Monthly Archives: May 2011

At a loss for words

More than half of my friends were not born with English as their primary language.   Lately I’ve been pondering the ideas of how language and culture define our concepts of certain words.  Words are the means of expression of emotions and feelings.  The words and the language are the imperceptible boundaries and framework.  Does a limited ability to express our selves, end up stifling the feelings we have.  From an outside perspective most likely, but are emotions and feelings inherently limited by our means of expression?

Even with full mastery of languages, there are words that do not translate from one language to another.  This is not to say that one cannot understand the concept given a rewording.  Though not having the native word in one’s vocabulary one uses an alternative which ultimately has a different meaning, so one says something different.   I’ve often found it poignantly clear that my words were inadequately expressing a concept or thought. So I scramble often switch languages to dig for the right term.   Though under normal circumstances I pick something close, then when re-playing the words in my mind I’ve found I accept the minor shift in idea as the true idea and forget the initial deviation.

The Russian word for Toska or Zhalet is a one that comes to mind immediately.

“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, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.” Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov’s point here with the idea of untranslatable word seems to be that some words or even more importantly concepts belong with one people more then others.  This is a Russian word, and the concept is not exclusively Russian, but being part of the vocabulary either as a result of a group being more predisposed to define a concept or the concept not being in the vocabulary and influencing the common language and even acceptable emotion.  Either way these two are intertwined on some subconscious level.

Even though anthropologists argue that all basic emotions are universal, there are variations in how certain complex emotions are expressed in languages.   The differences and missing words, end up either  stifling, mis communicating or flooding others with richness of our internal states.


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