Avva has a thread about words that one knows from one language and feels the lack of in another; he kicks it off by saying that he misses the English noun mind in Russian and Hebrew, the Hebrew word stam ‘simply, just’ (he explains its wide range of uses here) in English and Russian, and the Russian word ved’ ‘you see; you know; after all; isn’t it?’ in English. If you read Russian, you’ll find lots of interesting suggestions.


  1. I actually have the same problem in English and French and sometime end up borrowing the word from one to the other, or making up something similar. One word I wish existed in French is “oblivious” (and the related “oubliviousness”). We’ve got “inconscient” but it doesn’t convey the full extent of the English word. (Somehow “oblivieux” and “obliviété” don’t seem to be caching on…
    Of course, I always prefer to find a native equivalent, but it’s not always possible, is it.

  2. Michael Farris says:

    More than particular words, I really miss the Slavic dimunitives (in all their untranslatable many shaded glory) in English, a pathetic language when it comes to diminutives. With (a very few) Polish people I just import them into English, but it’s not an option most of the time.

  3. I don’t miss an equivalent of ‘mind’ in Swedish. I rather would have writers of English to be more precise. To explain the fuzzy concept of ‘mind’, my 1000 page E-Sw dictionary uses ONE PAGE for that word only.
    To me, ‘mind’ qualifies for my list of words that I find difficult to translate because of their too wide meanings. On that list, I include for example the related terms ‘item’ and ‘assembly’. An ass’y might be made up of items, etc., but it’s a real pain to translate those items into colloquial-sounding Swedish, and I’m no proctologist.
    My Russian is not much better than my non-existent Modern Hebrew, but I get the feeling that the stam case resembles Chinese jiù. That’s sometimes used more or less as a filler, and often, the best way is to leave it untranslated, and in some cases I think it corresponds nicely to English ‘just’, ‘then’, ‘xactly’, …

  4. The Welsh use ‘well’ a lot; and Indian subcontinentals by analogy ‘vail’.
    I’ve also heard Finnish speakers slipping in ‘[ja], just det’ constantly.

  5. I don’t miss an equivalent of ‘mind’ in Swedish. I rather would have writers of English to be more precise.
    Um, you’re surely not under the impression that aside from this, all words in all languages are “precise”? We humans are not precise, logical beings, which is why all languages are full of vague, hard-to-translate words and the many proposed “logical languages” have never caught on and never will. I suspect you have a problem with mind mainly because it’s not native to you. I’ll bet there are equally problematic (from a logical point of view) words in Swedish that seem perfectly natural, in fact indispensible, to you.

  6. This happens constantly to me, but I tend to forget for which words. Just a minute ago I was grasping for an English equivalent of French tardif (“belated” didn’t work in the context). And the other day I spent a quarter of an hour explaining the concept of German Torschlusspanik to a bilingual crowd.

  7. Wonderful topic, lexical lacunae! We discussed it recently on the Lexicography email list:
    There is a mirror of the list messages on the Linguist List site:

  8. I often miss the other Hebrew word usually mentioned in the same breath as stam: davka.
    This word comes ultimately from Aramaic, and was originally popularized by Yiddish. It has a wide range of meanings (e.g. “on purpose”, “for spite”) but the one that I need it for is “because the world is out to get me, dammit!” For example: “My car’s been making funny noises all day, but when I bring it in to the mechanic, davka it works just fine!” or “I have been wallowing in unrequited love for Jenny for years. And now that I’m dating someone else, davka, she becomes interested in me!”
    I suppose the nearest English equivalent is “ironically.”

  9. That “davka” seems pretty close to “ironic”.
    Of course in the Alanis Morrisette sense, no the O. Henry sense.

  10. “I suspect you have a problem with mind mainly because it’s not native to you.”
    I don’t think so, actually. I’ve got the very same problem translating “mind”, “assembly” and the like to dutch and danish.
    Those terms cover way too many concepts.
    Especially in more technical texts “assembly” and “item” are barely more than just another way of saying “thingamabob”.
    Same goes for “mind”: often it is simply impossible to guess from context what kind of mind the writer had in mind.

  11. But the fact that it’s hard to translate doesn’t mean it’s somehow “bad.” I like words that require a page of a bilingual dictionary to deal with. If all words were monovalent and easily translatable, how boring languages would be!

  12. Douglas Davidson says:

    Ironically enough, the natural English equivalent for davka as used above would be ‘naturally’. My car’s been making funny noises all day, but when I bring it in to the mechanic, naturally it works just fine…

  13. Isn’t the meaning of ведь captured well by the conjunction for? You’ve got both the property of introducing an explanation and the vaguely archaic connotations (unless it’s seen a revival in recent times, ведь for me always carries the air of the folk tale).

  14. Margaret S. says:

    How would you say “quedarse con las ganas” in English? I can express it in a very literal, clumsy way as “stuck with only the desire,” but I can’t think of anything better. It refers to when you don’t partake of something delicious (literally or figuratively) either because you can’t, or because you decide, for whatever reason, to deny yourself.

  15. Being able to turn an adjective into a person is something English sorely misses. Funes, El Memorioso and Funes, the Memorious is as close to a match as English can get.
    And παρέα (parea) is another word I struggle to translate. It’s a friendly group of people that come together for a cheeky laugh, kind of.
    And já and ya in portuguese and spanish respectively are fantastic words that I’m hoping will enter the English language via the Hispanic community of the USA.

  16. There’s an Icelandic verb, “nenna”, that’s culturally significant and important that’s near impossible to translate properly. The closest I’ve ever come is to say “I know it’s mildly disagreeable but could you be bothered to do [something] for me”, but that doesn’t quite catch it. Used all the freaking time. There are a few other words that also resist translation, but “nenna” is the one that I find myself wanting to use the most.
    It’s kind of weird when the brain does that.

  17. By “that”, I mean when the brain finds a concept it wishes to express and can only think of it in one language, but not in another.

  18. And kattullus, your use of the “that” reminds me of my favourite language related zen game.
    In Greek, there is no this and that. There is only a thing, called αυτό, so that everything is an αυτό. This and that just don’t exist as separate demonstrative nouns in Greek, and so thinking of everything as an αυτό whilst at the same time thinking that they could be this or that gets me feeling all weird and I head off to one-hand-clapping land.

  19. What I think is a Chinese word which I see showing up in English is “gah”. Probably from kung fu movies. It’s an introductory interjection. I’ve also seen “neh”.
    I have read that ja / ya came into Spanish from Arabic. It seems to fill a lot of the aspectual functions: already, still, yet, etc.

  20. “To me, ‘mind’ qualifies for my list of words that I find difficult to translate because of their too wide meanings.”
    Hm. Maybe “Philosophy of Mind” is a big boondoggle, the way analytic philosophers claim “Philosophy of Being” is.

  21. Margaret: “it wasn’t to be” (literary) or “I/you/he never got to [do whatever]” (colloquial) are two possibilities. Of course, different contexts call for different translations.

  22. One thing I forgot to mention was that I’m reminded of the “most untranslatable words”, from June last year, discussed here and everywhere http://www.languagehat.com/archives/001416.php

  23. Lots of They have a Word for it lists seem to focus on single words for very specific concepts. Maybe because the exoticism is more evident. I don’t know how much real insight into the speakers’ culture one gets.
    Equally interesting are discourse elements, of which a couple have come up already here. Y’all is one, although I say ‘you guys’ myself. n’est-ce pas / nicht wahr / não é / so desu ka is another. An English dialect (parodied by the Bhangra wannabes on Goodness Gracious Me) has ‘innit’. Des von Bladet’s online idiolect uses ‘isn’t it’.
    For me, generalizations seem more profound. Again this has come up here already. For example, a word for “a lemon or a lime (but not an orange or a grapefruit)”. Or “a dog or a wolf”. Color words, pace Berlin and Kay. A word for “red or pink”. Or “green or blue”. Eskimos could have this meme about how Whites have a single word (!) that means [newly fallen snow] or [crusty snow] or even [dusting of snow] but not [sleet] or [hail].

  24. From Finnish:
    “Why lose time and energy saying ‘the committee that takes care of negotiations concerning the truce’ when you can use a simple little word like ‘aseleponeuvottelutoimikunta?'”

  25. Margaret S. says:

    Great discussion! Languagehat, responding to your response to my comment, your suggestions help to explain the expression, but I’m not sure that they cover what we’d say. Confronted with the situations where the Spanish speaker says “Así que me tuve que quedar con las ganas”, we would probably shape the thought in a different way, “Well, anyway, I’m on a diet.” “Well, anyway, I’m married.” “Well, anyway I only had $10 on me.”

  26. Tatyana says:

    Agree with Michael Farris, dimunitive suffixes describe situation/object/attitude instantly and economically; too bad English, being elegantly economical language, lacks them.
    Looks like it has been a popular regret (via Blogchik, Russophile Bloglet)
    There is a dialectical South-Ukrainian word (or rather exclamation?) that is very inclusive : “tju!”. Expresses wide variety in a sentence – from “really?” to “look who’s talking”; generally – disbelief to contempt. Russian and Western-Ukranian (and obviously, English), sadly, have nothing to match it.
    I can always spot fellow – southerner by it.

  27. John,
    I believe Spanish ya is actually a fine old Latin word descended from iam (and even Cicero probably dropped the final m when he was speaking). It also exists in Italian – già.

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