By some estimates the English language has more than a million words. It’s impossible to nail down an exact figure, but it’s generally agreed that no other language has nearly as many. It’s not like any of us use all one million words, but still – you would think that English must have a word for everything, right?
No way. Not even close.
There are over 6,000 languages spoken on Earth, and all of them describe the breadth and depth of human life. But since all of these languages provide slightly different ways of seeing the world, no one language can perfectly encapsulate the entire human experience. Conversely, every language on Earth contains certain words that don’t exist in any other language. These linguistic gems can certainly be defined, but they cannot be directly translated. For example, can you think of just one word to mean the essence of yourself that you put into your work? You might say that you “put your heart and soul” into something, but the Greeks simply call this kind of passion for what you do μεράκι (meraki).
Untranslatable words highlight the rich diversity of the ethnosphere. Geography, climate, cuisine, religion, history and humor are just some of the factors that lead every language to invent such unique and specific words – the outliers of the human experience.
There are so many great examples of untranslatable words that we’ve decided to turn them into a continuing series. Here are the first eight.
noun: that sleepy feeling you get after a big meal
Everyone has succumbed to drowsiness after a meal at one time or another, but only the Italians have enshrined the phenomenon in a single word. When you wish you could take a nap after lunch, you’re “having the abbiocco” (avere l’abbiocco).
noun: the ability to improvise a quick solution
Desenrascanço is the M.O. of any high-functioning procrastinator. Not only does it mean to solve a problem or complete a task, it means doing so with a completely improvised solution. TV’s MacGyver utilized this skill every time he averted disaster with nothing but a bent paper clip and a chewing gum wrapper.
adj: comfy, cozy; intimate; contented
Do you ever wish there was one word to combine everything snuggly, safe, friendly and caring? The Danes have you covered with hyggelig. The word is used so often in daily life that many Danes consider it part of the national character.
noun: after-lunch conversation around the table
The Spanish are known for enjoying long meals together, but eating isn’t just about food. When you stay at the table after lunch in order to savor a final course of stimulating conversation, you are indulging in sobremesa.
noun: a beer you drink outside
Norwegians must endure a long, dark winter before they can enjoy the brilliant, but brief, summer. So a beer that you can drink outside, while absorbing the sun’s glorious rays, is not just any old beer.
verb: to make something worse when trying to improve it
We’ve all done this before: by trying to fix a small problem we create a bigger problem. Perhaps you tried to repair a flat tire on your bike, and now the wheel won’t turn? Or after reinstalling Windows your laptop freezes every time you boot up? Oh no, don’t tell me you tried to fix that bad haircut yourself!
yakamoz (Turkish) and mångata (Swedish)
noun: the reflection of moonlight on water
No matter which language you speak, from time to time you probably admire the moon’s reflection on a body of water. But unless you’re Turkish or Swedish it’s impossible to describe this beauty with a single word. The Swedish mångata literally translates to “moon-road”, an aptly poetic description.
Turkish also has a very specific word, gümüşservi, but it’s not really used in everyday speech. It’s far more common to call the moon’s reflection on water yakamoz, which can be used to describe any kind of light reflecting on water, or even the sparkle of fish.
Can you think of any totally unique words from your native language? Share them with us and we’ll compile the best in our ongoing video series!