English Is Surprisingly Devoid Of Emotionally Positive Words

English Is Surprisingly Devoid Of Emotionally Positive Words

While investigating non-English words associated with positive emotions and concepts, a British researcher recently discovered 216 foreign words for which there is no English translation.

There’s an ongoing debate among scientists about language and its connection to conscious experience. Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett has said that language “infects and inflects our thought at every level”, arguing that a significant portion of our perception of the world is influenced by the words at our disposal. Many psychologists, on the other hand, have a hard time believing that humans aren’t capable of grasping a concept or feeling an emotion just because there’s no word for it. But as University of East London psychologist Tim Lomas points out in his new study, expanded vocabularies have the potential to “enrich [our] experiences of well-being”.

Over the course of his research, now published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, Lomas managed to uncover an astounding 216 psychologically positive “untranslatable words” — words that have no English equivalent. Lomas did this because he wanted to see how other cultures verbalise positive emotional concepts, and more ambitiously, he’s hoping these words will enrich the emotional well-being of English speakers.

Lomas organised the words into three categories. Here are some examples:

Words relating to feelings:

  • Gula: Spanish for the desire to eat simply for the taste
  • Sobremesa: Spanish for when the food has finished but the conversation is still flowing
  • Mbukimvuki: Bantu for “to shuck of one’s clothes in order to dance”
  • Schnapsidee: German for coming up with an ingenious plan when drunk
  • Volta: Greek for leisurely strolling the streets

Words relating to relationships:

  • Nakama: Japanese for friends who one considers like family
  • Kanyininpa: Aboriginal Pintupi for a relationship between holder and held, akin to the deep nurturing feelings experienced by a parent for their child
  • Gigil: Philippine Tagalog for the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because you love them so much
  • Kilig: Tagalog for the butterflies in the stomach you get when interacting with someone you find attractive
  • Sarang: Korean for when you wish to be with someone until death

Words relating to character:

  • Sitzfleisch: German for the ability to persevere through hard or boring tasks (literally “sit meat”)
  • Baraka: Arabic for a gift of spiritual energy that can be passed from one person to another
  • Jugaad: Hindi for the ability to get by or make do
  • Desenrascanco: Portuguese for the ability to artfully disentangle oneself from a troublesome situation
  • Sprezzatura: Italian for when all art and effort are concealed beneath a “studied carelessness”

You can find many more examples at BPS Digest. Lomas admits that his 216 words are just a drop in the bucket; he’s still updating his list, which is available online, and is welcoming suggestions from the public.

Of course, a good companion study to this one would be a compilation of negative words with no English translation. That way we’d truly know if English is as neurotic a language as it appears to be.

[The Journal of Positive Psychology via BPS Research Digest]

Top image: Bojack Horseman