The English language may be one of the richest in the world. It draws on its unique combination of a Germanic heritage and strong Romance influences to offer speakers a broad range of nuances when expressing themselves. Just consider the difference between a ‘hearty welcome’ and a ‘cordial reception’ to see where the possibilities lie.
Yet, as English continues to rise as the world’s de facto lingua franca, it’s important to also remember its limitations. Languages encapsulate culture. They are an embodiment of the way in which a particular group of people has agreed to communicate. As a result, they reflect those people’s experiences of the world through the idioms and expressions that become common parlance.
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Learning other languages offers insights into the way that other cultures see the world. For someone like myself, gaining those insights can become addictive, and that fixation has led me to study 15 different languages. My recent book, 'From Amourette to Żal: Bizarre and Beautiful Words from Around Europe', explores some of the words that other languages have, but that English doesn’t. The following 10 words, for example, describe character traits and behaviours that may be familiar to us all, but that the English language struggles to succinctly express.
1. Sortable / Insortable [adjective] – French
There are certain people in your life, such as friends or relatives, who you would rather meet up with at home than in public. Maybe it’s just that every time you go out with them for a meal they end up causing some kind of scene like striking up conversation with the couple in the corner who just want to be left alone, arguing with the waiters, or asking you about your personal life in a very loud voice around others. The French language describes those people as insortable, which means ‘un-take-out-able’.
However, those people that you would like to be seen in public with and that don’t manage to humiliate you so badly, are the opposite of insortable. They are sortable, or ‘take-out-able’, because you want to parade around with them everywhere.
2. Polgárpukkasztás [noun] – Hungarian
One thing that may make somebody sortable or insortable, depending on your viewpoint, is this character trait captured perfectly by the Hungarian word polgárpukkasztás. This refers to when people like to do things that really shock people. For example, when Lady Gaga turned up at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards dressed entirely in raw beef.
It’s possible to be polgárpukkasztás without being a world famous celebrity, of course. Any individual actions that shock ordinary, middle-class people who are just looking for a quiet life, count. The Hungarian word means ‘citizen-explode’, and is derived from the rallying cry of the French decadent poets of the late 19th Century to épater la bourgeoisie, or ‘shock the bourgeoisie’.
3. Γρουσούζης (groosoozis) [noun] – Greek
It doesn’t matter what they do. For some reason, some people just seem to bring bad luck. They’re the kind of people whose toast always lands buttered side down. They’re the kind of people whose phones miraculously die, even though just a second ago it said they had 51% battery left. Whatever they touch seems to break instantly, and worst of all, there’s practically nothing they can do about it.
The Greek language doesn’t try in vain to rationalise this predicament any more than it should be. Instead, it simply places those who find themselves in it into a category of their own. A γρουσούζης (groosoozis) is not just someone who is a bit unlucky sometimes, but someone who is a magnet for misfortune.
4. Mimoso [adjective] – Spanish
Meeting people for the first time in British culture can often be a moment for some awkwardness. As there is no universally established norm for how to greet somebody you don’t know, you are forced to assess each person on a case by case basis and make a judgement as to whether or not they’d prefer a handshake, a kiss on the cheek, a bear hug, or just a stilted wave.
We may deduce from this that we have an awkward relationship with physical contact in the UK. Personal space has differing degrees of importance to different people. However, within that spectrum there are those who love giving and receiving hugs, offering supportive pats on the back and express their affection for you by literally reaching out. The Spanish word mimoso perfectly captures those people who are constantly physically in touch with those around them.
5. Pantofolaio [noun] – Italian
Some people may enjoy leaping out of bed at the crack of dawn, putting on their running shoes and kicking off their day of spectacular productivity with a pre-work workout. For others, though, their day may never quite reach these heights of activity. Instead they might choose to roll out of bed at a more leisurely hour. And then, once they’re up and about, the only type of footwear they would ever choose to don would be a pair of comfortable slippers, which they’ll happily walk around their home in all day, before they take them off again to go back to bed.
Those people who are so lazy that they just spend all day lounging about in their slippers are known as pantofolaio, which essentially means a ‘slippers-person’.
6. Ochtendhumeur [noun] – Dutch
The idea of getting to work every day at 9:00 and launching straight into meetings with overwhelming enthusiasm may not appeal to everyone. For some people, even though they may physically be present much earlier, the day only really starts around lunchtime. Before then, you may want to avoid approaching them or aggravating them too much, because simply they are not in the mood.
That foul mood is known in Dutch as ochtendhumeur, or ‘morning humour’. So next time you see someone looking grumpy as they sip a cup of coffee in the early hours, don’t mistake them for being an inherently hostile or unapproachable person. It’s probably just that they’ve got ochtendhumeur and the moment the clocks strike noon their spirits will begin to lift.
7. Почемучка (pachemuchka) [noun] – Russian
Some people are happy to take life as it is served to them. Others can be slightly more inquisitive, and may instead choose to question everything. Why is the sky blue? Why are there stars in the sky? Why are there only 24 hours in a day? Why do we drive on the left? No matter what you tell them, they are just inclined to constantly ask questions until their insatiable curiosity has been satisfied.
In Russian those people who just won’t stop asking “why?” are called почемучка (pachemuchka), which is extremely hard to translate into English. The word почему means ‘why’, and the -чка ending is an affectionate way to describe someone. It can roughly be explained as ‘little-why-people’.
8. Aktivansteher [noun] – German
In the UK, the art of queuing up tends to be seen as one of those national traits that are as quintessentially British as putting milk in your tea. We pride ourselves on the nobility, civility and patience of awaiting your turn. In reality, though, there is a hidden art to getting through a queue, far more quickly than others.
That person who is able to examine a queue and then quickly spot which line is moving faster than the others, and miraculously manages to find themselves ahead of those they started behind, has got a special name in German: an aktivansteher. This means an ‘active queuer’, which is another way of saying that when it comes to queuing, they are a pro.
9. Menefreghista [noun / adjective] – Italian
Some people just don’t seem to care about other people, other people’s problems, or really anything in particular. Nothing gets their blood flowing at all. They seem almost incapable of feeling emotions about things.
Italian has a special word reserved for those people and that attitude: menefreghista. It comes from the expression non me ne frega niente, which means ‘I don’t care about that at all’. The word menefreghista, therefore, means something like an ‘I-don’t-care-ist’.
Things that fall into the category of menefreghismo are people being overly arrogant about something, complacency, indifference, and any act that you can imagine was sparked by somebody at some point saying non me ne frega niente. Of course, governments and their policies can also be accused of being menefreghista.
10. Milozvučan [adjective] – Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian
Sing-alongs in the car are a great time to get to know your friends a bit better. You can all have a good laugh at your dire singing abilities and the fact that none of you really know the words. However, what if it emerges that one of your friends has been sitting on a hidden talent? While the rest of you whine away like stray cats, when that one friend opens their mouth and starts singing it sounds like the music of angels. What would you call that?
In the languages spoken in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, there is a special word for those that are gifted with a beautiful singing voice. They are called milozvučan, which literally means ‘sweetly-sounding’.
Alex Rawlings is a polyglot and writer, who in 2012 was named Britain’s Most Multilingual Student after being tested for fluency in 11 languages. His most recent book is From Amourette to Żal: Bizarre and Beautiful Words from Around Europe.
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