20 Untranslatable Words from Around the World
Language is a treasure trove of unique expressions, each word carrying the essence of its culture and people. From the joy of Schadenfreude to the longing of saudade, these untranslatable words remind us of the delightful differences between cultures.
Indeed, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say language captures the essence of mind. But the beautiful tapestry, woven with unique words also capture the essence of cultures and experiences. As we journey across the globe, we stumble upon words that tickle our imagination, words that are so rich and vivid that they cannot be directly translated into English. In this light-hearted article, we explore 20 Untranslatable Words from different languages that defy translation, leaving us enchanted and amused.
Ever felt a hint of joy at someone else’s misfortune? That’s Schadenfreude – the pleasure derived from another’s pain. It’s not that we’re cruel; it’s just human nature! I’m sure you’ve heard of karma.
Originating from German, “Schadenfreude” combines “schaden” (harm) and “freude” (joy). It represents the complex emotion of finding pleasure in someone else’s misfortune.
While not a virtue, this word reflects the shared human experience of finding some relief or satisfaction when we see someone we perceive as arrogant or unjust facing setbacks.
Imagine gently running your fingers through a loved one’s hair, conveying affection and tenderness with a single gesture. That’s cafuné – a warm expression of love.
Derived from Portuguese, “Cafuné” encapsulates a tender and loving act of running one’s fingers gently through a loved one’s hair. In Brazilian culture, it symbolizes an intimate gesture, often associated with feelings of comfort and affection.
I like to speculate that this came from our love of coffee. I know I speak for the majority of Brazilians when I say our love of coffee is real. Because let’s take the word breakfast, in Brazil we say ‘café da manha’ which translates to morning coffee. Unlike in Portugal that despite claiming to speak the same language as us say ‘pequeno-almoço’ or ‘little lunch’. Which is closer in meaning to France’s ‘petit-déjeuner’.
Hanyauku (Rukwangali, Namibia)
The act of walking on tiptoes across warm sand, as you struggle to find your footing. It’s the perfect blend of adventure and grace.
In the Rukwangali language spoken in Namibia, “Hanyauku” represents the act of walking on tiptoes across warm sand. This word evokes the image of joyful playfulness and the touch of the earth beneath one’s feet. A unique experience found in the Namibian landscape.
Ever had that awkward moment when you forget someone’s name just before introducing them? That’s a tartle, and we’ve all been there!
A whimsical word from Scottish, “Tartle” describes a faux pas. Basically, when you hesitate or forget someone’s name just before introducing them. This charming term highlights a relatable and sometimes humorous social situation.
When you see something irresistibly cute, like a fluffy puppy or a chubby baby, and you can’t help but pinch its cheeks. That’s gigil – the overwhelming desire to squeeze something adorable.
In Filipino culture, “Gigil” captures the overwhelming urge to squeeze or pinch something incredibly cute or adorable. It reflects the Filipino appreciation for cuteness and the affectionate response triggered by heartwarming sights.
Ever found yourself anxiously waiting for someone, constantly checking the window to see if they’ve arrived? That’s iktsuarpok – the feeling of anticipation and restlessness.
Originating from the Inuit language, “Iktsuarpok” represents the feeling of restlessness and anticipation when waiting for someone to arrive. Inuit culture, deeply connected to nature, appreciates the nuances of waiting and the underlying emotions it brings.
The concept of moderation and balance is beautifully encapsulated in lagom – not too much, not too little, just the right amount.
“Lagom” is a Swedish word embodying the idea of moderation and balance. Rooted in Swedish culture, it encourages a lifestyle that seeks harmony and contentment by avoiding excesses and embracing simplicity.
Related: English through the ages
The enchanting interplay of light and shadow through the leaves of trees on a sunny day is captured in the word komorebi, celebrating nature’s artistry.
A poetic word in Japanese, “Komorebi” captures the mesmerizing interplay of sunlight filtering through leaves or trees. It reflects the Japanese appreciation for the beauty of nature and the ephemeral moments that arise from it.
Mamihlapinatapai (Yagan, Tierra del Fuego)
Ever shared a moment of unspoken understanding with someone, where neither of you takes the first step? That’s mamihlapinatapai – a silent and meaningful exchange.
Unique to the Yagan language of Tierra del Fuego, “Mamihlapinatapai” describes a meaningful and profound moment of shared understanding between two individuals. It reflects the indigenous culture’s emphasis on the significance of unspoken connections.
Tingo (Pascuense, Easter Island)
The act of slowly borrowing items from a friend’s house, one at a time, is delightfully represented by tingo. But don’t worry, you’ll give them back!
From the Pascuense language spoken on Easter Island, “Tingo” humorously captures the act of slowly borrowing objects from a friend’s house, one at a time, without them noticing. It reflects a playful cultural attitude towards sharing and borrowing.
Have you ever felt that serene sense of solitude and oneness with nature when wandering through a forest? That’s waldeinsamkeit – finding peace in the woods.
Derived from German, “Waldeinsamkeit” combines “wald” (forest) and “einsamkeit” (solitude). This word captures the profound sense of peace and unity with nature that one experiences while wandering through a tranquil forest. Rooted in German Romanticism, “Waldeinsamkeit” is a concept cherished by poets and philosophers, reflecting their deep connection with nature and the spiritual serenity it offers.
You know that person with a face that just begs to be slapped? That’s a backpfeifengesicht – a face that deserves a good punch.
In German, “Backpfeifengesicht” combines “backpfeife” (slap) and “gesicht” (face). This intriguing word humorously conveys the desire to give someone a good punch due to their annoying or insufferable facial expression. While not promoting violence, it reflects a cultural acknowledgement of certain faces being more punchable than others in a lighthearted manner.
German’s abundance of unique and hard-to-translate words stems from its complex grammatical structure and its penchant for creating compound words. The German language often combines smaller words to create new, context-specific terms, resulting in a lexicon that is particularly rich and diverse. Additionally, Germany’s history of cultural and intellectual contributions, including influential philosophers, writers, and artists, has led to the creation of specialized vocabulary to express intricate concepts and emotions.
These uniquely crafted words provide a level of precision and specificity that may not exist in other languages, making German a linguistic marvel with a wealth of untranslatable terms. Each language has its own unique set of rules and patterns for creating words, and this is where the morphology of different languages can differentiate from English.
The feeling of anticipation and restlessness when you’re waiting for someone is beautifully captured in iktsuarpok.
From the Inuit language, “Iktsuarpok” embodies the feeling of restlessness and anticipation while waiting for someone. In the context of Inuit culture, where weather conditions and isolation are significant factors, this word represents the emotional sensitivity and attentiveness towards others’ arrival.
Yūgen is the profound and mysterious beauty of the universe that evokes a sense of awe and appreciation. It’s that feeling when you witness a breathtaking sunset or gaze at the starry night sky.
“Yūgen” is a profound concept from Japanese aesthetics, representing the mysterious beauty of the universe that evokes a sense of awe and appreciation. Rooted in traditional Japanese art and poetry, “Yūgen” encourages a contemplative appreciation of subtle and enigmatic beauty, such as the mesmerizing qualities of a sunset or the vastness of the starry night sky.
L’esprit de l’escalier (French)
Ever come up with the perfect witty response long after a conversation has ended? That’s l’esprit de l’escalier – the staircase wit.
From French, “L’esprit de l’escalier” translates to “staircase wit.” It describes the experience of coming up with the perfect witty response long after a conversation has ended, particularly when leaving the scene, like walking down the stairs. In French culture, it is seen as a clever way of expressing missed opportunities in wit and conversation.
Ubuntu (Nguni Bantu)
Ubuntu embodies the spirit of humanity, kindness, and interconnectedness. It’s the belief that “I am because we are.”
“Ubuntu” is an essential Nguni Bantu philosophy emphasizing humanity, compassion, and interconnectedness. It is often translated as “I am because we are,” signifying the interconnected nature of all individuals and their inherent responsibility towards one another. Ubuntu fosters a sense of community, empathy, and mutual support.
When someone tells a joke that’s so bad, it’s actually funny, that’s a jayus – a laughable punchline that brings more groans than laughs.
Derived from Indonesian, “Jayus” describes a joke or punchline that is so bad it becomes funny, resulting in more laughter from the awkwardness than the actual humor. This cultural appreciation for humorous misfires highlights the Indonesian penchant for finding joy in laughter, even when the jokes fall flat.
Pana Po’o (Hawaiian)
Ever scratch your head to try and remember something, as if it’ll magically pop into your mind? That’s pana po’o – the act of scratching one’s head in deep thought.
In Hawaiian culture, “Pana Po’o” refers to the act of scratching one’s head in deep thought while trying to remember something. This word reflects the Hawaiian people’s reverence for introspection and contemplation, which are valued traits in their quest for wisdom and understanding.
The act of taking a break from work to enjoy a cup of coffee and a treat with friends is beautifully summarized in tretar.
From Swedish, “Tretar” describes the delightful act of taking a break from work to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea with friends. This term captures the Swedish emphasis on the joy of socializing, relaxation, and the appreciation of everyday pleasures.
A bittersweet feeling of nostalgia and longing for something or someone that is lost, saudade is a deep emotion that encompasses both joy and sadness.
Deeply rooted in Portuguese culture, “Saudade” represents a complex emotion that encompasses both joy and sadness. It conveys the bittersweet longing and nostalgia for something or someone absent, evoking cherished memories and a sense of irreplaceable loss. “Saudade” is often associated with Portugal’s rich history of exploration and its influence on diverse cultures.
Finally, let’s embrace the diversity of languages and let these charming words give you glimpse to new realms of human psyche.