Thursday, January 17, 2013

Make that 13 wonderful words with no English equivalent

Found via Boing Boing this wonderful article about 14 wonderful words with no English equivalent.  Most of them are wonderful.  Most of them have no English equivalent (I have to assume, given that my Tagalog etc are terrible).  I feel tartle pretty often, so I'm glad to know the Scots know what I'm going through.

But I'm kind of held up on the Japanese contribution on #9: Koi no Yokan (恋の予感).  To quote the article, this is "The sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall in love."  Wonderful.  How wonderful that Japan has a word for that and English doesn't.

But I'm held up on this because, "yokan" itself is a word.  It means something like "premonition".  And "koi" is a word, too.  It's often used to mean "love".  Then there's the "no" that connects them, which is a fucking particle marking genitive case.  It is something you put between words to make it clear how those words are supposed to work together within the phrase you are probably in the process of making.

So this "word", quite literally, means "love's premonition", or a bit more gracefully "premonition of love".  The problem is that it's composed of three distinct morphemes hung together syntactically to mean some shit.  Does that a make a word, or does that make it a phrase?

Also, does English really not have a phrase that does the same job as koi no yokan?  We don't know about "love at first sight"?  Look, if you hyphenate it "love-at-first-sight" you can even pretend it's a word.



Caleb said...

6. Pålegg (Norweigian)
Sandwich Artists unite! The Norwegians have a non-specific descriptor for anything — ham, cheese, jam, Nutella, mustard, herring, pickles, Doritos, you name it — you might consider putting into a sandwich.

I propose fixings.

_J_ said...

Your problem with the list is similar to a problem I have with these lists. English may lack a particular word, but one can cobble together a string of English words to express the same notion. So, why does it matter?

I'll grant that linguistic structure tends to skew one's perception of reality. But that has more to do with the structure of the language, itself, rather than the particular words in the language.

This article on Josua Foer goes into it, a bit. Expressing a notion in 3 words or 18 words isn't quite as significant as shit like this:

"For example, the Australian Aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t use egocentric coördinates like “left,” “right,” “in front of,” or “behind.” Instead, speakers use only the cardinal directions. They don’t have left and right legs but north and south legs, which become east and west legs upon turning ninety degrees."

It's not that they have to use more words to say "left" or "right". Rather, they don't have that notion at all.

MA17 said...

I like fixings for this role. Probably fails the "only for sandwiches" test that Pålegg seems to imply, but it does definitely capture the apparent intent.

My complaint on koi no yokan is that this list seems to think that Japanese has a word that means "premonition of love", but it actually has a phrase that means "premonition of love" (as does English).

Also, I agree that it is far more interesting to see languages reflect radically different worldviews than it is to see them uniquely condense a single concept into a single word. However, I have to acknowledge that it is still kind of interesting to see languages doing that condensation, too. On the one hand, it makes it seem like some languages (and by extension, cultures), have different priorities on what they want to express without needing to explain. On the other hand, I have to question how real that "importance" is and then start to question certain things in English. Does the fact that English speakers use "foregone conclusion" all the time mean that we think that phrase is important, or is it just some popular Shakespearean-ism we can't seem to get rid of?

Last thing, that article linked is awesome. However, it seems to me that any invented language that falls into common use would absolutely undergo the same kinds of shifts that natural languages experience. Wouldn't even the most logical, pragmatically designed language eventually show those signs of wear that makes "bad" mean "good", "gay" mean "homosexual", and "wife" mean "married woman" as the generations pass? Wouldn't that invented language at some point drive certain people to invent a new language that fixes those problems?