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Crowdsourcing the language of well-being

A psychologist seeks to enrich the emotional landscape of English speakers by introducing them to 216 “untranslatable” foreign words

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A dictionary is photographed in Boston, Mass.

John Nordell

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Does language frame thought? The Sapir-Whorf Thesis holds that it does: It is, to oversimplify grossly here, harder to think certain thoughts if your language doesn’t have words for them.

For instance, Benjamin Lee Whorf, one of the developers of the above-mentioned thesis, thought that the Hopi people experienced time differently because of how their language expressed concepts of past, present, and future. 

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This particular point has been debunked. But a good half century after the thesis first appeared, scholars are still marshaling evidence pro or con. The takeaway message: Watch out for how your language may push you around.

Tim Lomas is taking no chances. He’s a professor of psychology at the University of East London in England. I was alerted to his work by Steve Mirsky’s “Anti Gravity” column in April’s Scientific American. Earlier this year Dr. Lomas published an article in the Journal of Positive Psychology with a mouthful of a title: “Towards a positive cross-cultural lexicography: Enriching our emotional landscape through 216 ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to well-being.”

Positive psychology is the study of happiness. Lomas’s idea is that familiarity with these particular “untranslatable” words will help people understand their own emotional lives better.

“Untranslatable” is something of a misnomer (hence the quotation marks). These words can be translated, just not in a single word or phrase.

One of the best-known examples is Schadenfreude, German for “pleasure in others’ misfortunes.” But many of the 216 words highlight nobler aspects of humanity. Lomas divides them into three categories: feelings, relationships, and character.

The specialized vocabulary of just happiness is extensive. Lomas credits Urdu with 16 words that could be translated as “happiness,” each with its own nuances.

There’s a vocabulary for the convivial pleasures of sharing food and drink. The Spanish sobremesa, for example, refers to conversation over the dinner table after everyone has finished eating. Arabic has tarab, meaning a “musically induced state of ecstasy [or] enchantment.”

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Another group of words combine happiness, or pleasure, with safety: “Northern European cultures,” Lomas writes, “have terms for ‘cosiness’ that are highly valued, going beyond mere physical comfort to express emotional and even existential warmth and intimacy.” The Norwegian koselig, Danish hygge, and German gemütlich fall into this group.

There are even words for the act of appreciating feelings. Japanese has many of these. Ukiyo, for instance, literally “floating world,” expresses “a sense of living in ... moments of fleeting beauty, detached from the pains of life,” Lomas writes. 

One of my favorites is in the relationships section: dadirri, an Aboriginal Australian word meaning “a deep, spiritual act of reflective and respectful listening.”

Lomas suggests that each of the 216 deserves its own paper. He wants to crowdsource even more “untranslatables.” See www.drtimlomas.com/lexicography.