Languages are so much more than a collection of translatable words. Focusing solely on translation is one of the worst ways to practice a language. The words, grammar, nonverbal communication, and more are all informed by the speakers’ culture and interactions with other languages.
That means sometimes words cross over between languages and other times, they are unique to one language.
Exploring words that don’t exist in English is an interesting way to add depth to the language program you already do.
How other languages have shaped English
Up to 80% of English words are borrowed from other languages. Over 350 languages are represented, but the most common languages of origin are Latin and Greek. Some were adapted over time, others were incorporated as-is. Words from other languages that have been incorporated as-is into English are called loanwords. Some examples of words we borrowed include:
- Banana (West African, likely Wolof)
- Ketchup (Chinese)
- Karaoke (Japanese)
- Ballet (French)
- Paparazzi (Italian)
- Penguin (Welsh)
- Guru (Sanskrit)
Writer James Nicholl once said “English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.” Since the history of our language is full of war and colonization, he’s not wrong.
Now that English has become a near-universal second language, other languages often incorporate the English words for new things instead of coming up with their own words for them. Many governing bodies of languages fight back against the incorporation of “anglicisms.” Quebec even has laws about it.
What are words from other languages with no English equivalents?
A common, less sinister reason for incorporating loanwords is simply that we don’t have a word for the concept when another language does. Even with all that loaning, English still doesn’t have a word for everything under the sun. The words we’ll discuss here can be defined in a sentence in English, but don’t have a word that is directly equivalent. Some of these may catch on with English speakers enough to become loan words.
Examples of words from other languages with no English equivalent
Here are a few interesting, useful, and sometimes funny words from other languages that don’t exist in English and my best attempt to explain what they mean.
Phonetic pronunciation: shaa·duhn·froy·duh
Language of origin: German
Meaning: Pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.
Who among us hasn’t enjoyed watching someone they dislike suffer? You might have heard this one before, but it’s not quite incorporated into the English language enough to be a loan word.
How to pronounce: hyoo·guh
Language of origin: Danish
Meaning: A feeling of extreme comfort or coziness.
In cold, northern winters there’s nothing better than getting cozy in front of the fireplace with a blanket and a hot drink. It makes perfect sense that Danish would have a word for this feeling. This word has become popular in the US over the past five years, especially in the Midwest, where it also gets cold.
How to pronounce: sau·dahj
Language of origin: Portuguese
Meaning: A feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia that is supposedly characteristic of the Portuguese or Brazilian temperament.
This is an example of a word that describes a concept that is specific to the culture it comes from. I wouldn’t count on this one catching on in the states, but it could be useful to know if you’re traveling to Portugal or Brazil.
How to pronounce: ma·mey·la·pin·ought·ta·pay
Language of origin: Yagán, an extinct indigenous language from the Tierra del Fuego
Meaning: A look that without words is shared by two people who want to initiate something, but that neither will start.
You may not run into native Yagán speakers anymore, but this word shows that even ancient cultures can be relatable.
How to pronounce: eek·soow·uhr·pohk
Language of origin: Inuit
Meaning: The feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’re there yet.
You may have heard that the Inuit have over fifty words for snow, but the long complex words for concepts that other languages would use a whole sentence for don’t end there.
How to pronounce: soh·breh·meh·sah
Language of origin: Spanish
Meaning: The conversation at the table that continues after a meal is over.
Even in the often-rushed American culture, when the company is good it’s nice to stick around and talk when you’re done eating. In Spain this probably goes on past midnight.
How to pronounce: spreez‧za‧too‧rah
Language of origin: Italian
Meaning: Studied carelessness.
Whether it’s a person’s style, art, or literature, sprezzatura is putting a lot of effort into seeming effortless.
How to pronounce: gih‧gil
Language of origin: Tagalog
Meaning: The sudden urge to squeeze someone or something extremely cute.
Just wanting to pinch a cute baby or animal’s cheeks is universal, but having one word for that urge is specific to Tagalog.
How to pronounce: hai‧maht
Language of origin: German
Meaning: The place that shaped who you are.
You could think of this word as one of the many possible versions of home that a person can have throughout their life. When English speakers say “home”, we could mean where you live now or where you were born, but we don’t have an equivalent for this one.
How to pronounce: tuh‧ska
Language of origin: Russian
Meaning: A feeling of deep spiritual anguish for no specific reason.
If you can count on any culture to have a special word for a type of sadness, it’s the Russians.
How to pronounce: ya‧yoos
Language of origin: Indonesian
Meaning: A joke so bad or told so poorly that one can’t help but laugh.
Sometimes you laugh at a joke because it’s funny, other times a joke is so bad you can’t help but laugh out of pity. Indonesians were smart enough to come up with a word for the different.
How to pronounce: ee‧Iun‧ga
Language of origin: Tshiluba, an indigenous language spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Meaning: A person who will forgive someone for the first offense against them, tolerate it a second time, but will not forgive them a third time.
We’ve all heard the adage “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Ilunga’s version of that concept cuts a little more slack and is encapsulated in a single word.
How to pronounce: law‧gom
Language of origin: Swedish
Meaning: Not too much, and not too little, but just right.
The story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears may have originated in England, but Sweden took the concept and ran with it.
How to pronounce: por‧leg
Language of origin: Norwegian
Meaning: Sandwich ingredients
Anything you would or could put inside a sandwich is pålegg. Meat, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, or even chips qualify.
Schlemiel and Schlimazel
How to pronounce: shluh‧meel and shluh‧mah‧zul
Language of origin: Yiddish
Meaning: The two sides of an embarrassing moment. A schlemiel is someone who spills their coffee and a schlimazel is the person the coffee got spilled on.
Here’s a two-for-one funny Yiddish package. In Parks and Recreation, Ron describes Jerry as both the schlemiel and the schlimazel.
How to pronounce: sheh‧mo‧med‧jah‧mo
Language of origin: Georgian
Meaning: When you accidentally eat the whole thing.
The classic Alka Seltzer commercials must have made their way to the Georgians.
How to pronounce: tar‧tul
Language of origin: Scots
Meaning: Panicked hesitation just when you’re about to introduce someone and realize you don’t remember their name.
This may be a highly specific situation, but we’ve all been there and might have made a sound that could be described as a tartle.
How can we use these words?
No matter what language learning activities you do, there are a few ways words the English language lacks can enhance your vocabulary in English and the languages they originate from alike. For example…
Enhance your communication
Words for highly specific concepts make communication more efficient. When you’re speaking your target language (or several target languages if you’re ambitious), especially with native speakers, it’s easier and faster to say one specific word than an entire phrase that matches its meaning.
Cultural diversity and respect
Learning about linguistic diversity can show you ways that your native language is lacking. It’s healthy to know that no language or culture does everything “right.”
When you travel and converse with people you meet along the way, using advanced words like these shows that you’ve made an effort to learn about their culture in ways that go beyond the basic travel phrases. Outside of language learning, they can be fun to introduce to your friends when relevant.
Words like these are just the beginning of how learning a language can open up your world. Learning a language isn’t just about memorizing equivalent words. It’s a whole new way of experiencing the world around you. Going deep can teach you a lot about a culture’s values and priorities. It can even show you ways that your own culture is lacking.
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