Skip to content

Untranslatable words

A language’s untranslatable words, that have no direct equivalent in other languages, actually clue you in to the intricacies of the culture.

Shamay Agaron
Shamay Agaron
. 2 min read

In previous newsletters, I’ve touched on the fundamental role of metaphors and analogies in our perception and understanding of the world. But how do words influence our experiences?

As Tim Lomas puts it,

“The feelings we have learned to recognize and label are the ones we notice – but there’s a lot more that we may not be aware of [. . .] if we are given these new words, they can help us articulate whole areas of experience we’ve only dimly noticed.”

Take the word hangry for example - I’d argue that most people never made the explicit connection between their mood and hunger until the word was popularized. What other words is the English language (and culture) missing?

Steph Smith makes the case that we could learn from one of over 7,000 languages spoken around the world. Specifically, we can learn from the words that don’t translate.

A language’s untranslatable words, that have no direct equivalent in other languages, actually clue you in to the intricacies of the culture:

“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.”

To put it another way, untranslatable words offer perspective on our culture’s biases.

For example, the concept of “work happiness” is common enough in Denmark that they have a term for it (Arbejdsglæde, pronounced ah-bites-gleh-the). In contrast, most Americans have a negative relationship with their work and so the word never materialized in our language.

27 Remarkable Ways To Foster And Boost Happiness At Work

To summarize, learning untranslatable words is about more than just the term itself. It not only provides a window into others’ experiences, but enriches your own.

Eunoia is a website Steph built to house a list of more than 500 words in over 70 languages!

To learn more, feel free to read Steph’s whole 4,000 word article:

👉 Perspective through untranslatable words 👈

short-form