Most of us are aware of the Eskimo controversy. That is, the claim that Eskimos have 100 different words for snow. About a century ago, Franz Boas stated that there are a large number of "Eskimo" words meaning snow. Of course, there is no such thing as "Eskimo language," but rather a large number of languages and dialects spoken in the most northern regions of the globe. It did not take long for the debunkers to start debunking. This, they claimed, is a myth, a fable, it is nothing less than cultural imperialism.
Yet, Igor Krupnik, from the Smithsonian Artic Studies Center, recently charted approximately 10 different dialects from the Northern regions. The Central Siberian Yupik language has 40 words for snow, while one of the Inuit dialects has over 50, including "pukka," which means that very very fine shiny snow that looks like an enormous bag of table salt has exploded all over the world. And the researchers found that there are even more words for ice. And approximately 1,000 words for reindeer.
In Tamil, there is more than one word for elephant. Hardly surprising. One, "yaanai," derives from the word for big, while another, "kari," comes from the root for black. One researcher has claimed that Tamil has over thirty words for elephant.
Language must, by its very nature, reflect the way a people thinks. If there is a need for an expression, then people would be able to express it. If this need is constantly to the fore in their lives, then the expression becomes more and more economic - i.e., pared down to one or two words.
There are wonderful online collections of words that exist in one language but do not exist in others. I will not bore the reader with schadenfreude, as this has become universally acknowledged to be a particularly Germanic word and trait.
There are others:
I think one of the best, and one that both Turkish and English need is "l'esprit de l'escalier." The idea of staircase wit - the retort you think of after the conversation has finished, or as you are dozing off to sleep... The retort that would have won you that argument, but hey, it came just too late. The "I wish I had said..." sentence wrapped up in one tidy phrase.
In Chinese there is an expression which has a close match in Turkish. This is "chiku" - to eat bitter, or as they say in Turkish "ayva yemiş" (literally he/she ate the quince). In Chinese it means to endure extreme hardship. In Turkish it means you asked for trouble and you got it (sometimes you don't even have to ask), or as we say in English "to be snookered."
The Indonesians have a lovely word - "mencolek." This word means tapping someone on the left shoulder when you are standing behind them on the right. They spin to the left and can't see you, and then you say "HI!" making them jump. Mencolek.
I absolutely love some of the German words. They are words that we really should have phrases for in English and/or Turkish. For example, "deppen fahrer beaugung." This means "eyeballing an idiot driver". That is, the unbearable urge after overtaking to turn around and GLARE at a really bad driver. There is one more, "baggerspion" - the desire to look through any gap in the protective walls around building sites and see what is going on. I don't know about you, but I certainly love to "baggerspion."
The Russians are a deep and soulful people. One of the top words on all of the "interesting words from other languages list" is one of my all-time favorite Russian words. "Tocka." Pronounced "taska", this is a deep spiritual longing, or anguish - and usually for no good reason. Taska is a "soul-ache," it is restlessness, it is ennui, it is the feeling we all get, particularly in the dark days of winter. Perhaps this is why the Russians have such words. Indeed, the Russians were not content with a mere word. Many of their novels are centered on taska. But to be fair, I believe the Swedes have a similar expression. It is likely that the Finns also have such an expression. If you ask me, people living in countries with limited sunlight in the winter are more likely to experience taska.Then there is the Russian "perepodvypodvert'." After having spent a year living in the Soviet Union, I can say that this word was essential in that society. "Perepodvypodvert" means doing something in an overly complex or totally incomprehensible way. It would be interesting to know if this word is still essential in daily communication in Russia today.
And then we must look at Turkish. I have always loved the large number of words for relatives, by marriage, by marriage of a married relative to someone else, or by some other distant and obscure tie. There is a distinction between maternal aunt and paternal aunt, maternal grandmother and paternal grandmother. These distinctions matter hugely in Turkish society. A "teyze" (maternal aunt) cannot be the same as a "hala" (paternal aunt), no "dayı"(maternal uncle) is the same as an "amca" (paternal uncle) In Turkey it matters to whom you belong, to which side of the family you come from. It is probably for this reason that there is no clumsy approach like the English of maternal/paternal or in-law.
The Russians have words that speak of ennui, of despair, of the soul, of unnecessary complexity. The Inuit have a plethora of words for snow and reindeer. The Turks revel in relatives. Well, the English are not to be outdone.
The English language is one of the few that actually needs a thesaurus. Whenever I have to explain to new English learners, or to people who do not know English what a thesaurus is, I am met by blank uncomprehending stares. Why do you need a book to tell you words that mean the same as the word you are thinking of? Why don't you just use the word you are thinking of? Isn't this a prime example of perepodvypodvert'?
For the English, no. We are proud of the richness of our language, and hate to repeat ourselves. Moreover, different synonyms have different nuances, and these nuances matter.
However, the nuances that exist in the wealth of synonyms in English are not necessarily the product of a need to express such a nuance. Rather, these subtle differences probably arose over time due to the wealth of words, a direct result of the fact that English has Germanic roots (Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse), as well as a large number of Romance Language imports (Latin and French), not to mention Greek.
The group of synonyms that the English use the most are the words which mean to complain. The thesaurus I referred to listed over 50. Over 50 words that mean to complain. Moan, groan, whine, bellyache, carp, disapprove... I could go on. But I won't. You might start to lament that this article is getting boring.
The British are experts at complaining. Most of these synonyms are not used by Americans. I don't know about Australians, or Canadians. But Americans usually just say complain and be done with it. If Americans see a problem with something, they telephone an expert, get him/her out and have it fixed. If the British encounter a problem, they will grouse, grumble and gripe about it. It becomes the centerpiece of their conversation. They revel in their misery. It is the British way. The Russians wallow in "taska," the Germans revel in the misery of others, the Eskimos wonder over the different textures of snow, and the Tamils take great pleasure in describing an elephant. And the British...they glory in having something to beef about. My Turkish relatives and friends find my rants unsettling. Little do they realize that grumbling is like breathing, or like a cup of tea - without a good moan, the day just doesn't go right.
Researchers have discovered that the British complain on average 11 times a day (a higher rate is achieved on weekends - more time to reflect I guess). The average Brit complains three times before they even leave the house!
So, languages reflect the differences in a particular society. But is there one word that exists in every language? Many languages share words, but there are many that do not fit into these patterns.
Apparently there is one word that stretches across cultures. After studying 31 different languages linguists Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira, and Nick Enfield found that one word all languages have in common is something that sounds like and functions like "Huh?"
Huh is always used when the listener needs clarification from the speaker. Perhaps they were engrossed in another task, and did not hear the speaker. Perhaps they just simply didn't understand the speaker. But HUH? is universal.
Another entertaining aspect of all language differences is the game of "this word does not exist in this language." This does not mean that the concept encapsulated by the word does not exist. It will exist. But it is probably not one that is used very often. The more often a concept is used, the more the people that speak that language will need that word and the more efficient it will become.
Many languages overcome this problem by adopting words from another language. The almost universal television, radio, microphone and selfie are all examples of this. The locals try to come up with a local term, but the foreign word tends to stick.
For example, privacy, with all its nuances in English. This word is not simply an isolated room, or protection from peering eyes, but rather something more sacrosanct. This word does not exist in Russian. I would argue that any translation for it into Turkish would fall short of the depth of this English word.
Another word that does not exist in Russian, nor in Turkish, is a word for efficiency. This is a predominantly northern European concept. Turkish (and Russian) have words for effectiveness, but not one that combines effectiveness with brevity of time and energy expended. The idea of efficiency - the greatest effort with the least amount of energy in the quickest amount of time - is something that is very hard to express in these languages.
That is not to say that efficiency does not exist in Turkey or in Russia. It does. But it is not a priority. For Turks, the process itself, rather than the amount of time spent on it, is more important. Take meetings for example. In Turkey, the most important thing about a meeting is not starting and finishing on time. Nor is it getting as much work done as possible during that time. The priority is in sharing ideas, inspiring new ideas, and trying to solve problems together. And tea. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but in general in all the meetings I have attended in this beautiful country over the past three decades, the general trend is more about interaction than about accomplishments. Accomplishments are the result of the interaction, not the target of the interaction.
Words do reflect some particular aspects of a nation's or a people's character. They cannot be the determining factor, but they are a good starting point for a dilettante. Language is fun, and none of the above should be taken too seriously. We should learn to enjoy the differences and respect that there may be a very legitimate reason why a word exists, or does not exist in any particular language. We should allow the Russians to wallow in misery, the Turks to enjoy the relatives and the British to complain, ad nauseam. After all it seems that what makes them the happiest.