How the English language is learning to express itself

by Stratton Craig

image overlay

When you can’t seem to find the word you need, look to other languages.
“She gazed at the map, her wanderlust stronger than ever. She had found what she wanted and she had the chutzpah to go after it – and she knew she wasn’t alone. Travel and exploration was practically the national zeitgeist. She asked her older brother – who was like a guru to her – for advice, and together they made a plan and came up with a mantra for her travels: ‘embrace laissez-faire’. She felt a frisson of excitement. She was ready”.
The English language is an explorer in its own right. It discovers intriguing words in other languages that have no direct English translation, and simply absorbs them into its lexicon. Many of these adopted words are widely used in everyday speech and their meanings are well understood.
There are hundreds more words from around the world that are not yet a part of the English language, which also articulate things that we don’t have a word for. In particular, there is a whole global vocabulary that encapsulates expressions of well-being, relationships and spirituality which elude English speakers – because we don’t have the words.
Dr Tim Lomas is a psychologist at the University of East London and he is curating a ‘positive lexicography’ of words in other languages that don’t have an English equivalent. The list currently stands at 216 and is a work in progress. Lomas’ ambitious aim is to “help expand the emotional vocabulary of English speakers – and indeed speakers of all languages – and consequently enrich their experiences of well-being.”
Spanning all major world languages, the lexicography includes gems such as “hygge” (a Danish noun to mean a deep sense of place, warmth, friendship and contentment), which are already gaining popularity among English speakers. Others, such as “Namaka” (a Japanese noun to mean a best friend or close buddy for whom one feels a deep platonic love), are almost completely unknown outside their native language.
As communities around the world are becoming more ethnically and linguistically diverse and the internet continues to connect people of different tongues, language is experiencing increased homogenisation. 90% of the world’s population can communicate with each other through the 10 most common languages including English, Spanish and Mandarin. If speakers of these languages start to appropriate words from other languages in order to express themselves in ways that they weren’t able to before, this process of homogenization will accelerate.
Although the prospect of a universal language seems likely, it’s a long way off. Words such as those included in Lomas’ positive lexicography need to be translated artfully in order to preserve their unique meaning for English readers. In some cases, a more thorough transcreation process can help to articulate the finer points of a piece of content without losing the nuance of the original text. To find out more about how translation and transcreation processes work, contact the language experts at Stratton Craig.

Sign up to hear from us