When human experience is shared, even if words aren’t


Last time we talked, we looked at the German word Fingerspitzengefühl, a combination of “fingertip” and “sense” or “feeling,” which connotes a kind of sixth-sense awareness of the right move in a difficult situation. 

What about the notion that if a language has a word for a particular idea, users of that language have a kind of exclusive or privileged access to that concept? This is a widespread belief: Languages can contain untranslatable words and if you don’t know the language, you’re barred from that experience. This is not true.

There’s definitely something fascinating about supposedly untranslatable words. I own several enjoyable books about such words. But not knowing the word Fingerspitzengefühl doesn’t mean that you can’t grok the idea of the subtle skills it refers to. And just because you don’t speak Danish doesn’t mean that you can’t experience the particular sense of coziness that the famous hygge denotes.

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