Concepts only German words can express


Language and thought


The linguists Sapir (1884-1939) and Whorf (1897-1941) hypothesised that language shapes the way we perceive the world, classify concepts and communicate about them. Although the assumption that thought is determined by language is now disputed, there is evidence that language can have some influence on the way we think. For example, the grammatical gender of a word can affect the way an object is perceived.

When trying to convey culturally specific concepts, we may come across words that are difficult to translate because there is no equivalent expression, which is called a lexical gap. Classic examples of words with connotations that have no precise equivalent in other languages are hygge (Danish), sisu (Finnish), saudade (Portuguese and Galician) or Gemütlichkeit (coziness).“ Gemütlichkeit conjures up positive feelings prompted by atmosphere, music, tastes, smells, friends, and enjoyment of the moment. And those words together do not fully describe feel-good Gemütlichkeit." (omniglot.com)



How languages form new words


Languages have different principles of forming words. One example is conversion (converting nouns to verbs). In English, many nouns are used as verbs, including brand names, for example, to hoover, FedEx, xerox or YouTube, or even proper names, such as to Frankenstein (to combine two things in a crude manner so that the original parts are still visible).


Another way of word formation is clipping or shortening a word. The meaning of the original word is retained, for example gym (gymnasium), lab (laboratory) or sitcom (situation comedy) and often becomes the commonly used word, for example pub instead of public house.


In colloquial language, diminutive or affectionate forms of nouns or names can be created through clipping, such as pressie (present), kittie (a cat or kitten), granny (grandmother), veggies (vegetables).


Blending refers to the formation of a new lexical item that combines the meaning of the original words by merging two or more words, for example brunch (breakfast + lunch), webinar (web + seminar), staycation (stay-at-home + vacation), bustitution (bus + substitution) and glamping (glamorous + camping).


A further type of word formation are acronyms. An acronym is an abbreviation that is created from the initial letters of successive words and is pronounced as a word. Examples are ASAP (as soon as possible), NIMBY (not in my backyard) and FOMO (fear of missing out).


And finally, there is compounding, which means that a new word is formed by combining two or more words, for example face time (time that is spent talking to somebody face-to-face), brainteaser (a problem that is difficult to answer) or lockdown fatigue.



German concepts



The German language often uses combinations of words, especially nouns, to convey concepts. The basic German compound noun, like its English counterpart, consists of two words, although it is possible to combine more lexical items. In this way, complex concepts that require lengthy explanations in other languages can be defined concisely, for example Ohrwurm, Pantoffelheld or Erbsenzähler.


Can you guess which German words are shown in the following pictures?


Collage of pictures depicting different German concepts


The video


The School of Life is an educational company that offers advice on life issues and has a number of videos on its YouTube channel aimed at developing emotional intelligence. One of the videos, Why Germans can say things nobody else can (4:11 min.), introduces some German compound nouns that succinctly express "a feeling that we all know, but that in other languages requires whole clumsy sentences or paragraphs to explain". In other words, there is a lexical gap in other languages. The meaning of the word has to be explained because there is no one-to-one translation.


How would you explain the following concepts in English?
















Here is how they are explained in the video:


By the way, the concepts shown in the pictures are Kummerspeck, Futterneid, Luftschloss, Fremdschämen, Weltschmerz and Schadenfreude.




Infographic on word formation in English:


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