Have you ever had a feeling that you couldn’t quite describe, because you didn’t have a word for it? It’s an odd experience. Without a label, we might struggle to register the feeling at all. It may hover briefly at the hazy edges of our subjectivity, before fading into mist like a dream upon waking. Then, lacking a means of describing how we felt, we’re likely to struggle to understand or remember it, and certainly to discuss it with other people. For reasons like this did the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein suggest that the limits of our language define the boundaries of our world.
However, here’s a curious thing. Sometimes another language has coined a word for the feeling in question. These are known as “untranslatable” words.
Ok, the label “untranslatable” is a little contentious. Some linguists argue that no word is ever truly translatable into another language: words are embedded within complex networks of meanings, values and traditions that are specific to the culture that created the word. As a result, something always gets “lost in translation”.
On the other hand, others argue that no word is ever genuinely untranslatable, since something of its meaning can usually be communicated in a few words or sentences. Basically though, a word is labelled untranslatable if it doesn’t appear to have an “exact equivalent” in our own tongue.
Perhaps the most famous example is the German term Schadenfreude, for that malicious pleasure someone might feel at the misfortunes of an adversary. Such words are intriguing, for they point towards phenomena that haven’t been explicitly identified by our own language. However, as we’ve just seen, we may well be hazily familiar with the phenomenon in question, but just lacked our own word for it. This is what linguists call a “semantic gap”: we have an experience, but no word to represent it – there is a “gap” in our language.
But what then often happens is we latch on to the foreign word to fill that gap, as English speakers have with Schadenfreude. These “borrowed” words, as the terminology has it, thus become “loan words” in our own language. In fact, English – and most languages – is replete with loan words, which constitute as much as 40 per cent of its lexicon. In that way do languages, and the people who speak them, become enriched. By using these loan words to fill in our semantic gaps, we become empowered to give voice to experiences that might previously have remained unconceptualised and unexpressed.
We can use the power of untranslatable words to illuminate all aspects of life, including that most ineffable and elusive of goals … happiness. Goodness knows this could benefit from that kind of clarification. After all, we’re liable to use the label “happiness” in relation to a bewildering array of experiences, from the most trivial episodes of hedonic pleasure (indulging in a chocolate bar, say), to our most profound and redemptive moments (finding our soulmate, perhaps).
We may of course refine our descriptions of happiness using more precise labels, calling upon terms such as peace, calm and tranquillity for its more relaxed variants, and words like joy, euphoria and bliss for its more energised aspects. But even so, many life-affirming states of mind may well still slip through the semantic gaps of our language as we struggle to put them into words. This is why I began focusing on untranslatable words as a way of expanding the horizons of positive psychology, the field in which I work.
Expanding positive psychology
Positive psychology is a relatively new branch of academia that focuses on all aspects of happiness and wellbeing. It’s a fascinating field, for which I have much enthusiasm. But, like many areas of psychology, it suffers from various limitations. High among these is that it is relatively western-centric: although the field now attracts students and academics from across the world, it was initiated and first developed within the United States, followed soon after by Europe and Australasia.
These cultural roots have influenced the field’s conceptions of wellbeing. To give an example that is especially relevant here, its understanding of wellbeing is structured according to the contours of the English language. The ideas it focuses on – from hope to satisfaction – are generally those that happen to have been identified in English. It’s not that those ideas aren’t relevant to wellbeing, or aren’t experienced by people in non-English speaking cultures. It’s just that, as we’ve seen above, there may be other vital states of mind that aren’t represented in English. And if English is the main prism through which we understand and discuss wellbeing, then we miss out on these.
As a result, I decided to create a “lexicography” – that is, a compilation or dictionary – of untranslatable words relating to happiness.
The spark for the project came from a conversation with my mum (from whom I get most of my best ideas!). We were chatting about untranslatable words, when it occurred to me that it would be great to assemble a collection of these (focusing specifically on wellbeing, given my affiliation to positive psychology). So, for the past few years, that’s what I’ve been doing. I had a vision of a website where people could contribute suggestions from their own languages, in the spirit of a crowd-sourced work-in-progress. I needed to kick things off myself though, so I initially tracked down a few hundred words, and in 2016 published an analysis in the Journal of Positive Psychology. Meanwhile, I created a website (www.drtimlomas.com/lexicography) and soon people were indeed generously offering suggestions.
Now the list stands at nearly 1,000 words, which collectively chart the myriad dimensions of wellbeing – as I’ve outlined in my new book, The Happiness Dictionary. It focuses on 124 of the most interesting words, arranged into 11 thematic chapters. The first two focus on the feeling of happiness itself, covering contentment and pleasure. Then I look at relationships – arguably our main source of happiness – including love and sociality more broadly. Next, I consider the relevance of aesthetic appreciation and ambivalent states of mind. Finally, I investigate three well-worn pathways to happiness, all pertaining to personal development: understanding, spirituality, and character.
The result is a detailed “map” of happiness, which I hope may help readers expand their experiential horizons, enrich their emotional understanding, and maybe enable them to finally pin down those elusive feelings!
The Happiness Dictionary by Tim Lomas is published by Piatkus, on June 7th, £14.99