April 24, 2012
The Top 10 Relationship Words That Aren’t Translatable Into English

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Credit: EverAfterGlow/Flickr

I came across a fantastic compilation of 10 relationship words that do not have English equivalents.

One of the things that’s so fascinating about language is the extent to which it’s shaped by culture. 

It’s not only words pertaining to relationships that reveal cultural distinctions - there are many concepts that we take for granted that are hugely influenced by the language that we speak, to name a few:

Pamela Haag’s list is but one example of the many aspects of language and culture that we don’t often think about.

1.Mamihlapinatapei - Yagan (an indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego)

The wordless yet meaningful look shared by two people who desire to initiate something, but are both reluctant to start. 

2. Yuanfen - Chinese

A relationship by fate or destiny.

This is a complex concept. It draws on principles of predetermination in Chinese culture, which dictate relationships, encounters and affinities, mostly among lovers and friends.

From what I glean, in common usage yuanfen means the “binding force” that links two people together in any relationship. 

3. Cafuné - Brazilian Portuguese

The act of tenderly running your fingers through someone’s hair.

4.Retrouvailles - French  

The happiness of meeting again after a long time. 

5. Ilunga - Bantu

A person who is willing to forgive abuse the first time; tolerate it the second time, but never a third time.

Apparently, in 2004, this word won the award as the world’s most difficult to translate. Although at first, I thought it did have a clear phrase equivalent in English: It’s the “three strikes and you’re out” policy. But ilunga conveys a subtler concept, because the feelings are different with each “strike.” The word elegantly conveys the progression toward intolerance, and the different shades of emotion that we feel at each stop along the way.

6. La Douleur Exquise - French

The heart-wrenching pain of wanting someone you can’t have.

When I came across this word I thought of “unrequited” love. It’s not quite the same, though. “Unrequited love” describes a relationship state, but not a state of mind. Unrequited love encompasses the lover who isn’t reciprocating, as well as the lover who desires. La douleur exquise gets at the emotional heartache, specifically, of being the one whose love is unreciprocated.

7. Koi No Yokan - Japanese

The sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall into love. 

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.

8. Ya’aburnee - Arabic

“You bury me.”

It’s a declaration of one’s hope that they’ll die before another person, because of how difficult it would be to live without them.

9. Forelsket - Norwegian  

The euphoria you experience when you’re first falling in love.

This is a wonderful term for that blissful state, when all your senses are acute for the beloved, the pins and needles thrill of the novelty. There’s a phrase in English for this, but it’s clunky. It’s “New Relationship Energy,” or NRE.

10. Saudade - Portuguese

The feeling of longing for someone that you love and is lost. Another linguist describes it as a “vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist.”

Via Pamela Haag at BigThink

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