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flutherother's avatar

Do you know any words that have no equivalent in English?

Asked by flutherother (30805points) July 7th, 2011

For example the word ‘feasgar’ in Scots Gaelic means the time after noon. Its meaning includes both afternoon and evening but there is no directly equivalent word in English. Do you know any others and why does a word exist in one language but not another?

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73 Answers

JLeslie's avatar

I know there is no such thing as the word “whatever” in Spanish.

Oh, I have one, the German word Schadenfreude, there is no equivalent in English, so we have begun to use the word, it is probably now in the English dictionary. It means getting pleasure or happiness from other people’s difficulties and misfortunes.

Actually, there are a whole bunch of words that are now part of the English language that are actually from other languages because we did not have an exact equivalent. But, I think you were looking more for something like my whatever example. In Spanish if you want to say whatever you have to use a few words to describe what you mean, you can’t just use one simple word, there isn’t one.


Your_Majesty's avatar

The word “Abang” in Bahasa means “Younger brother” in English. English doesn’t have direct point to family member-status, it requires female/male and younger/older words to describe that.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

“Falta” (I hope I spelled that correctly) in Spanish is roughly equivalent to ‘how much is left?’, and has no direct equivalent in English.

JLeslie's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh I use falta like the word missing more or less. @Bob_ could correct me on this. I’ll send the question to him.

Hibernate's avatar

Most words I know without an equivalent in English are swears and I’m not gonna list them .

Response moderated
Seelix's avatar

@JLeslie – Wouldn’t cualquier fit the bill for whatever? Or do you mean the idiomatic expression in English?

morphail's avatar

All of these words have equivalents in English, they’re just not one-word equivalents. But if translation means that every word in the translation must be an exact equivalent of every word in the source text, then translation is impossible.

WestRiverrat's avatar

The Lakota word tiyospaye has no direct equivalent in English. Its nearest translation is extended family, but it means so much moe than that.

aprilsimnel's avatar

Schadenfreude (Ger.) = “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others”

English has taken this now as a loan word, like it does.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@JLeslie Thanks. My Spanish vocabulary is only about 100 words, and I only used it for one holiday. The context I heard it in most was for walkers asking how far to the destination. I’m guessing it has many varied applications?

TheIntern55's avatar

There is a Romanian word for someone who is not a virgin. I forget what it is.
Also, the Romanians don’t have a word for shallow.

Porifera's avatar

@JLeslie whatever can be translated as lo que sea or lo que according to the context and depending if it’s standing alone or if it’s followed by another word.

@FireMadeFlesh It’s a good word and it doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English. When I hear falta the first word that comes to mind is lack of as in La falta de respeto… = The lack of respect…

Falta…‘how much is left?’ I would not translate it like that. I’d translate how much is left as ¿cuánto queda? Maybe you are referring to something along the lines of how much is needed to… in which case it is translated as ¿cuánto hace falta…?


Me haces falta = I miss you
Me falta dinero = I don’t have enough money
Te falta valor = You don’t have enough courage

soulfulms's avatar

death of a child

Porifera's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh I reread your comment and I see what you mean with …was for walkers asking how far to the destination It’d be something like ¿Cuánto hace falta para llegar a…? Yes, you are right in this case is like how much is left until we get there or how long till we get to…

morphail's avatar

@TheIntern55 mic, puţin, superficial, facil, frivol, gol, găunos

It’s funny how these lists of “untranslatable words” all include translations…

sliceswiththings's avatar

There’s no “awkward” in Spanish quite how we use it in America (to describe a person).

bob_'s avatar

Schadenfreude was the first word that came to mind. * Gives @JLeslie the look *

Whatever is indeed “cualquier” when used with a noun (e.g., whatever reason = cualquier razón). If it’s used as an idiom, I would translate it as “como sea”.

”¿Falta mucho?” could be translated as “is there a lot missing?” or “will it be long before…?”, like @Porifera said.

@morphail The fact that there are suggested translations does not mean they are equivalent.

@sliceswiththings I’d use “incómodo”, which means “uncomfortable”.

morphail's avatar

@bob_ I was showing that @TheIntern55 was wrong: there are Romanian words that are generally accepted as translating “shallow”.

You’re right, they’re probably not exactly equivalent. But no two words in two languages are exactly equivalent. imo it’s crazy to expect a single word in one language to be exactly equivalent in meaning to a single word in another language. In fact, the absence of exact word-for-word translation is normal, there’s nothing remarkable about it.

Porifera's avatar

@morphail Ditto.
@sliceswiththings awkward raro, inusual.

For those Spanish fans out there I contribute here and here.

KateTheGreat's avatar

In Norwegian, there is a word called “forelsket.” It’s used to described the wonderful feelings you have when you’re falling in love. :)

bob_'s avatar

This makes for an interesting reading.

morphail's avatar

Hey I got one… English has no word for “untranslatable word”. How can we be talking about it so much if we don’t have a word for it?

JLeslie's avatar

Calquier is different than the way I was thinking of whatever. Whatever when used in a dismissive tone, meaning what you just said is unimportant to me. Lo que sea maybe can be used that way? Not sure. But, it is a not a direct one word translation then. I would not think to use lo que sea in that context, but my Spanish is only a 7 on a 1 to 10 scale, hence calling @bob_ in for clarification.

bob_'s avatar

@JLeslie I’d use “como sea” in that case.

<—always available for clarification

sinscriven's avatar

Verguenza Ajena – Empathetic sense of shame/embarassment for someone else who is in a painfully awkward situation, often times ones they are completely oblivious to.

Porifera's avatar

@JLeslie I know you are asking @bob_ in particular, but I happen to be in the neighborhood too and want to add my two cents.

Whatever when used in a dismissive tone, meaning what you just said is unimportant to me. For this sort of thing it is good not only to put the word in context, but also provide a full sentence.

Truth is for the specific context you suggest, you might be right in terms of Spanish not having a direct equivalent to whatever. We could say either lo que sea or como sea but most likely, we would say something along the lines of como digas or no me interesa/importa which is flat out I don’t care (lexically and morphologically is different but semantically is the same which is the ultimate goal of translating).

@sinscriven That’s a good one. You can also say pena ajena which is identical to verguenza ajena. For that to be said in English you’d have to use a full sentence in Spanish and do some explaining, so yes no equivalent word or phrase for that one.

Porifera's avatar

Ooops!! Edit: …to use a full sententence in Spanish and do…

JLeslie's avatar

@Porifera I would use no me importa, but even that is a little different. My husband’s family and I have banged this around before, because whatever is now his trademark, we buy him shirts and mugs with the word, it is a funny inside joke. We try to explain it to his parents, and there is just no really good way to explain it perfectly in Spanish without a full sentence.

The story, if you are curious, is: one evening I was with my husband his brother and a girlfriend of mine driving back home from a night out, and the conversation somehow turned to talking about how his sister is like his mother, or how an SO might be like a parent. An Oedipus complex type thing. So, I say my husband is just like my mother (which as I am sure you know it would be more typical for me to say he is like my father). His brother asks me why, why do I think my husband, his brother, is like my mother? My answer was, “because he can be so indifferent.” There was a long silent pause, and then my husband said, “whatever JL.” We all broke into laughter.

Porifera's avatar

@JLeslie Yep, now that you gave the specifics, the equivalent is definitely lo que tú digas JL That’s what we’d say in such situation. The meaning of these type of phrases is usually reinforced by tone and gestures. And yes, it is very funny because by saying whatever he is just confirming that he is indifferent :)

JLeslie's avatar

@Porifera Yeah, lo que tú digas, is more like whatever you say I guess, which makes sense. We just capture the whole meaning with the one word, tone, and context. Where are you from? Are you American?

Porifera's avatar

@JLeslie If you look carefully you say is implied in the use of the single word whatever in English. When you answer whatever you are actually saying whatever you say if referring to one person in particular like in your example. I’m not American, I’m Venezuelan :)

JLeslie's avatar

@Porifera Yeah, I was saying the same, that it is implied in English.

How about Chavez? Heard he was sick and in Cuba for treatment? I have not followed the news. I have a lot of friends hoping he is on his way out.

Porifera's avatar

@JLeslie He’s back from Cuba and getting better it seems. We can only hope…

linguaphile's avatar

ASL has probably a thousand words that are not translatable into English, but have to be explained in context. Some people, who have very limited understanding of ASL, will try to stuff the ASL term into an English word, but it is not an equivalent translation at all. Unfortunately, I don’t have videos that I could link to and share here.

morphail's avatar

@linguaphile Could you give an example?
I’m skeptical that there are any terms in any language that are just plain “untranslatable” – I mean we’re all humans. You imply that the terms are translatable, it just takes a bit of time.

JLeslie's avatar

I want to bookmark this Q for the next time I tell some fundamental Christian biblical type that there is always meaning lost in translation.

morphail's avatar

I love how that Wikipedia article gives a list of “untranslatable” words and phrases… and then proceeds to translate them.

JLeslie's avatar

@bob_ Even English to English meaning can be lost. Micommunication happens all the time even within ones own language.

linguaphile's avatar

@morphail I believe what the OP and the web sites mean is there is no one word English translation for the non-English words. Like perro=dog or gato=cat, that’s a direct word to word translation or equivalent. Schadenfreunde doesn’t have an one-word equivalent in English, it only can be translated by explaining it in a phrase or even longer.

I’m still looking for video explanations of some examples for you.

morphail's avatar

@linguaphile Yes, when people talk about “untranslatable words” they seem to mean “words with no direct one-word translations”. But I don’t see why a lack of direct one-word translations is interesting, or what it’s supposed to tell us.

JLeslie's avatar

@morphail It is interesting to me. On that wikipedia link it said some languages don’t have a word for cousin, something we use so commonly in English and Spanish, and other languages. Another language had a word for maternal grandmother and paternal grandmother, that makes sense to have two different words. Words like schadenfreude just seem so clever. Most cultures I am familiar with don’t even like to talk about or admit to this emotion, and the Germans actually have a single word for it.

morphail's avatar

@JLeslie English doesn’t have a single word for “untranslatable word”, and yet here we are, talking about it :)

I think these things are largely just accidents of history. The reason German can have Schadenfreude is because its morphology makes it easy to form compound words. It also lets it have Geschlechtskrankheit “venereal disease” – but does that mean that Germans have some special relationship to venereal diseases?

linguaphile's avatar

@morphail It also says a lot about the culture from which the language comes.

The thing I love the most is the fact that there are terms in one language that don’t exist in another shows, and this just how limited our vocabulary, and essentially, our worldview really is, honestly. English doesn’t have a word for “litost” or “zeitgeist”—it doesn’t mean that we can’t understand the emotion behind the words when they are explained to us, we can understand it, but—for me it just means that English doesn’t have a word for it and that is significant. As a person who studies language-culture relationships, it brings up questions for me like… How does it impact a culture when they don’t recognize this emotion/concept? Do we really understand the concept or emotion without the term? Do we even discuss that emotion or concept until we know, from another language, that it exists? Do we really understand our emotions if we don’t have words to explain it. Chomsky discusses this in depth—whether our experiences fully exist (not just moderately but fully exist) without the language to describe it?

I know for myself that, yes, I experienced schadenfreunde and litost before I understood the word, but I couldn’t have discussed the existence of that emotion until I learned about its existence, through another language. ASL has so many emotion terms that English doesn’t and so many visual terms that English doesn’t which reflects back to the users of the language. It doesn’t mean that it can’t be explained to the English (or other language) speakers, though. Like schadenfreunde, the concepts can be explained, but it’s still amazing to think about how our worldview is defined by language. I’d love to do research in this area—maybe someday.

I’m still looking for videos for you… had to stop to take care of life, but will look some more tonight

morphail's avatar

@linguaphile As far as I know there’s no evidence that we need need a single lexical item for an emotion before we can recognize or discuss that emotion. We certainly don’t have single lexical items for a lot of things that we talk about every day.

Where did Chomsky discuss this?

JLeslie's avatar

I remember a jelly once pointing out that Spanish doesn’t have much vocabulary in the realm of engineering (he worked on Mexico) all the words are German and English. His point was, if I remember correctly, that most of the engineering science and technology came from German and English speaking countries, so the vocabulary can indicate something about the culture I guess.

Porifera's avatar

Linguistic relativity is the notion that the diversity of linguistic structures affects how people perceive and think about the world and deals with the relation between thought and language. So I guess if we stretch that, we could probably extrapolate a little bit of this onto what @linguaphile is talking about.

One of the first things I learned in Linguistics was the notion that language in general (not any particular language) is deffective by nature in terms that it fails to convey all human thought, emotions, feelings, and life experiences through speech. That stuck in my mind from very early on and it has influenced my approach to language and languages. I entirely agree with @morphail views.

@JLeslie I think that the lack of certain technical vocabulary has nothing to do with culture but it’s rather that, as you point out, most technological inventions and scientific advances and breakthroughs come from the US. As a result, new words to designate those inventions and technology are created and there is no time for other languages to kkep up and create equivalents for all these new words and it is more practical to use the terminology in English. This not only affects Spanish but other languages as well.

JLeslie's avatar

@Porifera I agree with that, culture was probably not the correct word. I was not picking on Spanish. In fact during thay conversation I was saying that often times English seems to have a lot of meanings for a single word, and that English was simpler in many ways, verb conjugation being one.

I do think language is part of the culture in that there is something reflective in the rhythm of a language, and commonly used expression in languages, the way people use their language. I feel like Spanish speaking people are more “alive” when they talk than English speaking (I am generalizing). Even just shopping for clothing when a Spanish speaking person sees a garment they like the descriptive words, the tone, carries more excitement. When my husband sees his parents after being away for a long time, or when he is leaving not to see them again for a while, again the words feel more emotional to me, their actions, it is a whole package.

When I am in Italy and greeted with a ciao, there is always a smile, and the word is said in an upbeat way. In Germany I did not feel the same when greeted, even though everyone in Germany treated me very well, I have nothing negative to say about my experience there.

Porifera's avatar

@JLeslie I know you were not picking on Spanish, I was just stating a fact. I am not at all biased towards Spanish in any case. As a matter of fact German and Italian are my two fave languages.

linguaphile's avatar

@morphail, perhaps you could help me understand… What I’m understanding is that you don’t think the word has to exist for emotions to exist, and I do agree with that. I just question the full ability to discuss it, because of, yes (but not wholly) linguistic relativity.

I said, “English doesn’t have a word for “litost” or “zeitgeist”—it doesn’t mean that we can’t understand the emotion behind the words when they are explained to us…” How is that different than what you said? I’d love to continue the discussion, but I’m not even sure where you feel we’re disagreeing. If you can explain, then I’d appreciate it.

(@Porifera, I am a linguistic anthropologist, actually, with a focus on social cognition and language acquisition, hence my classroom focusing on language acquisition of those with language delays through social cognition. Thanks for throwing in the term.)

JLeslie's avatar

I vaguely remember watching a special on happiness and they mentioned a group of people, maybe it was a country somewhere in Asia I think…anyway, they had no word for time if I remember correctly. The people did not know how old they were.

linguaphile's avatar

@JLeslie, imagine not having to stress about the passage of time? Or did they? I wonder!

JLeslie's avatar

@linguaphile That was the point, they didn’t stress about it, which I guess made them a happier bunch. They were always in the moment. It was a rather primitive group of people from what I remember, they lived basic simple lives. Sounds ok to me.

SavoirFaire's avatar

Alors – a French word that can be used many different ways depending on the context.

Eudaimonia – a Greek word often translated as “happiness” but meaning something more like “living and doing well” (the etymology suggests “the state of having a good indwelling spirit”).

morphail's avatar

@linguaphile You wrote “Do we really understand the concept or emotion without the term? Do we even discuss that emotion or concept until we know, from another language, that it exists? Do we really understand our emotions if we don’t have words to explain it” and “The thing I love the most is the fact that there are terms in one language that don’t exist in another shows, and this just how limited our vocabulary, and essentially, our worldview really is, honestly.”

You seem to be saying that if we don’t have a single lexical item for something, we might have trouble understanding it, and that this might limit our worldview? Am I right? While I would say that this claim is too strong. There is evidence that language nudges thought in certain circumstances, but no evidence that the particular language we speak limits our worldview or prevents us from understanding something.

mattbrowne's avatar

contains hundreds of examples.

I like Kaffeeklatsch, Poltergeist, Schadenfreude, Zeitgeist, Katzenjammer, Ohrwurm, Blitzschach, Lumpenproletariat and Wirtschaftswunder.

flutherother's avatar

@mattbrowne Another one I like is Doppelganger.

bob_'s avatar

I like Claudia Schiffer.

flutherother's avatar

@bob_ She translates into any language ^^

bob_'s avatar

@flutherother For a second I thought we were listing random things we liked about Germany. ‘Cause I also like Kartoffel Salatt.

mattbrowne's avatar

In some German dialects “Schiffer” actually means pisser.

Ich muss schiffen means I need to piss.

Poor woman.

Porifera's avatar

Do you know any words that have no equivalent in English?

The way the OPs question is worded leads to confusion when you get technical about it because in translation you can have different approaches. There is the literal translation: one-to-one equivalence between words and paraphrasing: translation of meaning to convey ideas rather than translation of words. Both approaches are equivalent in that both are corresponding and seek equal signification of the terms to be translated. They just do it in a different way. The OPs question does not make a distinction in what kind of equivalence he is specifically referring to; nonetheless; it seems he was referring to the one-to-one equivalence exclusively. However, for those of us in the field of languages, this approach can limit the task and make the translation unnatural and awkward, and sometimes downright impossible to complete.

In this thread, some people have been referring to one-to-one equivalence and others to paraphrasing. Thus, we have been practically talking about two different things.

Additionally, the discussion gave way to the very debatable aspect of the relation between language and thought which has been around since I can remember (80s) and it certainly constitutes one of the unsolved problems in Applied Linguistics. Although, I can understand that due to @linguaphile‘s focus on Linguistic anthropology this notion is relevant to her field, I tend to have the same stand as @morphail in that the idea is too strong to take it lightly and there is no conclusive evidence to back up this position as valid an definite, let alone that in my personal experience with the four languages I have studied, I have never come across words that are in one language but not in another, that have prevented me from recognizing, understanding, or discussing the idea or emotion the convey.

flutherother's avatar

I was interested in words which exist in some languages and not in others and there are lots of examples above. I wondered why this should be. You can translate any word using combinations of other words but the effect is not the same. It is like trying to translate poetry it can always be done but not always satisfactorily.

Why do some languages not distinguish between blue and green? Scots Gaelic uses ‘gorm’ which can mean blue or green. Can Gaelic speakers not see these colours?

There are also things in our mind that cannot be expressed. When listening to music it is impossible to describe in words why we like it. And then there is mathematics, which describes the world much more accurately than words. Is it a language?

Porifera's avatar

@flutherother From the amount of answers your question has gotten so far, not only you but a lot of people are interested in this topic.

You can translate any word using combinations of other words but the effect is not the same. I don’t entirely agree, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.

Some of your questions have already been addressed if you care to read carefully:

Why do some languages not distinguish between blue and green? As @morphail said these things are largely just accidents of history. Rather brief and simple, but truth.

There are also things in our mind that cannot be expressed. When listening to music it is impossible to describe in words why we like it. I posted earlier: One of the first things I learned in Linguistics was the notion that language in general…is defective by nature in that it fails to convey all human thought, emotions, feelings, and life experiences through speech. The first thing you will listen on your first Linguistics class or when you open a Linguistics book is one of these: Human experience is multisensory and spoken language cannot convey all the…, Language cannot properly represent reality., Language cannot convey the entirety of the human experience., Language cannot convey the deep vision of human nature., Meaning of the individual mind is never fully transferable through language., etc., etc.

And then there is mathematics, which describes the world much more accurately than words. Is it a language? In general terms Math is a language because it involves a code to transfer meaning and communicate something, but to talk about math you have to speak a language.

morphail's avatar

@flutherother Can Gaelic speakers not see these colours?
Yes they can. There is some research into color vocabulary and perception, but the results are inconclusive. Russian has words for “light blue” and “dark blue” and English doesn’t (at least not in basic color vocab) – so you might as well ask, can English speakers not see the difference between light blue and dark blue?

Anyway, Irish Gaelic does have words for blue and green: “gorm” and “glas”

flutherother's avatar

Irish and Scots Gaelic has three words, gorm, glas and uaine to refer to what we would call blue or green. Gorm is closest to our blue but can refer to green as well. Glas is blue green in nature and uaine blue or green when dyed or painted. These words can also be used at times to describe grey. Very confusing and to confuse things further a leaf that is green and shiny like a piece of plastic might be called uaine. There is an interesting article on the topic here. Part of the confusion comes from the fact that the way the language is used has been influenced by English.

roundsquare's avatar

Sorry if someone else has said this.

I’m just learning Chinese now so I hope this is right…

“ta” in Chinese (mandarin) is the third person pronoun. But, it doesn’t mean “he” or “she.” It is used for males and females.

augustlan's avatar

Just came across this!

Sunny2's avatar

@soulfulms Kindertoten is German for death of a child.Is that what you were thinking?

My favorite French expression is esprit d’escalier or inspiration of the stairs. It refers to the perfect comeback you think of as you go up the stairs (or away) from the verbal exchange you just had and said some thing lame or nothing at all.

Sneki95's avatar

In Serbian, there are a lot of names for family members that are not specified in English. For example, father’s brother is called stric and his wife strina, and mother’s brother is called ujak and his wife ujna. Either of your parent’s sister is tetka, her husband teča.
In English, they are all uncles and aunts. Also, their children are not simply cousins, but brothers/sisters from an uncle/aunt. In Serbian, that would be brat/sestra od strica/ujaka/tetke.

Your husband’s parents are svekar (male) and svekrva(female). His sister is zaova and his brother is dever. Your wife’s parents are tast (male) and tašta (female) and her sister is svastika and brother is šogor. The spouses of your spouse’s siblings have their own names too. There are also names for wives of two brothers and husbands of two sisters, as well as for two people whose children are married with each other.

In-laws in English.

There is more to it, but these are the most used names, given to the closest relatives that are not your spouse or child.


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