David Shariatmadari, theguardian.com. We’d all like to believe in untranslatable words. It’s such a romantic thought: that there exist out there, like undiscovered desert islands, ideas we have never even conceived of. Carefully guarded by foreigners they have endured down the centuries, nuggets of culture overlooked by the rest of the world. There are a fair few linguistic and non-linguistic assumptions bound up in this romance, most of which are decidedly dodgy. For example, the idea that any aspect of human experience could be inaccessible to you just because you speak the wrong language. Or that if a language doesn’t have a single word for a concept (that’s before we’ve even defined exactly what a “word” is), there can be no way to express it. Then there’s the notion that words are a reliable key to the culture that uses them. Drunken ones might have lots of ways to describe intoxication. Religious ones might have a rich vocabulary for mystical states, and so on.

Then there are the often-cited examples themselves. They’re nearly all ridiculous, when you look at them closely.


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