The cozy linguistics of hygge and other “untranslatable” words

Perhaps you’ve heard the word hygge? It’s a Norwegian and Danish word, and it has become a bit famous in recent years due to articles like How ‘hygge’ can help you get through winter from mnn.com. There’s no equivalent word in English.

Anyway. Now JSTOR Daily has published The Cozy Linguistics of Hygge and Other “Untranslatable” Words:

Examples like hygge and koselig actually follow a long line of foreign words that fascinate us. In English, we tend to borrow quite a few “untranslatable” words and idioms, like the ever-popular German Schadenfreude (pleasure at another’s misfortune) and the Sanskrit karma (a Buddhist concept of destiny being influenced by a person’s actions). Perhaps they don’t always mean what they originally meant, but we’ve made them our own.

Just what is it about “untranslatable” words that fascinate us so much? There are endless lists and articles on these beautiful words, so apparently alien to English, that are simply “untranslatable” or even the hardest words in the world to translate… but then they’re subsequently translated anyway, in English sentences, just not in words that are directly equivalent. Untranslatable words aren’t really untranslatable at all. When we unpack this concept it raises a number of curious questions.

What’s so special about a single word capturing a concept, as opposed to a phrase or a sentence? If a language doesn’t have a word for something, does it mean its speakers have a harder time understanding that concept cognitively? For instance, if a language, such as Tarahumara, a Uto-Aztecan language of northern Mexico, has no name or lexical distinction for a particular color perception, such as between green and blue, are speakers of that language cognitively unable to differentiate between the two colors? Likewise if some Eskimo languages have many distinctive words for snow, are we as English speakers completely unable to tell the difference between all the kinds of snowy precipitation there can be? [continue]

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