Our Limited Language

Originally posted on Tembua’s website.

Following the birth of a new grandson, I spent quite a bit of time talking about family. One conversation degenerated into giggles and guffaws as, assisted by a wine cooler, I attempted to explain the relationship of someone who had sent the parents a baby gift. I couldn’t find a word — indeed, English has no word — for the mother-in-law of my son-in-law’s brother.

English has one of the largest vocabularies of all the world languages, and yet it lacks single words to name concepts for which we must instead use whole phrases. Other languages fill in some of these gaps.

German has a wonderful word, “Schadenfreude,” which is used to describe that delicious feeling when a rotten person finally gets exactly what he/she deserves. Schadenfreude is, of course, immediately followed by a wave of guilt that one would feel pleasure at another’s misfortune.

But some Germans frown at linguistic creativity. While taking advanced language training in Germany I tried to combine “klein” (small) and “Einzelheit” (detail) into “Kleinzelheiten” to mean “those annoying little details.” Our instructor fixed me with a steady stare: “Gibt’s kein.” Translation: there is no such word.

German, along with many other languages, uses different words for singular and plural “you,” thereby eliminating an ambiguity that can be very useful in English. Because of gender endings, readers of German know immediately if the teacher, judge, garbage collector or pilot is male or female.

Families rate more linguistic attention in other languages than in English. Chinese has specific words for eldest son and mother’s uncle.1 Serbian differentiates my sister’s/brother’s spouse, my wife’s sister’s husband, my wife’s brother, my wife’s sister, or my husband’s brother’s wife — all of which would have come in handy during the conversation mentioned earlier.2

One of our Greek translators writes, “My godfather & godmother are my parents’ godbrother & godsister. My children’s spouses are my groom and bride too, and my children’s spouses’ parents (their in-laws) are my co-in-laws.”3

Vocabulary also grows from the flavor of a culture. In Asian cultures, for example, status and relationship are important, and Vietnamese pronouns are laden with implications. Writes one of our translators, “The choice of pronouns two people use when talking to each other gives the listener a wealth of information about their status, relationship, and intentions in a way that simply cannot be duplicated in English!”4

Portuguese captures the feeling of missing/longing/nostalgia/melancholy with the word “saudade.” Wanderlino Arruda, poet and blogger, writes, “Saudade is a pain that suffocates the heart and gratifies the soul. Saudade is the presence of the absent, the memory of the loved one, a sort of bittersweet, give and take arrangement of convenience with distance, a joyful, pleasant sorrow of the seen-unseen, of love, in the absence of the beloved.”5

A Hebrew speaker adds that English has no equivalent for Hebrew’s “davka,” which means (approximately) “to spite someone” (but with rich undertones of cultural nose-thumbing). English also lacks Hebrew’s “Lama, mi met?” which means, literally, “Why, who died?” but signifies, “I don’t think I need to do whatever you’ve asked, and I would only do it as a favor if someone TRULY important has died.”6

As one would expect, Dutch has developed many different waterway words. “Sloot,” “polder,” “kanaal,” “gracht,” “beek,” “rivier” allowing the Dutch to make fine distinctions between their many types of waterways.7

As a native English speaker I wait patiently for someone to coin the missing words I need. If you have created words to fill your particular linguistic requirement, let us know.

Contributing to this article:
1 Don Rogalski 2 Ivana Vuletic 3 Michael Kambas 4 Rosemary Nguyen 5 Walter Steckelberg-Constante 6 Dena Bugel-Shunra 7 Benno Groeneveld


About tembua

Tembua: The Precision Language Solution provides comprehensive linguistic services for 100 languages to private industry and government agencies on a global scale. Services include document and website translation and localization; conference and 24/7 telephonic interpretation; glossary development; proofreading, text adaptation, editing, multilingual design and DTP; transcription; technical / custom authoring editing, foreign search engine optimization; translation memory management; subtitling.
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