“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” Ludwig Wittgenstein
Have you ever come across a word in your language that doesn’t seem to have a direct translation in the others? Thanks to the Internet, it’s possible to find hundreds of them and it’s very interesting and entertaining to browse through them.
I had the chance to delve deeper into this mind-blowing topic when I was writing my final dissertation for my bachelor degree. It focused on the relation between language and thought.
More and more studies stress the interdependence between these two dimensions in the sense that the language we speak evolves under the influence of our context and environment, as well as our way of thinking is shaped, to some extent, by the language(s) we speak.
Working on my thesis, I came across Tim Lomas’ work .
This English psychologist at the University of East London created a sort of emotional dictionary, entitled Positive Lexicography Project. This collects hundreds of words from different languages that don’t have a direct equivalent in the other languages. All of them describe positive (including bittersweet) emotions that are clearly defined by one language but are somehow neglected by the others.
Becoming familiar with these terms, according to Lomas, and including them in our experience help us living a richer and more meaningful life. But let’s see some examples:
- Samar (Arabic): an intimate conversation between two lovers at night. One tells something to the other (a secret, an anecdote, a memory) and the other tells something in turn. It’s a magical moment, suspended in time, that makes them feel deeply connected and understood, thus reinforcing their bond.
- Saudades (Portuguese): the nostalgic feeling for a person, a place or a situation, which are far away either in time or space. The longing for the sake of the longing. This feeling is embodied in the attraction toward the horizon of a people of sailors and travellers. It’s more than nostalgia: it’s deep sadness, but also tension and desire for finding that fullness that was once lost.
- Abbiocco (Italian): the feeling of fullness after a big meal in company. It’s a mixture of satisfaction and fatigue, but overall it conveys the positive sensation of having enjoyed the meal and company and being able to take one’s time to digest, maybe laying on the sofa together with the others.
- Retrouvailles (French): litt. “rediscovery”; a reunion (e.g. with loved ones after a long time apart).
- Livsnjutare (Swedish): living and loving everyday’s life deeply and enjoying it to the fullest.
- Amae (Japanese): Maybe after a long day, where everything went wrong, the impulse and desire to find comfort in the arms of a person we love and trust, seeking for peace and feeling totally safe. The word is also related to what children do: they get what they want by playing with their sweet and tender look and adults can’t resist.
But why are these untranslatable emotions so important? Because they help us better understand and incorporate in our daily lives a deeper and wider range of feelings. This is called emotional granularity: the ability to clearly distinguish emotional states even if they’re quite similar (e.g. sad and melancholic).
People who know how to separate and recognize these different feelings are more likely to better react to what happens in their life, especially to bad situations. Being more aware of how we live and react to situations helps us to cope with difficulties, by adopting the most suitable solutions.
“The more granular our experience of emotion is, the more capable we are to make sense of our inner lives”Marc Brackett at Yale University
All of this fascinates me and I always try to share it with the people I meet. Recently, a good friend of mine from England confessed me that since I had taught him the word “abbiocco”, he had been feeling it “on his skin” more and more clearly. And this brought a big smile to my face.
P.S. I want to thank Benedetta for helping me to recuperate some of the most beautiful untranslatable words, some of which she has also tattooed on her body.