Untranslatable words of love and longing

22 Nov

The English language sure has a lot of nifty words. For example: Sandwich. Muleskinner. Iguana. Those are just three random words – they were the first that came to mind. I don’t know what that might mean, and frankly I don’t want to know.

But I recently read an article over at bigthink.com that pointed out some of the shortcomings in our language. The author listed 10 relationship words that have no equivalent in English – or that at least need more than one word to be explained. There’s mamihlapinatapei, a Yagan word for “the wordless yet meaningful look shared by two people who desire to initiate something, but are both reluctant to start”, through to ya’aburnee, Arabic for “You bury me” (not an order of assisted suicide, funnily enough, but a statement of wanting to die before one’s beloved does, so life doesn’t have to be experienced without them).

I was also really interested in the almost throwaway line referencing the Chinese proverb meaning “have fate without destiny”. The author pointed out the differentiation between fate and destiny, which are often seen as being interchangeable in our language. This proverb is said to describe “couples who meet, but who don’t stay together, for whatever reason”. Aww, bittersweet.

You can read the full list of words and their meanings over at Big Think.

And let’s start making up some of these words ourselves – it’s like a love-only version of Balderdash! I’ll start. Transchell: a fellow passenger on your regular public transport route that you have a crush on, but you don’t want to ask them out in case they say no and you’ll be so embarrassed you’ll have to change your public transport routine and it would be all really inconvenient, so it’s probably just better to keep quiet and dream from afar.

Catchy, no?


3 Responses to “Untranslatable words of love and longing”

  1. aim33 November 23, 2011 at 9:32 am #

    Love this post! mamihlapinatapei is my new favourite word. And I met my first love thanks to overcoming transchell.

    I used “saudade” in my novel, an untranslatable Portuguese word for a particular kind of longing. I defined it as: a nostalgic remembrance accompanied by the desire of seeing or possessing again and a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return.


  2. JT November 23, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    This immediately reminded me of a book you’d like (will bring it today) called “The Meaning of Tingo (and other extraordinary words from around the world)”. I just now picked it up, opened it and found myself on the very page where mamihlapinatapei is found. Freaky. On the same page: Bakku-shan (Japan): a girl who seems

    • JT November 23, 2011 at 11:48 am #

      Ahem… Pretty when seen from behind but not from the front.

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