Written by:
Jul 9, 2020

10 Foreign Words English Needs But Doesn't Have

Foreign languages can be a goldmine for new vocabulary, and often times you will learn more about your native tongue after having studied a second language. Having already learnt French myself, I am now in the process of studying Spanish and Portuguese. Throughout my studies I have discovered so much, not only academically but also about the culture of each county. I often find that many English words stem from certain European languages and that a surprising amount possess almost identical similarities from one tongue to another. However, sometimes it may be the case where a word is just not translatable – with this in mind, let’s take a look at 10 un-translatable words that we need to start using:

1. “Anteayer” (Spanish)

This small 6 letter word means ‘the day before yesterday’ in Spanish. It is a shortened way of saying “antes de ayer” – using the same logic we ought to be able to shorten ‘two days ago’ to ‘twodgo’…actually, maybe not…doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

2. しょうがない - “Shouganai” (Japanese)

This very relatable word really should be introduced more to western culture; at least in my opinion. It is used to signify when something can’t be helped, so why worry about it? Worrying won’t stop bad things from happening, but it will prevent you from enjoying the good ones.

3. “Kummerspeck” (German)

Moving on to a slightly less positive word, this tongue-twister from the land of the Bratwurst and beer festivals translates literally as “grief bacon” and is used when one gains weight as a result of excessive eating, stemming from being sad. Basically, it’s the equivalent of pigging out on ice-cream, while crying under a blanket in front of Netflix.

Grief bacon - words that don't exist in English

4. “Pena ajena” (Spanish)

Also used in Germany (Fremdschamen), this word is used for that feeling of embarrassment on someone else’s behalf. You know when somebody goes in for a high five when it was actually a fist bump? Or worse when the waiter drops an entire tray in the middle of the restaurant. Yeah; that’s ‘pena ajena’.

5. “Biberon” (French)

Being a secondary French speaker myself, I thought this word was just too adorable to leave out. It means ‘a baby’s bottle’; cute right? It made me wonder why we don’t have this word in English, it’s so much sweeter than just saying ‘baby bottle’ – why not give it its own word?

6. “Saudade” (Portuguese)

Meaning ‘the feeling of longing for an absent loved-one who may never return’, this Iberian word delves into the depths of emotion. With an element of sadness, yet hope, that one day your loved-one may return to your life.

7. “Dépaysement” (French)

Once again, having heard this word said by a French friend of mine, I was a bit confused at the start as to its exact meaning. It’s the feeling of not feeling at home when in a foreign country – not quite homesickness – more poignent than that. It encompasses not belonging and is mainly used with young people who have moved away from family and friends.

8. “S’encoubler” (Swiss French)

Have you ever lost your balance and fell because you’ve got tangled up in something, like a phone cable? Well, there’s a word for that (in French anyway). Strangely useful don’t you think?

9. “Fare la scarpetta” (Italian)

Existing also in French, simply as “saucer”, this means ‘to mop up sauce off your plate with bread’. Yep I don’t know why you would ever need to use that word either but nevertheless it’s always worth knowing.

Words that don't exist in English

10. почемучка - “Pochemuchka” (Russian)

To end with a more relevant word, ‘pochemuchka’ is used to describe someone who asks too many questions. We all know at least one of them; the person who just won’t stop enquiring and sticking their nose in your business. Now we can simply call them a ‘pochemuchka’, sit back and await the inevitable torrent of “what does that mean?”

Admittedly some of these words are less useful than others (see number 9) – however what these words teach us is that every language is unique. Not only does the way we speak influence our communication ability but it also influences greatly who we are as people. The whole world is connected in one way or another and what we all have in common is the power to converse. Here in the Anglophone world (English speaking), we obviously talk to each other using words but this isn't always the case – for example, in parts of southern Africa a “Khoisan” click language is used where the locals communicate with each other by clicking their tongues. This shows us that we have a fantastic skill, as human beings, to be able to converse in the most efficient ways possible, with or without the help of words.

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About the author: Hi! I’m Liam, an 18 year old student from Ireland. I have always been interested in writing and studied English language and literature at school for over 6 years. I also have a fascination with modern languages and communication, prompting me to begin documenting my thoughts and observations in articles such as the one you just read. I am an avid traveller and have explored destinations in the USA, Europe and Africa. With many more places on my bucket list, I’m only just getting started!

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