Lost in Translation

You have all at some point heard about the overwhelming number of words Inuit have for snow, and if you’ve studied any language related subject in uni you are bound to have indulged in the theory of human thought being directly linked to (if not limited by) the vocabulary available (if the concept is new to you, have a look at the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). 

GR unique words coverGREvery language has its own quirks, especially since languages are closely linked to the culture of the people speaking them, and there is no doubt that there is a large number of culturally or even geographically specific words that are hard to translate in other languages. The existence of untranslatable words, however, is perceived as, more or less, a myth. There is no word, expression or concept that cannot be translated in any and every language of the world; perhaps not in one word, and perhaps not with the exact same connotations, but that is where the difference lies. It’s not so much that different languages contain concepts completely inconceivable for speakers of other languages, as that every language has been deeply influenced by the culture of the people speaking it, which, in its turn, has been shaped by the unique experiences of these people through time. 

Greeks love the idea of untranslatable Greek words, especially since all the words they claim to be unique to the Greek language express higher morals and a sense of duty, or deep philosophical concepts. Let’s see some of them!

  • μεράκι (meraki): the word entered the Greek language from Turkish, but its meaning has evolved in Greek into a very complex concept of good taste, hard work and positive attitude towards hard labour. We say that someone has meraki when that person is good at their job, when they do it dutifully and with great attention to detail no matter how hard it might be, without complaining, but rather enjoying and taking pride in it. It can also be used in the sense of yearning.
  • κλαυσίγελος (klafsigelos): this is the act of laughing yourself to tears. Interesting that we needed a word to express it!

  • χαρμολύπη (charmolipi): like the previous one, this is a compound word. It expresses a mixture of joy and sadness. Talk about mixed feelings!

  • φιλότιμο(philotimo): this is an all time favourite, for both Greeks and foreigners. It is a very complex concept, which could best be described as the spirit of doing what’s right and honourable even when it’s against your own interests or maybe even puts your life in danger. It’s about honour, duty, courage, personal sacrifice, generosity, compassion, humility and pride, about putting the greater good above your own. And just because this is a quality inherent to all human beings which we have unfortunately lost, I’m adding a rather sappy video so that you can all learn some more about it and maybe be inspired by it. 🙂

These were some of the words Greeks consider unique to their language. Are you aware of any “untranslatable” words in your language? Share them with us in the comments below!



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