Words or the lack thereof in can convey the unique identity of a culture. If you travel or speak another language than your mother tongue, you will probably know a word or expression that cannot be translated, yet they reveal so much about the way of life and the mentality of a place. When I travel, I like to listen to the way local people communicate with each other. In common language, there are plenty of expressions that reveal a lot about the culture, mentality and values of where it is spoken.
The first example that comes to my mind, which is also my all time favorite, is hygge. I picked up this word while living in Denmark and it made me fall in love with this small Scandinavian country. While it can be very roughly translated to coziness, the word conveys the feeling when you get together with friends or family and have a cozy, comfortable time in candlelight. Everything in this definition speaks of Denmark – the happy get-together, the candlelight, the mutual good feelings, and the sense of warmth and light inside as opposed to a cold, dark outside. So you know where the Danish priorities lie. It is common to hear Danish people say to each other – Let’s have a hygge time this weekend. Doesn’t it sound much better than “Let’s hang out?”
The concept also exists in various Northern European cultures – German, Finnish, Norwegian to name a few. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be an English equivalence. I resorted to using the word as it is and tried to organize hygge times with friends back home, only to find perplexing and then empathetic aww-she-just-returned-from-abroad look.
The next word and concept that I am particularly fond of is fika. The Swedish designers in my office taught me the importance of this ritual. At around 3-4pm, they would say fika to each other and leave the table for a coffee-and-pastry break. As someone who has lived in the US since college, I automatically assumed it meant running downstairs for a coffee-to-go which I would gulf down in front of my computer while finishing that long contract review. The clueless me followed the Swedish team to the coffee shop and watched as they ordered not only coffee but also pastries, sat down at a table, and chat. The ritual only lasted 15 minutes to half an hour but it was a complete unplug from work. According to them, it is a way to refresh the brain and have a conversation with their co-workers. It is not uncommon for Swedish people to take multiple fika a day – so no, it’s not just a coffee version of the Brit’s afternoon tea. I used to ask myself how the Swedes are always ranked among the most productive and creative workers in the world. Maybe fika is their secret.
The following case, on the other hand, is about how the lack of a word says something about a culture. In France, there is not a direct equivalence to “cheap.” Instead, le Français would use one of the three synonyms: économiser (save), bon marché (good deal), and pas cher (directly translated to not expensive). A French girl could go shopping in the flea markets in her Channel and still believes she’s got a good deal. A blatant “cheap” does not exist in a French person’s vocabulary. I wonder if it is the reason behind their world-famous discerning standards for quality and timelessness.
How about you – do you have other un-translatable foreign words that convey interesting aspects of a culture?