Lexical Gaps in the English Language
It’s the start of the new decade, which also means it’s a great time to reflect on everything that went before – that includes some great new words!
2019 was, among other things, the year of Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and the ‘Climate Crisis’. In Sweden, this was marked by neologisms such as ‘flygskam’ and ‘tågskryt’, which roughly translate to ‘flight-shame’ and ‘train-brag’ in English.
In the UK, we saw parliamentary proceedings grind to a halt as seemingly endless meaningful votes failed to provide any meaningful solutions…
It’s almost ironic that, when future historians attempt to understand the zeitgeist (there’s another one!) in the period since the UK voted to leave the EU, they will likely be using a German word. That’s right, ‘brexitmüde’ – which roughly translates as ‘Brexit tired’ in English. As well as being new words, they also have another thing in common: They are lexical gaps in the English language.
What is a lexical gap?
There are several types of lexical gaps, namely:
- Phonological gaps – Potential words which are permitted by the phonotactic rules of the language but wouldn’t make any sense.
- Morphological gaps – words which could exist based on the morphological and grammatical rules of word formation in a given language (including the stem and affixes), that aren’t actual words.
- Semantic gaps – also called an ‘accidental gap’ or ‘lacuna’, this is a word with a distinct meaning which is missing from the vocabulary of a language.This could refer to inconsistencies within our own language. For example, while there are general terms for siblings and parents, there is no commonly used gender-neutral term for a parent’s sibling/s. However, it can also be used in reference to external languages.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at the third sense of ‘lexical gap’, or more specifically, words that are untranslatable.
Put simply, ‘lexical gap’ in this sense is the term used to describe the absence of a word in a particular language where it is present in another. It doesn’t matter how handy you are with a thesaurus for finding potential synonyms, you won’t find an English equivalent of these words.
Despite our extensive vocabulary, such words (or rather, gaps) are common in the English language. Some, like the examples above, are relatively easy to translate, though others require a bit more work.
As it’s the first post of the decade, we’ve picked out 20 of our favourite lexical gaps for 2020:
Schadenfreude – While you might have been wishing everyone you know a ‘happy and healthy new year’, there are others who might be secretly wishing for the opposite.
Schadenfreude is a German word which describes the pleasure one feels from someone else’s misfortune. Technically, this isn’t a lacuna in the English language. Instead, we have the word ‘epicaricacy’ (derived from ancient Greek), though this is rarely used.
It’s not surprising that we have taken to using the much more sinister sounding German word instead.
פארגין / Fargin – Perhaps an antonym of Schadenfreude, this Yiddish word describes the joy that one feels at the success of others.
Mångata – This beautiful Swedish word refers to the shimmering trail of light left by the moon on a body of water.
Toska – It’s the kind of word that makes people fall in love with language learning in the first place. For starters, it’s notoriously difficult to translate. Even those with a solid grasp of Russian and English have a hard time putting it succinctly.
Here’s what the Russian author Vladimir Nabokov, perhaps most famous for ‘Lolita’, had to say:
“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
Gluggaveður – literally ‘window-weather’. This Icelandic word describes weather that is pleasant to look at but is best enjoyed from indoors. We’re surprised that there isn’t a similar word in Scotland!
Duende – In Spanish, to have ‘duende’ means to be overcome with passion when you witness a work of art. It comes from the Spanish word for an ‘elf’ or goblin-like creature in Spanish folklore.
Gökotta – This Swedish word is wonderfully concise. It roughly translates as: ‘to rise at dawn in order to hear the birds sing’. If that’s how people start their morning in Sweden, it’s no wonder that Swedish people are amongst the happiest in the world!
Pålegg – Though this word has many uses in Norway, it has one particular usage with no equivalent in English; Pålegg is the word used to denote any ingredient that that might feature on an open-top sandwich. The closest word that we have in English is ‘opsony’, which means ‘any food that is eaten with bread’. However, this word has fallen out of use and is not quite as precise as Pålegg.
Trepverter – Literally ‘stepwords’ (the words you think of on the way out), this Yiddish word refers to the kind of perfect witty retort that you think of only after an argument has been settled – the kind that leaves you kicking yourself as you imagine how different things could have been…
Kummerspeck – If it’s been a tough day, you might resort to Kummerspeck. This German word literally means ‘Grief-bacon’, or what we might call ‘comfort-eating’.
Mamihlapinatapei – This Yaghan word first came to prominence after being listed in the 1994 Guiness Book of World Records as the ‘most succinct word’. It refers to “A look shared by two people, each wishing that the other would initiate something that they both desire but which neither wants to begin.”
Litost – According to Czech author Milan Kundara, this word refers to ‘a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery’.
Arbejdsglæde – This Danish word literally means ‘work-happiness’. It’s perhaps telling that there is no equivalent English word, with over half of UK employees dissatisfied with their work!
Gigil – This adorable Filipino word describes the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze something cute!
Ailyak – Modern day life is notoriously fast-paced. It can feel like we have little time to spare. The Bulgarian word, Ailyak, refers to what we might call the mediterranean lifestyle. It’s the art of doing everything slowly, savouring the process and enjoying life in general. There is a similar phrase in Swahili, which became famous following the Lion King: Hakuna Matata
Hanyauka – We can’t think of many instances where you’d need to use this word in the UK. In Namibia, the word Hanyauka means ‘to walk on tiptoes across warm sand’.
Torschlusspanik – Perhaps the new year and the turn of the decade brought home some uncomfortable truths for you? You’re not getting any younger, that’s for sure. This German word literally means the ‘fear of a closed door’. It suggests the fear of losing opportunities through ageing, and is used particularly for women hoping to have children.
Age-Otori – We’ve all been here. This Japanese word means ‘to look worse after a haircut’. Let’s hope we don’t have to use this one too often……
Tingo – This word is from the Pascuense language of Easter Island and refers to borrowing objects from a friend or neighbour’s house without returning them, until they have nothing left.
Tsundoku – The art of acquiring books but allowing them to pile up without reading them. This is something we’re probably all guilty of – there are just too many to read!
There you have it! 20 words that we don’t have in the English language that you won’t be able to go on without.
This is just a small selection of lexical gaps in the English language. Given that there are thousands of living languages in the world today, there are doubtless thousands more semantic/lexical gaps than we have listed here!