and other people’s underlying “wiring”. We are not just loosely learning about trivial terms, but in certain cases, a lot about ourselves.
When we travel, we are forced to experience the beauty of new cultures because they are elegantly shoved in our faces. You cannot escape the beauty of Japanese culture in Japan, because it permeates everything around you. We often go through a process of overwhelm, adoption, and then admiration as we encounter these new things. If we do it enough, we finally start to question what the “right” way of living is.
Not everyone has the ability to experience this phenomenon by traveling outside of their borders. But I think one of the best ways of exploring other cultures from anywhere in the world, is to explore untranslatables.
“People fail to see how things are inefficient because of functional fixedness – they assume that things are the way there are and that’s that. Before you can make things more efficient, you have to imagine alternative configurations of reality.” – Here
Although the shifts in perspective aren’t ground-breaking, it’s enlightening to realize that entirely new realities exist. For some people, there isn’t just one moustache. Meanwhile, other can visualize their search for meaning in a 4x Venn diagram. What’s important here is that you actively search life for these clues. Search for things that may have just been a “that’s how life works” statement in the past, and instead question whether you’re limiting yourself in some way.
What I find perhaps the most intriguing is the concept that untranslatable words seem like outliers. And while they are, I think they represent shades of grey in the spectrum of life. They represent realities that cultures developed because using the term X or Y wasn’t enough. New realities.
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