Trying to share how you feel with someone who speaks a different language can often be challenging and frustrating – especially when there’s a word in your mother tongue that perfectly encapsulates a feeling or situation, yet this word simply doesn’t exist in translation. You may think that a language as global and widely spoken as English would have an expression for every possible emotion or scenario, but interestingly there are many foreign words that have no English equivalent.
Let’s dive straight into the emotional side of things, with the Spanish word “cariño”. Used widely, it has several meanings that depend on context or tone of voice: it can mean “affection” when used as an abstract noun and as a concrete noun it means “a kiss”, “a cuddle”, or “a hug”. But that’s not all, this fantastically multifunctional word is also a verb, meaning “to be fond of something”, and is commonly used as a term of endearment, equivalent to “honey” or “darling” in English, too. There are similar words in the English language – like the Americanism “cute”, that can mean everything from “adorable” to “good looking”, but none come close to the elegance and expressiveness of “cariño”.
The example above is just one of many causing people to bemoan the limitations of the English language. The Dutch word “gezellig” is another candidate for the “word wish list”– it can refer to a situation, to a person or to surroundings and has no real equivalent in English. It’s often translated as “nice”, but we all know what a generic word this is in English and it doesn’t come close to sparking the same associations as the Dutch word. This makes it something of an untranslatable word that English can never do justice to, but is it not better that every language retains a certain degree of enigma? After all, we don’t need any more over-used additions to the English language, like the word “über” that all too few people recognize as the German word it is.
Aside from words that will always remain a mystery to non-native speakers, there are also those which are culturally defunct. The Spanish the word “sobremesa”, for example, refers to the period after lunch. In Spain, it is typical to enjoy a big lunch with family or friends, and stay chatting afterwards – the absence of anything similar in English-speaking countries negates the need for a word to describe it.
Looking beyond the borders of Europe, you still find words that many English speakers wish they had – the Hebrew word נו (pronounced “noo”), is a good example. It is used to add urgency to a situation, when someone isn’t doing something quickly enough. The equivalent in English is something like “get on with it already!” or “come on!”. Unlike the Hebrew, both of these examples rely on tone of voice to fully convey their meaning. However, it is worth mentioning that at least one English dialect has adapted to accommodate this absence of a single word implying the need for urgency or speed – the Geordie expression “haway” is used to mean exactly this. This speaks in favour of the richness of the English language – especially the way in which it is spoken in different regions of the UK.
The diversity of regional dialects means that even within the UK, there are some words we would like to adopt from other parts of the country. “Tartle” is one popular example – this word is used by Scottish people to describe the embarrassing hesitation you make before introducing someone whose name you’ve forgotten. It’s happened to all of us at some point, and is one of life’s awkward, but unavoidable issues – so why not take the Scottish approach, face facts, and give it a name!
The list of “words we wish we had” is virtually inexhaustible, but we shouldn’t see this as an indication of the shortcomings of the English language, rather a reason to embrace the expressive possibilities of language. Just because a word doesn’t have a direct translation, this doesn’t mean that we can’t understand it and much less that it cannot be translated. English may never feature the “words we wish we had”, but this is all the more reason to get creative and find new, and even better, solutions for these idiosyncrasies of language. What do you think? Which words do you “miss” when speaking English?