Speaking in tongues: A tour of words from other cultures
Adam Jacot de Boinod was a researcher on a BBC quiz show when he first began collecting words from other languages. He’s since turned his linguistic adventures into a book. The most unique terms are often either extremely culturally specific, or name an experience or emotion that is universal, he says.
My interest in the quirkiness of foreign words was triggered when one day, working as a researcher for the BBC, I picked up a weighty Albanian dictionary to discover that the language has no less than 27 words for “eyebrow” and the same number for different types of moustache, ranging from a mustaqe madh (bushy) to a mustaqe posht (one that droops down at both ends).
My curiosity became a passion. I was unable to go near a bookshop or library without sniffing out the often-dusty shelf where the foreign-language dictionaries were kept.
In 2005, I went a step further, putting together a book of amusing, surprising and rarely used words often unfamiliar even to speakers of those languages.
After all most dictionaries have a thousand pages or more, so there are bound to be words even the fluent don’t know. Many of these express a niche and culturally specific idea. It was in combing through dictionaries that I came across amazing concepts such as nakhur (Persian), for a camel that will not give milk until her nostrils are tickled; physingoomai (Ancient Greek), meaning to be excited by eating garlic; and debideboo (Mandinka, West Africa), for a bird that pretends it can’t fly but slips away any time an attempt is made to catch it.
Even where one might have thought that words expressing an instinctive reaction to something would share some sort of universal commonality, they do not. Take the sound of frogs. In Afrikaans, they are said to go kwaak-kwaak; among the Munduruku tribe of Brazil, the term is korekorekore; while in the local Spanish vernacular of Argentina they go berp.
Likewise, where we say “Ouch” or mouth “Cheese” to a photographer or say “Hello”, the range is equally expressive and diverse. It’s only in the post-industrial globalised world that some terms have become universalised, with words such as taxi, hotel, sauna and bank now being understood around the world.
I have examined languages from every corner of the world, from the Chilean language of Yamana to the Inuktitut of Greenland, from the language of the Society Islands to that of the Siberian Yakut. My favourite words tend to highlight an aspect of a specific culture. These include quirky terms such as embasan (Maguindanaon, Philippines), meaning to wear clothes while bathing; beautiful ones such as wo-mba (Bakweri, Cameroon), to describe the smiling in sleep by children; the thought-provoking word gintawan (Manobo, Philippines), for the energy and industry of the first wife (caused from the competition when her husband takes an additional wife).
And while we do not share the same climate, we can easily imagine the feelings that prompted words such as hanyauku (RuKwangali, Namibia), to walk on tiptoe on warm sand; barbarian-on (Ik, Nilo-Saharan), to sit in a group, warming up in the morning sun, and dynke (Norwegian), “the act of dunking somebody’s face in snow”.
Hygge is a word Danish people use when recognising a moment alone or with loved ones as cosy or special. For further evocations of that cosy autumnal feeling, there’s cwtch (Welsh), which indicates a hug or cuddle in a place of sanctuary and safety; gezelligheid (Dutch), for a commonly shared experience of feeling cosy, warm and intimate with those you love; and peiskos (Norwegian), for the sensation of sitting before a crackling fire to enjoy its warmth.
As for words that define a nation, many of us know of duende (passion) in Spain, sakura (cherry blossom) in Japan, and taarof (ritual politeness) in Iran. Sweden not only values the idea of a lack of extremes, it has a word for it: lagom. Here equality is the ideal, hierarchies are to be avoided, and it’s not considered good to stand out too much. Everything and everyone is meant to simply be lagom, which is to say “not good and not bad”, “just right”, “so-so” or “not too much and not too little”.
In an increasingly flattened world, it is heartening to celebrate the wonderfully diverse and often obscure words of other cultures. It’s also a way to preserve at least a few traces of the many languages now at risk of extinction.
(Adam Jacot de Boinod was a researcher for the BBC series QI and is the author of The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World)