Mångata!Wikipedia: Frokor

We use words every minute of every day, even in our sleep – but have you ever stopped to think about how many words the English language actually contains? Estimations about this exact number are problematic for all sorts of reasons - the main one being the difficulties of defining what exactly counts as a ‘word’ – but the OED contains entries for over 600,000 words, and experts estimate that the average 20-year-old speaker of American English knows around 42,000 of these. We know words to describe an almost infinite number of situations, from the words we use to talk about the weather, to those a physicist might use to express the finer details of quark theory.

There are even words which exist in English which other languages struggle to express without resorting to several words or even sentences: the word ‘privacy’, for example, does not have a Russian equivalent. Words for ‘confidentiality’, ‘secrecy’ and even ‘intimate sphere’ exist, but none of these quite manage to convey the exact notion of privacy.

In a similar way, there are hundreds of concepts that we simply can’t express in English without using several words, where other languages manage with just one. This week’s column is going to be dedicated to languages which manage to describe an extremely specific concept, instance or situation using just a single word.

Let’s start with Swedish, and its beautiful word ‘mångata’. Defined by the Glosbe Swedish-English dictionary as ‘the roadlike reflection of moonlight on water’, this word refers to the long, glimmering reflection of the moon on a (usually large) body of water, which resembles a shining street or road. The word is composed of the words ‘måne’, meaning ‘moon’, and ‘gate’, meaning ‘road, street or path’, making it literally a ‘moon-road’ or ‘moon-path’. The only way English is able to express this phenomenon is the rather clunky, 7-word definition provided above.

“Unfortunately, the Pascuan language is only estimated to have around 800 speakers left.”

Next we have Korean, one of the few languages which is considered by linguists to be unrelated to any other language still being spoken today: a language isolate. Korean happens to contain a word 답정너, pronounced ‘dap-jung-nuh’, which refers to a situation we are all familiar with: the moment in a conversation where you have to respond with what the other person wants to hear, and nothing else.

Take the classic white lie situation – if your grandma buys you the ugliest sweater in existence and asks you whether you like it, you know that the only possible answer you can give is ‘Yes!’,perhaps with an ‘I love it!’ thrown in for good measure. This word is made up of the characters ‘답’, meaning ‘answer’, ‘정’, meaning ‘chisel’, and ‘너’, meaning ‘you’. We can roughly piece these three chunks together to create the idea of a chisel shaping your answer for you. In the situation described by the word, the answer has already been created for you: all that is left for you to do is give it.

Now for a trip to South America, and specifically to the island of Rapa Nui, which many of you may know as Easter Island. This island is home to Pascuan, also known simply as Rapanui, a language which boasts the wonderfully specific word ‘tingo’. This verb describes the action of gradually ending up stealing all your friend’s possessions by borrowing them, and then never returning them. I can definitely think of a few occasions when only this word could have accurately described what was going on – there must be a reason why I seem to be the only person in our kitchen who ever buys sponges. Unfortunately, the Pascuan language is only estimated to have around 800 speakers left, with most children only learning it as a second language in later life after mastering Spanish.

Finally, we’re moving back to Eurasia and a language which seems to be spoken in both of the continents that make up this land mass: Yiddish. Yiddish is a fusion of three main languages: German, Hebrew and Aramaic. As a result, the particular word we’re looking at today is possible for us to pick apart as speakers of English, another Germanic language. טרעפּוערטער, or ‘trepverter’ in Latin script, is used in Yiddish to refer to a comeback that you manage to think of only when the moment to use it has passed. If I spoke Yiddish, I’m certain that this word would frequent both my thoughts and speech at least every other day.

We can break it apart into the words ‘trep’ and ‘verter’. ‘trep’ is related to the English word ‘trip’, and means ‘stairs’ or ‘staircase’. ‘verter’ is related to the English ‘words’, and means exactly that. We therefore have ‘staircase words’, which creates an image of the idea rather than describing the concept: as though we are taking the stairs away from the words we need, until it is too late to use them. The same idea is expressed by the French phrase ‘l’esprit de l’escalier’ and the German word ‘Treppenwitz’, both of which translate literally as ‘staircase wit’. The staircase symbolises leaving a particular place or moment in time, and the witty retort we are looking for comes to us only when we are at the staircase, and have left the moment meant for comebacks in the past.

So, what’s the point of looking at these words, and marvelling at their strange and specific meanings? Maybe there is none – and I’m not going to claim that these seemingly ‘untranslatable’ words hold the key to meaning itself, or anything drastic like that. But looking at language in this way does give you an appreciation for the seemingly unremarkable things in life, like moonlight, or a simple comeback – because although that may be all they are to you, you know that somewhere in the world, there’s a place where they mean so much more