Abundant Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know—Madalena Cruz-Ferreira SpecGram Vol CLXX, No 3 Contents The SpecGram Inquisition—Pete Bleackley—with Inquisitor Generalis Jonathan Downie

Thirteen Untranslatable Words

by Michael Covarrubias

I’m a language lover. I have been since I was a kid. Just about eleven months after being born, I started saying words and I’ve been using them ever since. I probably use words every day and I’ve gotten pretty good at it.

After a while, we language lovers have a hard time learning more about our native language. That’s why we branch out to memorize other languages. It can be hard though, because a lot of foreign languages have words in them that we just can’t translate into English. Maybe it’s because we don’t have the concept in English, and that makes it impossible to make up a label for the concept. Or, more interestingly, maybe we don’t have the concepts in English because we don’t have the word in the first place! History’s first linguist, a guy named Sapir Whorf, discovered that without a word, we can’t think.

I’ve been doing some research on this topic, and I’ve found some of the most amazing untranslatable words in the non-American speaking world. Here they are, in no spectacular order.

  1. Mamihlapinatapei
    This is one of the first words I learned about as an untranslatable word. It’s spoken by using an ancient and primitive language from Chile, in Tierra del Fuego. (Tierra del Fuego, by the way, means “Fire, Having Land/Earth/Dirt, Which Land/Earth/Dirt Is Being This Land/Earth/Dirt”.) The word, mamihlapinatapei, is unfortunately untranslatable.

  2. Toska
    This is a Russian word. It means… uhhh… it’s sort of like… hm. Well it’s a cool meaning, but you have to know Russian to understand it.

  3. Iktsuarpok
    The Inuits only have one word for this, and therefore although we can’t know what this word means, we do know that iktsuarpok is neither important nor familiar to the Inuits, otherwise they would have 231 words for it.

  4. Shlimazl
    This Yiddish word is often used next to schlemiel, both of them meaning something related to each other. The meaning is something close to… uhhhh… dammit this article is hard to write.

  5. Friolero
    No idea. Looks Spanish.

  6. The
    You might recognize this word, but there is no English translation of it. It is similar to a and an but it has a nuanced meaning that those two words just don’t quite capture.

  7. Tartle
    Scots talk funny, don’t they?

  8. Torschlusspanik
    Germans use this word. You might notice it has the word panik in it which is close to English panic but those other parts mean some other sorts of things.

  9. Wabi-Sabi
    In Japanese culture, you have… there are these… ummm… It rhymes with itself. Like that other untranslatable word Oingo Boingo.

  10. Hwæt
    This Old English word used to be English when English wasn’t yet old. Once it became old, hwæt became impossible to use.

  11. Cafuné
    Not even speakers of Portuguese from Portugal can understand this word. Only speakers of Portuguese from Brazil know what it means.

  12. L’appel du vide
    There’s no single English word that captures the full meaning of this French phrase. The French have one translation of it that they have shared with us (the call of the void), but they have recently given it another more interesting meaning that they are keeping from us.

  13. Schadenfreude
    This weird German word roughly translates into the English word, schadenfreude.

Abundant Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t KnowMadalena Cruz-Ferreira
The SpecGram InquisitionPete Bleackleywith Inquisitor Generalis Jonathan Downie
SpecGram Vol CLXX, No 3 Contents