31 Mar

As a writer, I have always admired the richness of the English language which has the largest vocabulary in the world. However, as a linguist, I have found words in other languages equally fascinating. 

When teaching English as a foreign language, one thing I always highlighted to students was to be aware of 'false friends'; words we think we know but have a very different meaning in another language. An example of this is the word 'embarazada', which as a English speaker I might take to mean embarrassed. The Spanish word actually means pregnant.

I personally fell foul of a false friend when, aged sixteen, I announced to my German host family after a family party that I was 'voll'. I thought I was telling them that I had eaten too much food and was full, but what I was actually said was that I was drunk!  They roared with laughter and asked if I had been sneakily downing some schnapps.

What intrigues me most is that despite the huge vocabulary of the English language, there are some foreign words which cannot be directly translated and might even need a few sentences to get their full meaning over. One word that falls into this catagory is philoxenia - a Greek word which could be translated as a love of strangers but also embodies a welcoming nature and an eagerness to show hospitality to people you don't know. 

Another word I recently discovered was the French word  'flâner' which means to wander around aimlessly taking in the pleasures of a town. Who hasn't enjoyed doing this at some point?

German, which is one of the languages I studied at university, is sometimes maligned as being harsh and unpoetic. Susie Dent, who occupies dictionary corner on Countdown, is also a German graduate and during lockdown wrote on Twitter about some of German's beautiful words. There is the word 'heimweh' (homesickness) which is a much more elegant word than the English. But during the Covid lockdowns, what many of us experienced was 'fernweh' - an ache to see farflung places ... and of course, German gave us the lovely word 'wanderlust' as well.

In my mother tongue of Finnish there is the word 'sisu.'  A google search reveals the following definitition: Sisu is a unique Finnish concept. It is a Finnish term that can be roughly translated into English as strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity. Sisu is not momentary courage, but the ability to sustain that courage. It is a word that cannot be fully translated.

However, before I'm accused of assigning too many noble virtues to the country of my forbears, the Finns have also come up with the word, 'Kalsarikännit' or getting drunk alone at home in your underpants (well those Nordic homes are well insulated!')

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