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Lexical Gaps

A discussion of the peculiarities of languages and the differences between them.

Lexical Gaps

Postby Vandalism » Fri Sep 23, 2005 7:11 am

Hi everyone, may I ply your multilingual minds for a moment?

I'm looking for lexical gaps in English; holes that exist in the language because the concept doesn't exist or isn't recognised in an English speaking mind.

A simple example is the lack of a 'bon appetit' or encouragement to enjoy a meal in English which exists across the continent and in most countries I've travelled to. This directly reflects the stereotypical English attitude towards food until recently, meals being more of a functional affair than anything to be enjoyed.

It's just out of curiosity, but it seems you can learn a lot about a culture not only by what the people say but also by what they don't. I'd be very interested to hear of any more examples you may have come across.


Thanks and nice to meet you.

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Postby Garzo » Fri Sep 23, 2005 9:56 am

Perhaps it's because Anglo-Saxon food isn't meant to be enjoyed!

Such lexical gaps are really quite subjective. As languages deal with the stuff of human experience, it is always possible to translate well-formed language. However, a certain language may have a particularly succinct or beautiful way of rendering an expression -- le mot juste. Certain languages are famous for such words: for example, the Welsh hwyl covers a semantic range unlike that of any other language (passion, guts, pride, gusto, humour and comedy). This is particularly the case with prepositions -- they are the most difficult word class to translate.

-- Garzo.
"Poetry is that which gets lost in translation" — Robert Frost
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Postby KatyBr » Fri Sep 23, 2005 1:36 pm

Garzo wrote:Perhaps it's because Anglo-Saxon food isn't meant to be enjoyed!


Isn't that the truth! When one wants tasty food one would to go to a restaurant where the food is great, a French , Chinese, or Italian eatery. lol

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(not exclude Indian, Thai etc, oc)
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Postby Brazilian dude » Fri Sep 23, 2005 1:53 pm

A word that is often difficult to translate, not only into English, but into any other language, is Portuguese saudade, which means something like the longing for someone, nostalgia and missing him or her. Especially the phrase matar as saudades is picturesque, since it refers to saudade, also under the guise of saudades, being killed, which would roughly translate as catch up and visit with a person, but not exactly.

In Italian there's a word that's also hard to translate: mammone. That implies someone who's very attached to his mother (mamma) and would do her every wish even in detriment to his own interests.

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Postby Brazilian dude » Fri Sep 23, 2005 1:56 pm

And you also have German Weltanschauung and Swedish lagom, but maybe somebody else would like to comment on them.

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Postby Stargzer » Fri Sep 23, 2005 2:08 pm

Well, other than the fact that we've stol. . . , I mean, borrowed this phrase from our friends, the French, for our own use, I've had waiters tell me "Enjoy your meal!" when they deliver my food. Maybe it doesn't have that certain je ne sais quoi of bon appétit!, but it works for me. Eat Hearty is another phrase you might hear on occasion.

Then again, you don't need to know French when a pretty young waitress at the local roadhouse smiles as she brings you your food and says "There ya go, Babe!" That's got "Hey, friend! Glad to see you! Enjoy your meal!" all wrapped up on one. :)
Regards//Larry

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Postby Stargzer » Fri Sep 23, 2005 2:28 pm

Brazilian dude wrote: . . .
In Italian there's a word that's also hard to translate: mammone. That implies someone who's very attached to his mother (mamma) and would do her every wish even in detriment to his own interests.

Brazilian dude


In English I'd say he's a mamma's boy or still tied to the apron strings.

For Henri:

There once lived a man named Oedipus Rex,
You may have heard about his odd complex.
His name appears in Freud's index
'Cause he loved his mother.


--Tom Lehrer
Regards//Larry

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Postby Stargzer » Fri Sep 23, 2005 2:41 pm

I'll have to agree with Garzo:

Garzo wrote: . . . Such lexical gaps are really quite subjective. As languages deal with the stuff of human experience, it is always possible to translate well-formed language. However, a certain language may have a particularly succinct or beautiful way of rendering an expression -- le mot juste. Certain languages are famous for such words . . . -- Garzo.


The German Schadenfreude comes to mind . . . there's a bit of it in this saying:

Some people are like a Slinky; they're totally useless, but they do bring a smile to your face when you watch them tumble down a flight of stairs.
Regards//Larry

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Postby Brazilian dude » Fri Sep 23, 2005 2:41 pm

In English I'd say he's a mamma's boy or still tied to the apron strings.

Right, but you need two words for the former, and five words for the latter. The same can be expressed with a single word in Italian, though. But I know, that's the principle of translation, there's not a direct equivalent between two languages, it's our task to strive to render someone's thoughts as if they had occurred in the target language. Reminds of me of the ladder/stairs = escada disscussion on the other forum.

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Re: Lexical Gaps

Postby Stargzer » Fri Sep 23, 2005 3:10 pm

Vandalism wrote:Hi everyone, may I ply your multilingual minds for a moment?

I'm looking for lexical gaps in English; holes that exist in the language because the concept doesn't exist or isn't recognised in an English speaking mind. . . .

The Vandal


Things that leave us speechless, so to speak. :wink:

I'm not multilingual, but upon reflection I think that since English has borrowed from so many languages, and since English speaking people have roamed most of the world, there have to be exceedingly few concepts the English speaker can't get his mind around. We even understand the warped concept of flying an airlplane into a building to kill innocent people; the hard part is coming up with a really good reason why. :cry:

It might be easier to find such concepts by going the other way, from an isolated culture to the so-called "modern" world. I would imagine that a native of a tropical rain forest who had had no contact with the outside world would have a hard time understanding the concept of snow and ice, let alone dry ice or liquid oxigen.

It's probably an Urban Legend, but I remember hearing long ago that when the Eskimos (God's Frozen People) first learned about Hell from the Christian missionaries, they thought the idea of a warm place wasn't all that bad . . . (Just ask Sam McGee)
Regards//Larry

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Postby Brazilian dude » Fri Sep 23, 2005 9:39 pm

and since English speaking people have roamed most of the world, there have to be exceedingly few concepts the English speaker can't get his mind around. We even understand the warped concept of flying an airlplane into a building to kill innocent people; the hard part is coming up with a really good reason why.

It's my opinion as well. English likes to name everything they see, whereas other languages (Romance languages especially?) are vaguer and use circumlocutions to work around that problem. What I also like about English is the amount of vocabulary there is, in a lot of situations you can decide (at least I can) whether you want a Germanic, a Latin or a French word. Really cool.

I would imagine that a native of a tropical rain forest who had had no contact with the outside world would have a hard time understanding the concept of snow and ice, let alone dry ice or liquid oxigen.

Snow, what is snow? How do you pronounce it? Is it something you eat? :wink:

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Postby Vandalism » Sat Sep 24, 2005 2:16 am

Thanks, everyone. Interesting bunch of replies to come back to.

Garzo - I agree these things are subjective but although it may be possible to translate most everything what I'm interested in are those words which sum up an idea or philosophy which don't exist in a single English word and therefore don't exist as a terse concept for an English speaking mind. You've given a perfect example; passion, guts, pride, gusto, humour and comedy are difficult to define succinctly. I have some notion that these things could be related but no clear idea of how. That's probably because we don't have a direct translation of 'hwyl' so I'm not used to the thought. Presumebly a Welsh speaker is happy enough to hurl this word around confidently. Great stuff. How would you use it in a sentence?

Brazilian Dude - I love this word 'saudade'. No surprise that such a romantic language has coined such a romantic sentiment and no surprise that good old reticent English chose to ignore it. Your other examples (German Weltanschauung and Swedish lagom) haven't been picked up, care to elaborate? Oh please do, please, please.

Stargzer - Schadenfreude is one I had on my list. It's a goodie. It's not that we don't know this emotion, just maybe we're not quite honest enough to admit it. This is a very human experience and would probably be recognised by anyone from the Siberian tundra to Darkest Peru. That's what's interesting. I mean you couldn't blame a bedouin for not having a word for snow or a remote jungle tribespeople not to have a word for dishwasher, stands to reason. But how different people define the common human experience of reality, now that is something.
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Postby M. Henri Day » Sat Sep 24, 2005 5:57 am

Welcome to the Agora, Vandal, and thanks for proposing a most interesting topic. Those «lexical gaps» are, of course, the translator's nightmare, but also, perhaps the source of his greatest joys, when he discovers in a flash of inspiration a solution to what seemed to be an intractable problem. The interesting thing is that the difficulty cuts both ways - i e, both when translating from the language with a distinct lexical concept to one without it, and the other way 'round. Kinship terms, for example, often cause problems, as I discovered when working in Norway, where, as in English, the two distinct referents of the Swedish terms «morbror» and «farbror» are conflated under a single «onkel». Translating into Norwegian (bokmål), the more specific Swedish terms gave rise to no difficulties as they are immediately understandable and available in the vocabulary even if not generally used, but I found myself always compelled to interrupt my interlocutor and ask «Morbror eller farbror ?» when the term «onkel» came up, even though I almost never had occasion to use the extra information provided by the reply. Translating into English, however, the problems would be greater, as the distinction between «uncle» and, e g, «maternal uncle» is one not merely of information, but also of style ; the latter, more precise term is out of place in colloquial discourse. Think then of the difficulties involved in translating from Chinese, in which not only the distinction between maternal and paternal lineage, but also the relative ages of the persons involved play an important role !...

Henri
曾记否,到中流击水,浪遏飞舟?
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Postby Brazilian dude » Sat Sep 24, 2005 12:53 pm

Your other examples (German Weltanschauung and Swedish lagom) haven't been picked up, care to elaborate? Oh please do, please, please.

Maybe somebody can do this better than I can, but the way I see it is Weltanschauung is the way you as an individual look at the world and all the contemplation that ensues. Lagom means something like that's just perfect, not too much, not too little, and not only enough either.

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Postby Brazilian dude » Sat Sep 24, 2005 12:58 pm

This thread made me think of something else: why is it that English has so many colloquial words for someone who's intoxicated with alcohol? I can probably think of only a couple in Portuguese if I squeeze my brains enough, but English has stoned, high, pis*sed, and so many others that can be used interchangeably ad nauseam. Does that probably mean that the English are all big boozers? Maybe they are. I think I've seen this phenomenon in the United States, people take pride in drinking and the more stoned they get, the more they broadcast it to their friends. If they had to be taken home by someone because they couldn't stand up and were lying in a puddle of spit and other bodily fluids at the kerb, then that's the utmost triumph they could ever have achieved.

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