Language and thought
The linguists Sapir (1884-1939) and Whorf (1897-1941) formulated the hypothesis that languages shape the way we perceive the world, classify concepts and communicate about them. Although the assumption that thought is determined by language has been disputed today, evidence suggests that language can have some influence on the way we think. For example, the grammatical gender of a word may affect the way an object is perceived.
When trying to convey culture-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 do not have precise equivalents in other languages are hygge (Danish), sisu (Finnish), saudade (Portuguese and Galician) or Gemütlichkeit (German). “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.
The German language also frequently resorts to combining 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 need lengthy explanations in other
languages can be defined in a concise way, for example Ohrwurm, Pantoffelheld or Erbsenzähler.
Can you guess what German concepts the following pictures depict?
Collage of pictures depicting different German concepts
The School of Life is an educational company that gives advice on life issues and offers a number of videos on its YouTube channel to develop emotional intelligence. One of the videos, Why Germans can say things nobody else can (4:11 min.), presents some German compound nouns that succinctly express “a sensation that we all know but that other languages require whole clumsy sentences or paragraphs to explain”. Or 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 word translation.
How would you mediate the meaning or 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: