The Cozy Linguistics of Hygge and Other “Untranslatable” Words

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Wintry days are finally here, and those of us who enjoy this season are no doubt huddling in the cold, rugged up in our winter coats and warm woolen scarves, dreaming of crackling fireplaces, good company, coziness, and generally getting hygge with it.

Yes, hygge. You know, that well-known word that’s so in right now that it’s been named one of 2016’s words of the year by both the Oxford Dictionary and Collins Dictionary(‘s marketing departments). It may be unremarkable to Danes, but hygge (vaguely pronounced hoo-guh) and its adjective form hyggelig are exporting the Danish art of coziness to the world. Interestingly, English-speakers have enthusiastically embraced it during a rather bleak and hollow year.

Chi Luu

Chi Luu is a peripatetic linguist who speaks Australian English and studies dead languages. Every two weeks, she’ll uncover curious stories about language from around the globe for Lingua Obscura.

This one word alone has apparently been responsible for at least ten books this year alone, actually published, to patiently explain the minutiae of Scandinavian cultural concepts of conviviality, cosiness and comfort to eager adopters (and only one of those is a parody). It’s often breathlessly described by trendsetters as an “untranslatable” Danish word—that the Danes themselves actually borrowed from the Norwegians in the eighteenth century—which meant “wellbeing.” But what is the curious story that this loanword can tell about us, our language, and how we see the world? Is there something lacking about Anglo-centric concepts of coziness and conviviality that we crave other languages’ cultural concepts of social and emotional wellbeing?

Hygge has come to refer to cultural elements of Nordic life that aren’t exactly unheard of in other cultures: the simple, convivial joys of home comforts, family life, and friendship. Are these concepts universal to the human experience or are they not? The warm, flickering glow of candlelight, hand-knit socks and sweaters, the tight-knit social circles, that’s all very hyggelig. Safety and stability, and oh, a comforting, controlled conformity (that’s sometimes referenced symbolically by Danish right wingers as a way to exclude outsiders). Perhaps that’s also a part of hygge. It seems like a true understanding might be difficult to determine, as hygge and a rough English translation like coziness sometimes seem more like words apart.

Having offered such a lovely, handmade, hyggelig gift to the Danish language, these days the Norwegians prefer use “koselig” to mean pretty much the same thing, where neighboring Northern European cultures might similarly use “gezellig” (Dutch), “mysa” (Swedish) or “Gemütlich” and “Heimlich” (German). Interestingly, like the gray side of hygge, a word like heimlich” (homely) also has ambivalent nuances related to concealment, fear, and the uncanny, as Freud pointed out. It seems that outside the inviting glow of candlelight the night is dark and full of unhygge terrors. But is this the kind of sense that translates to English speakers who’ve adopted the hygge trend? Probably not. Now if “koselig” (another recent object of fascination to English speakers) sounds more familiar to English speakers, that’s because it’s related to “cozy” and so we might be able to come full circle, within arm’s reach of a meaning (if we can just put our fingers on it), just like a good old-fashioned North American hug. (Though the jury is actually out on whether “hygge” has etymologically anything to do with “hugs,” even during the cold Scandinavian winters).

Just what is it about “untranslatable” words that fascinate us so much?

Examples like hygge and koselig actually follow a long line of foreign words that fascinate us. In English, we tend to borrow quite a few “untranslatable” words and idioms, like the ever-popular German Schadenfreude (pleasure at another’s misfortune) and the Sanskrit karma (a Buddhist concept of destiny being influenced by a person’s actions). Perhaps they don’t always mean what they originally meant, but we’ve made them our own.

Just what is it about “untranslatable” words that fascinate us so much? There are endless lists and articles on these beautiful words, so apparently alien to English, that are simply “untranslatable” or even the hardest words in the world to translate… but then they’re subsequently translated anyway, in English sentences, just not in words that are directly equivalent. Untranslatable words aren’t really untranslatable at all. When we unpack this concept it raises a number of curious questions.

What’s so special about a single word capturing a concept, as opposed to a phrase or a sentence? If a language doesn’t have a word for something, does it mean its speakers have a harder time understanding that concept cognitively? For instance, if a language, such as Tarahumara, a Uto-Aztecan language of northern Mexico, has no name or lexical distinction for a particular color perception, such as between green and blue, are speakers of that language cognitively unable to differentiate between the two colors? Likewise if some Eskimo languages have many distinctive words for snow, are we as English speakers completely unable to tell the difference between all the kinds of snowy precipitation there can be?

When you deal with the untranslatable, you inevitably bump into linguistic relativity, popularly known as the Sapir-Whorf Theory (though Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf were both developing their theories from earlier research). In 1929, Sapir stated:

Language is a guide to ‘social reality’. […] it powerfully conditions all our thinking about social problems and processes. Human beings do not live in the objective world alone […] but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. […] The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.

So are we really at the mercy of the language we speak? How much influence does it really have? Will words be forever lost in translation? Popular culture has often been high on the idea that language, the thinking person’s gateway drug, alters reality. This is the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf Theory (explored to heartbreaking effect in the recently released xenolinguistic film Arrival). Mostly attributed to Whorf’s work on the Hopi language, it claims that language is not just used to objectively report experiences, but to fundamentally shape and influence how we see the world. Before he was a linguistics student, Whorf was, oddly enough, a fire prevention engineer, and it was curious to him that, “English speakers used the words ‘full’ and ’empty’ in describing gasoline drums in relation to their liquid content alone; so, they smoked beside ’empty’ gasoline drums, which weren’t actually ’empty’ but ‘full’ of gas vapor.”

It can be easy to assume that a culture that simply can’t “understand” or directly “translate” a concept from another language is missing something, or is more alien, or somehow less intelligent than cultures that do have those lexical distinctions, but this isn’t so. Studies such as Kay and Kempton’s experiments on color shows that a strong Sapir-Whorf theory doesn’t really hold water (as well as being full of gas). Speakers of languages that don’t have a lexical distinction for certain colors are still perfectly capable of identifying differences between those colors.

Though we may not have equivalents in English for some of these concepts, most of us can surely recognize the quiet sentiments expressed in these otherwise alien words.

Most linguistic researchers have abandoned the more radical view of linguistic relativity, but it still fascinates the general public. It’s not hard to understand why. The idea that language is magical enough to alter our realities and open us to new experiences is pretty fascinating, even if it may not be entirely true. As Whorf shows, in a weaker form of the theory, people still do have habitual ways of thinking and behaving, found in the words they use, that do influence their cultural experiences. Leonid Perlovsky’s work describes how brain imaging experiments show that “learning a word ‘rewires’ cognitive circuits in the brain, learning a color name moves perception from right to left hemisphere.” So although words can be translated and understood adequately in long form, capturing a concept within a single word may indeed be cognitively meaningful.

Of course, as Robert Frost put it, “poetry is what gets left out in translation,” especially when words are clinically explained. We may be drawn to words not in our own language because they fill a gap or capture a sense that we can, as humans, understand, yet don’t have a name for. It’s interesting that among these lists of fascinating untranslatable words, you rarely find words that describe different foods or concrete objects, such as tools, that are important to a particular culture. Instead, they may emphasize a sense or nuance we can relate to or even long for, that have to do with emotional states. So is there something we, as English speakers, are lacking or looking for? Perlovsky makes a claim that “English evolved into a powerful tool of cognition unencumbered by excessive emotionality,” but that “current English language cultures face internal crises, uncertainty about meanings and purposes.” Perhaps this apparent insecurity and ambiguity made the English language a lonely hunter for the untranslatable emotional words of the world.

Subtle nuances found in words such as the Portuguese saudade (a melancholic longing for someone or somewhere far away), Russian toska (tocкa) and Welsh hiraeth (a nostalgia or longing for one’s homeland), Japanese mono no aware (物の哀れ) (the pathos or empathy for transient things) and German Waldeinsamkeit (the feeling of solitude when alone in the woods) are some of the examples that Tim Lomas has categorized as “untranslatable” words of emotion and wellbeing. Though we may not have equivalents in English for some of these concepts that have been explicitly identified and lexicalized in other cultures, most of us can surely recognize the quiet sentiments expressed in these otherwise alien words. Being exposed to these words means we don’t just have a window into another culture but as Lomas puts it, it opens us to a more enriched understanding of our own world experiences and gives us a conceptual vocabulary of positive emotional states that might guide us.

In a confusing, turbulent world, perhaps a new language of wellbeing, however roughly translated, is what many of us are hoping to learn.


JSTOR Citations

The Status of Linguistics as a Science

By: E. Sapir

Language, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Dec., 1929), pp. 207-214

Linguistic Society of America

The Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis and the Translation Muddle

By: G. M. Hyde

Translation and Literature, Vol. 2 (1993), pp. 3-16

Edinburgh University Press

A PERCEPTUAL MODEL OF THE WHORFIAN THESIS

By: RALPH L. CARNES

ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 27, No. 1 (March 1970), pp. 55-65

Institute of General Semantics

What Is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis?

By: Paul Kay and Willett Kempton

American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 86, No. 1 (Mar., 1984), pp. 65-79

Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association

Linguistic Relativity

By: John A. Lucy

Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 26 (1997), pp. 291-312

Annual Reviews

On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme

By: Donald Davidson

Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 47 (1973 - 1974), pp. 5-20

American Philosophical Association

Chi Luu

Chi Luu is a computational linguist and NLP researcher who tinkers with tiny models and machines to uncover curious mysteries in human language. She has degrees in Theoretical Linguistics and Literature, with a morbid focus on dead and dying languages. She has worked on dictionaries, multi-language search engines, and question answering applications.

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