By Cate Pitterle
My favorite word is sonder, an obscure term that I found through a TED Talk and that Microsoft Word tells me isn’t real. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows describes it as: “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”
Though the word is becoming more common, with pages on Wiktionary and even Urban Dictionary, that feeling—of realizing that others have lives “as vivid and complex as your own”—once shared a plight with dozens, hundreds of others. The English language is simply not broad enough.
Who, after all, hasn’t experienced Yaghan’s mamihlapinatapai—looking at someone, hoping they’ll offer to do what you both are unwilling to? After all, no one wants to get up from the couch, snuggled into a blanket in the dead of winter, to take the dog outside into the freezing snow; when you and your brother look at each other, both hoping the other will do it, you’re experiencing mamihlapinatapai.
And I know that I’ve personally experienced the Scottish concept of tartle—the act of hesitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name. We’ve all heard a jayus, an Indonesian concept perhaps most closely related to the dad joke, a joke so terrible that you can’t help but laugh. And even Twitter’s @SoVeryBritish has at least partially gotten in on the Inuit idea of iktsuarpok, the anticipation of waiting for someone to arrive, pushing you to sporadically go outside to see if they’re coming.
German is even famous among English-speakers for having one-word terms for obscure things. Fernweh describes longing to be somewhere else or missing somewhere you’ve never been. Kummerspeck, literally meaning “grief bacon,” means the excess weight one puts on from stress-eating during a hard time. To me, the most relatable one is perhaps fremdschämen—essentially, second-hand embarrassment, that wanting to cringe when watching someone else humiliate themselves. Honestly, it’s why I refuse to watch certain TV shows and movies, like Parks and Rec or even The Good Place.
What does all this mean, then? Is English uncreative, or are these just the cries of a writer who hates having to string together more than one word to describe “a song that’s stuck in your head” (in German, ohrwurm)?
In my mind, discovering where English comes up short—and where it specifically defines things that other languages do not—isn’t an arduous or painful task. Linguistically, it’s fascinating to see what words languages choose to define, and how. I do wish that I could use iktsuarpok in everyday conversation, but studying how it’s used in Inuit is as intellectually rewarding. Not every language can describe everything, so studying others is not only useful, but necessary. After all, we’re all human—we experience the same emotions, the same fears, the same hopes—we just have to put them into words.