Foreign languages often find a better way to say it | Whale’s Tales

“Learn a new language and get a new soul.”

Not since I was 14 years old, I have been enthralled by languages.

Beyond the pleasure of the thing to a shy and retiring guy like me, for many years I could not explainwhat had hooked me.

That is, until I came across this quote from the 20th century Austrian philosopher Ludwig von Wittgenstein: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

So, I could then tell my skeptical friends and father that learning languages pushed back the frontiers of my world. In addition, I loved that foreign languages formed words and concepts in ways English didn’t.

So by learning German, the first language I took up, I could expand my vocabulary and, according to Wittgenstein’s statement, expand my world by adding the word “schadenfreude.”

English has 171,000 words that are still in use, while Japanese, for example, has closer to 700,000.

The number of Americans who speak a second language is reported to be among the lowest on the planet, at about 22 percent. From what I have seen, this seems to suggest a shortcoming that feeds ignorance, and ignorance feeds fear.

Our languages not only transport our individual ideas, but carry hints of the cultures that created them. Because languages evolve over millennia among groups with shared experiences, the words that make up a language come to reflect the group’s way of life.

Here are a few ideas for which there is no precise English equivalent, a contribution to giving us more ways to describe the indescribable in English.

“Tsundoku” in Japanese is the act of buying books and leaving them piled up unread. We don’t have a precise term for that.

In German, “fuchsteufelswild” means fox-devil wild, sort of a feral anger for which English also has no word.

The exact meaning of “fingerspitzengefuhl” is “fingertip feeling,” describing a sense of empathy so strong it is akin to being at the fingertips of another person

Russian gives us “toska,” a melancholic, undirected, and deep longing that comes upon us without a reason,

The novelist Vladimir Nabokov explained toska like this: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels, it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining …”

From Spanish comes “sobremesa.” In Spain, people linger at the table after eating to chat, drink coffee, and pass time.

Japanese, “kintsukoroi,” aka “kintsugi,” means “golden repair” of broken pottery. Then there’s “wabi-sabi,” the beauty in impermanence and imperfections. All is temporary, and nothing is perfect.

This is the heart of Japanese art of repairing broken things with gold lacquer. It reminds us that what makes things great isn’t merely external influence that things are beautiful as they are.

In Italian, “sprezzatura” describes an “effortless, nonchalant, leisurely masterfulness, . If you dress sprezzatura, you look phenomenal, but like you don’t care. It just comes naturally. You have successfully concealed all your effort. If your work has sprezzatura, it looks like effortless genius.

In Portuguese , “saudade” is a beautiful, bittersweet longing for something absent. It could be something you’ve loved and lost, or something that may not have even happened at all. With saudade, you get the sense that this thing you long for has passed, and may never happen again. There are so many tinges to saudade.

In the Tshiluba language of Central Africa, there’s “ilunga.” Here’s what linguist Christopher Moore, who wrote a whole book on intriguing words from around the globe, has to say about this word: “It describes a person who is ready to forgive any transgression a first time and then to tolerate it for a second time, but never for a third time.”

“Treppenwitz” (German): You know how you’re in a back-and-forth with someone and the other person has the upper hand, and then later you find the perfect witty response? That’s Treppenwitz,

“Fremdschämen” (German): It meanings embarrassed for someone else. It also has a two-word Spanish equivalent, “pena ajena.”

According to the writer Princely Glorious, “Ya’aburnee” (Levantine Arabic) means,“You bury me!” Sounds morbid, right? Used mostly in Lebanon and Syria, however, this is an over-the-top, romantic expression telling the other that you wouldn’t want to live without them. (Hatari sana, bobu! Ila acha fixi.)

My personal belief is that to thoroughly understand and master one’s own language, it’s necessary to delve into other languages. It’s like visiting a foreign country, and seeing your own for the first time for what it is. There is a lot of insight to be gained, and some cultural jingoism to be shed.

So, my suggestion, to borrow a phrase I once read somewhere, “Learn a new language and get a new soul.”

Robert Whale can be reached at