Most people who love words get a particular kind of thrill when we hear or read a word in another language that defines something our native tongue does not. And one of the greatest appeals of learning other languages — aside from the practical advantages — is being able to express an idea or feeling that's well-known but doesn't have an associated word in your own language. It's like a long-lost key unlocking a door.
Not sure what I mean? Here are some examples: You know the feeling when you experience a deep fondness towards a place, a place where you have a strong feeling of belonging? The Germans have a word for that: "heimat." Or how about when you have a terrible homesickness, both nostalgic and wistful? "Hiraeth" is the Welsh word that sums it up perfectly. Or how about that feeling of togetherness when you're working with others in your community for the common good? The Inuits would call that "piliriqatigiinig." And the video below talks about "socha," or the hidden vulnerability of others.
You can find these ever-so-specific definitions — along with almost 400 entries from 62 languages — in the Positive Lexicography Project, an online glossary of words we don't have in English. Tim Lomas, a University of East London lecturer in applied positive psychology, is behind the project, which he began after he attended the annual meeting of the International Positive Psychology Association at Walt Disney World. There, Lomas heard Emilia Lahti, a doctoral student at Helsinki's Aalto University talking about "sisu," a Finnish word for "the psychological strength that allows a person to overcome extraordinary challenges."
Lomas told the New Yorker, “[Lahti] suggested that [sisu] has been really valued and valorized by the Finns, and it was an important part of their culture." But it was also seen as "... a universal human capacity — it just so happened that the Finns had noticed it and coined a word for it,” Lomas said. He couldn't get the idea of this perfectly descriptive word out of his head, and he knew there were others.
So Lomas started to assemble the first edition of the Positive Lexicography Project, which he put together with input from his friends, colleagues, students and the wisdom of the Internet. The first edition had 216 expressions from 49 languages — and reading through it is by turns confusing, delightful, curious and fun.
There are words with ideas you may not have ever thought of, and others that will feel as familiar as everyday English. I mean, you may not know what "tyvesmake" is, but surely you can relate to the Norwegian word's definition: "to taste or eat small pieces of the food when you think nobody is watching, especially when cooking."
And of course, there are new words, too, because language is ever-evolving. "Sonder" is one such example, and it's "the realization that everyone has a life as vivid and complex as your own." If that's not a feeling you've already related to, you may now that you've learned the word for it — because sometimes language defines something you already know, and sometimes it tells you about something you haven't yet discovered.