Anyone who speaks two or more languages will be aware that there are linguistic ‘gaps’ in all languages. Given that English is now established as the predominant lingua franca of the world, the existence of such gaps can be at best inconvenient, and at worst, it may influence what we say or think (depending on how much you agree with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis).
However, this blog is not about the many interesting and insightful words, often from more synthetic languages that we don’t have, or simply borrow to express the ideas behind them. Well-known examples from German include ‘Schadenfreude’ and ‘Gestalt’, although my personal favourite came up in a lesson last year: ‘Korinthenkacker’. A translation device rendered it as: ‘stupid rule-bound bastard’. Luckily, the student was referring to a childhood teacher, not me!
No, this blog isn’t about ‘Korinthenkackers’… luckily. It’s about how English sometimes doesn’t have an appropriate way to convey something that commonly needs to be expressed. Holes in the language, if you like.
Here are some of the most obvious examples. If you can think of any more, please leave a comment!
|English lacks…||Other languages?|
|…a phrase for ‘bon appétit’||Most other languages have a phrase. We usually borrow the French expression. ‘Enjoy your meal’ (usually American English) is more likely to be said by a waiter than a co-diner.|
|…a ‘you’ singular/ plural distinction||Most languages have such a distinction, and English lost it quite recently – there are still a few areas of Yorkshire where ‘thou’ is still used. Interestingly, plural versions of ‘you’ are evolving back into English, reinforcing the importance of this difference, with ‘yous’ used in Northern Ireland and ‘y’all’ , common in some southern American states.|
|…a word for ‘halas’ (Arabic), ‘basta’ (Italian), ‘hvateet’ (Russian), ‘beka’ (Tigrinya), etc.||Almost every other language I’ve learnt seems to have one word to indicate sufficiency, making it convenient when we need to be quick. In different situations we might render it as: ‘stop there’, ‘that’s enough’, ‘that’s it’, ‘I’ve had enough’, etc. It would be useful, faster and much simpler to have one, rather than having to choose from these alternatives.|
|…a non-gender third person singular pronoun||For example: “if anyone has any ideas, she/he should…’ While not so many languages have such a pronoun (Sweden successfully invented one), given the increasing importance of sexual equality in English, there is a clear demand for such a word. Many argue that we should simply use ‘they’ in such situations, but it doesn’t always fit and can be surprisingly confusing to language learners.|
|English lacks…||Other languages?|
|… a colour||‘Sky blue’ or ‘navy blue’? This may sound like a strange distinction to some monolingual speakers of English, who may perceive that these are simply different types of blue. But it’s interesting to note that many languages have this distinction. Russian has ‘goluboi’ and ‘siniy’, and Italian has ‘azzurro’ and ‘blu’. Whenever in either of these languages I use the ‘wrong’ blue, I get corrected. It’s similar to the red/pink distinction in English. One is a lighter version of the other, but they remain separate concepts, separate things in our mind, each with very specific associations. Pink is the colour for girls in English (not ‘red’, or ‘light red’), ‘goluboi’ also means ‘gay’ in Russian, and ‘il principe azzurro’ is ‘Prince Charming’ in Italian.|
|…plurals for some of the most common words||In many lingua franca and world Englishes, ‘information’ can be pluralised, saving time and energy. However, native-speaker varieties of English stubbornly resist these logical innovations. ‘Three informations’ is much shorter than ‘three pieces of information’. Other examples include ‘advice’, ‘furniture’, ‘research’, ‘evidence’, ‘equipment’. We don’t even pluralise ‘money’, kind of ironic for a culture that invented capitalism!|
|…a ‘proper’ future tense||Any English language teacher will know that English has a complex variety of ‘future forms’ (e.g. ‘will’, ‘be going to’ + infinitive, etc.) but no way to distinguish the future morphologically. We can add ‘-ed’ to ‘work’ to form the past, but unlike French (‘travaillerai’) or Spanish (‘trabajaré’), we have no morpheme to make it future.|
|…a word to describe ‘the day after tomorrow’, or ‘the day before yesterday’||A number of the websites describing colourful words that English doesn’t have point out that Georgian has a word for the day after tomorrow (it’s ‘zeg’ apparently)… and so does Russian (‘poslezavtra’). It also has a word for the day before yesterday (‘pozavchera’**). Why use four, when you can use one?|
|English lacks…||Other languages?|
|…consistency when describing the years after 2000||Does anyone else find the word ‘noughties’ not very helpful to describe the decade between 2000 and 2010? The conversation often goes like this:
A: ‘I think it was some time in the noughties?’
B: ‘In the nineties? No it was later than that!’
A: ‘No. I said in the “noughties”?’
B: ‘The what-ies’?
Even more important: do we say ‘twenty-sixteen’ or ‘two thousand and sixteen’ for ‘2016’? And for those who prefer the latter, why is it that we should suddenly change now after so many centuries? It’s two syllables and 10 characters longer!
|…words for ‘smell’||Try translating the following joke into another language:
A: My dog has no nose.
B: How does it smell?
It probably doesn’t work. Why? Because in most other languages, these two meanings of the word ‘smell’ are usually expressed through different verbs. Try translating these into another language and see how many options you get:
1. The flowers smell beautiful.
2. This room smells!
3. I can smell fire.
4. Smell this.
|English lacks…||Other languages?|
|…a simple way to say: ‘We are three.’||In standard varieties of English, you can’t say this. You have to say: ‘There are three of us.’ But why not? It’s clear. It is common in lingua franca varieties of English, and it’s generally a direct translation of what is said in many other languages.|
|…a universal tag question (US) / question tag (Br.)
|Most languages have these. In German it’s ‘oder?’, in Chinese ‘ma?’ and in Bahasa Indonesia ‘kan?’ This creates significant difficulties for English language learners who have to work out what the auxiliary verb for the statement is and invert it with the subject: ‘It’s cold today, isn’t it?’, ‘You can’t smoke here, can you?’, ‘They moved here last year, didn’t they?’, etc. Due to these complexities, this common feature of spoken language is often acquired very late within the natural acquisition of second language learners.|
|…a verb to describe how submarines move||From Ken Lackman:“What is the verb for what a submarine does when moving forward? We need it for any vessel that moves through water that doesn’t sail. I noticed this when one of my students (who was Czech) talked about a submarine swimming. I corrected him but when he asked for the correct verb, I had nothing. He also asked why we used “fly” for anything that flew other than birds and why we don’t use “swim” for things that swim besides fish (and other water creatures). I had, of course, no answer.|
|…a difference between romantic love and friendly love.||From Pablo: “In Spanish we say “te amo” and “te quiero”, respectively.” Thanks Pablo – The same is true in Italian – ‘Ti voglio bene’ and ‘Ti amo’. You cannot say the latter to your parents! And in Ukrainian they have a separate verb for loving people – ‘Kohayu tebe’ (I love you), and things – ‘Lyublyu shokolad’ (I love chocolate).|
|…a word for ‘Which-th’||From Blah: “I sometimes find the absence of “which-th” in English inconvenient: “Whichth child of your parent are you” – as in first, or second, or third,…? This word is there is some, if not all, south Indian languages”|
|…an equivalent for RSVP||From Macadamia Wightman: “RSVP – no English word for that!”
RSVP stands for “Respondez s’il vous plait” – in case you weren’t sure. It’s used on invitations in the UK, US, etc. despite being French.
|… enough words for family members and relatives||From Patrick Snook: “We don’t have a word in English for “adult child/children”. “Offspring” or “progeny” don’t imply any particular age. I can refer to my child, but what do I say when he’s 18 or older, and no longer a child? ”
From Daniel Benson: “big brother/sister versus little brother/sister (Bulgarian “kaka i batko” vrs. “sestra i brat”)” and “In Bulgarian, there are terms of address from child-to-parent and from parent-to-child based on the old vocative and genative declensions. For example, the uninflected word for “mother” is _mama_, but children talking to their mothers say _mamo_ and mothers talking to their children call them _mame_.”
From Joseph Edwards: “English has no way to recreate the effect of Vietnamese’s kinship pronouns (where instead of using ‘you’ and ‘I’ you use your relative ages and the closeness of your relationship to name yourselves ‘big sister/brother’, ‘younger sibling’, ‘aunt’ etc.), which have a wonderful effect of being able to make your contribution simultaneously more polite and more affectionate.”
From Greg Bard: “I would also propose the word “avunculi” as the collective word for aunts and uncles.”
From Madhav: “Tamil and Telegu also have separate words for maternal and paternal uncles (and aunts).”
From Peter Borrows: “My son is married to your daughter. How are we related, or rather what English word describes our relationship? That’s a hole in English, whether or not there is a word in French, Tamil, etc.”
From Shankar Raman: “English language does not have separate words for maternal and paternal aunts, uncles and grandparents. These words are common in Sanskrit, besides other Indian languages.”
|…diminutives||Diminutives are especially common in Slavic languages, and especially with names (e.g. If your name is Olga, others could call you Olya, Olka, Olenka and Ola). Adding ‘-ok’ to ‘Chai’ makes ‘Chaiyok’ (a little tea). In essence, the word ‘vodka’ derives from the word ‘water’ (voda) with the diminutive suffix ‘-ka’!
From Daniel Benson: “diminutive verbs (Bulgarian “govorkam” I cutely speak)”
From kmmoerman: “3. Morphing words to refer to smaller versions. E.g. the Dutch “-je” in “boekje” refers to “a small book” and “stukje” means “a small piece/a little bit” (me and my wife use the term bittle to refer to little bit).”
|…two types of’shame’||From Alexandros Olivis: “The versatile meaning of the word ‘shame’ like “shame on you” and “shame you couldn’t be here”. It should be two different words.”
This can lead to misunderstandings in English. I know a native speaker who once wrote ‘shame you couldn’t come to the meeting’, which was interpreted as ‘shame on you for not coming…’, leading to the latter party taking offence.