Saturday, September 22, 2012

Some languages have a word for it - or do they?

Last week's Friday treat from JES introduced me - indirectly (I followed one of his links, as these posts of his so often tempt me to do!) - to the word mamihlapinatapai. This word is alleged to have been acclaimed by The Guinness Book of World Records as 'The World's Most Succinct Word'. This seems an improbable accolade to me, too unquantifiable for the demands of the Guinness people; indeed, their website makes no mention of this supposed record, and the Wikipedia citation of The Book's 1994 edition is a dead link.

This, alas, raises doubts as to whether it is a genuine word at all (numerous citations on the Internet, including Wikipedia, can hardly be held to be conclusive of anything; the similarly evocative word which JES highlighted from the same book - They Have A Word For It, by Howard Rheingold - has been exposed as bogus); or, if it is really a word, if its meaning is quite as subtle and complex as has been suggested. 

The Guinness record citation is supposed to have defined it as meaning looking into each other’s eyes, each hoping that the other will initiate what both want to do but neither chooses to commence. I think we should perhaps beware the temptation to over-romanticise and over-elaborate a word/concept of which we have no direct knowledge. It is beguiling to suppose (and most commentators on it appear to have done so) that the word must apply particularly to that look of incipient longing exchanged between potential lovers - the eyes meeting across a crowded room phenomenon.

However, the Guinness definition - and slight variations on it found in Rheinhold's book and elsewhere - doesn't seem to be limited to this romantic context. It could apply to a wide variety of social situations, whenever there is a potentially awkward hesitation, a moment of uncertainty over whether to laugh at something (particularly a faux pas or an unintentional joke), or when to start eating a meal, or who should order the first round of drinks, or whether it's OK to start leaving a party or start leaving the room at the end of a meeting, or simply how to initiate a conversation with someone... and so on. The Wikipedia article on the word analyses its morphology (it is said to be a word in Yahgan, one of the native languages of Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Chile; it is on the brink of extinction, with an elderly woman now the only surviving native speaker) as indicating that it perhaps means rather more prosaically the situation of being mutually at a loss as to what to do next; there's not even any necessary component of looking innate in the word.

In subsequent discussion, JES pointed me to this item on TED which lists 21 words - chosen by a conference of translators - which are so subtle and/or culturally specific as to be almost 'untranslatable' into other languages. This post - perhaps more rigorously researched than other similar online articles? - omitted mamihlapinatapai; but a reader nominated it as a suitable addition in the first comment. Amongst the TED selection, I particularly liked pretoogjes (Dutch for ‘fun-eyes’ - the eyes of a chuckling person 
who is up to some benign mischief), merak (Serbian for the pleasure derived from simple joys such as spending time feasting and merrymaking), and sobremesa (Spanish for the time after lunch or dinner spent talking to people you shared the meal with).

Mamihlapinatapai also headed up this list of '10 Relationship Words That Aren't Translatable Into English' on the bigthink blog. Of these, I liked best the Japanese koi no yokan - the sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall in love. As the author of the piece, Pamela Haag, aptly notes: 
This is different than “love at first sight,” since it implies that you might have a sense of imminent love, somewhere down the road, without yet feeling it. The term captures the intimation of inevitable love in the future, rather than the instant attraction implied by love at first sight.

Unfortunately, one of Ms Haag's list is ilunga, supposedly an African word meaning a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, and to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time - once acclaimed by a group of 1,000 linguists as "the world's hardest word to translate". This has also been exposed as a fake. (It's just a surname, it seems.)

Of course, I was reminded also of The Meaning of Liff and The Deeper Meaning of Liff, two stocking-filler books co-authored by Douglas Adams and his radio producer John Lloyd in the early 1980s which hit upon the brilliant notion of co-opting various charming, quirky, or unlikely British place names to serve as words representing useful concepts for which there were as yet no words - such as shoeburyness: the vague uncomfortable feeling you get when sitting on a seat which is still warm from somebody else's bottom.

Ah, WORDS! Endless fun, endless.

Mamihlapinatapai also led to me to this German blog where I found the Laurel & Hardy portrait above (of course, Tierra del Fuego in German is the rather less musical Feuerland), and to this diverting photo blog (apparently kept by a teenaged girl). 

Even if it isn't a real word, it really ought to be. And if only, if only it were just a little easier to pronounce!

By the by...  I just found another (rather better) list of 'hard to translate' words on the rather interesting the hot word language blog (I had originally read its title as The Hard Word, which I think would have been a better name; funny how the mind is always unconsciously improving things!). There I learned that Scots has a word tartle, meaning the awkwardness you feel when you are about to introduce someone and find you have forgotten their name - a very useful concept that might well have been a Meaning Of Liff invention.

One of the commenters on that post again nominates mamihlapinatapai as a worthy addition to the list, though the author(s) had not seen fit to include it. This reinforces my hunch that the word is bogus, simply an Internet fad.

1 comment:

Froog said...

And oh how I wish Pamela Haag had said "different from" in that quoted passage!

different than is, of all the needless sloppinesses of American English, perhaps THE ONE that irks me the most.