Thursday, March 24, 2011


I've been really fascinated lately with culture, language, and the dynamic meaning of words.

It's a function of my situation, really; sitting in a room full of multicultural media goons and translators all day, the mind tends to focus on communication between languages. After all, I have some coworkers I can't even speak to, yet I need them to survive. I talk much less with my mouth here, and more with my hands. And I speak more slowly. I try to incorporate Japanese words and meanings as much as I can into what I say. For instance, "hai" (pronounced "hi") means "yes." No doubt when my Nebraskan friends next see me they will wonder why I'm so friendly.

I also recently stumbled across a list of words online that are notoriously difficult to translate into other languages because they express an idea, feeling, or both that no one else has quite figured out how to express. I've been writing them on the board daily to offer coworkers a bit of thought-provoking amusement to distract from their otherwise stressful lives. My favorite of these is "Tingo" – “the act of taking objects one desires from the house of a friend by gradually borrowing all of them.” (Pascuense, Easter Island)

On top of that being an awesome word, with a meaning that is SO excellent and comical, it draws a unique picture. Another one I like is "Jayus"  – “A joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh.” (Indonesian) I'm guessing this is something that many of you will use to describe me in the future.

Do you notice how many words it takes just to come up with a way to describe it comparably? It's something we rarely ponder, but English has these, too. I ran into one today when I was having an intercultural conversation and tried to say something was "cheesy."

How do you describe it? Campy? What is that? Goofy? Still confused. Sappy? Nope, not ringing a bell.

This turned in to an office discussion where we finally settled on a translatable definition of "silly, and in bad taste."

Still, what is taste, anyway? Ways of thinking about taste aren't exactly the same here. After all, different is bad, here, so you might say that if everyone likes something it would be in good taste. By that definition, in America, Justin Bieber would also be "in good taste."

In Japan, there is a truly unique feeling when the cherry blossoms bloom and plants come to life. Tokyo is transformed in a couple days into a budding, green paradise. It is a very unique and emphatic time, and there is a word in Japanese that describes "the feeling that everything is budding and spring is coming." If you want to say that in English, of course, you have to at least say "spring is in the air." I doubt there is a quick way to say this in northern Russia, the Sahara Desert, or tropical rainforest regions.

How do we describe our world? Are we limited by the 250,000 plus words in the English language? The way we frame our language must tie in with the way we express and see it... The things we value, we come up with better words to describe. The words are like our tools to construct not just our communication, but our very way of thinking.

Jayus and tingo are just two examples. We come up with better words for what we value, better ways of expressing what we need most to express. We invent better tools to build a better framework for the things we think are important. This process truly reflects our own unique experiences as people.

What are some of your words that really don't translate?

Michael out.


  1. Lekker would be one word. during my travels this past year I was trying to keep track of all the words that I came across which I wanted to make a world dictionary from. unfortunately I have a bad memory and did not write down all these words. but Lekker is one word I will not forget. it means cool...but not just cool. It is like the ultimate coolness... like bomb digity. and it is not just a fad word that comes in like tight or neato or cool beans or stuupid (? which I will never understand that). but it is is a word that will ALWAYS be in the Affrikaans language.

  2. "The way we frame our language must tie in with the way we express and see it."

    Exactly. For the same reason Inuits have more than a dozen words for 'snow'. I would also add: "...must tie in with the way we experience life through our language." I always tell my Spanish students that, yes, "voy" means "i go." But in the same breath, no it doesn't! It means "voy" and nothing else. It is equivalent to "I go," but it means "voy," only "voy." The words are different not just in spelling, but in the thousands of years they spent being used in different countries by people who never knew there was another way of saying "voy" in another language. Each language is its own ecosystem, and we borrow what we please from other languages just like the horse was brought to the new world by Spaniards, but that doesn't mean we are using them the same way. We are simply adopting them into our way of life, our expressions of life.

    A friend that I made in Spain who was Brazilian wrote me after she returned to Brazil and I to the USA, explaining that she felt "saudade," which she had to take the entire email to define - and even then, Spanish was our common language so I can't imagine that she gave me the entire picture. It means nostalgia, basically. You can find it in any dictionary, but it wasn't "nostalgia" or "longing" that she was meant entirely. If you look it up, it says "a feeling of longing, melancholy or nostalgia that is supposedly characteristic of the Portuguese or Brazilian temperament," which is kind of a way of the dictionary itself saying: "we're not quite sure what this word means, but *these* people are because they feel it." (Side note: "supposedly"?? Really, dictionary?? You're going to speculate on what the Brazilians feel deep inside instead of just defining the word for me? hahahaa.) It was something closer to love that she was trying to communicate, not just a missing, melancholic feeling, but one that made her feel warm and full at the same time - not sad.

    Obviously, as this comment is a testament to, I could talk about words til the "vacas" come home. Great entry.

  3. so i actually clicked on the link at the bottom of your post after typing that out and "saudade" is on the list! ha!

  4. Aaron,

    Thanks for your comment! I feel like you finished a sentence that I started but could not complete..

    "Each language is its own ecosystem"

    Of course! That's it! What a picture.. I become more and more convinced of this as I talk to more and more Japanese people. Just the other day I was talking to a young woman who was a Christian, as she explained to me the difficulties of expressing herself in her own language.

    For instance, an American might say "I love Jesus," and that would be fine and well understood. However, in Japanese this would translate into romantic love--an awkward proposition, at best. Western culture has built a large reservoir of words with which to express love to God, but Japan has no such structure. Ecosystems are everything...

    Really appreciate your comment.