‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world’. That’s the twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein reminding us how our language shapes the way we see the world and perhaps the way we think.
Some languages seem to have a word for everything. You read them and wonder how we can possibly exist without such vocabulary.
Indonesian, for example, has the word ‘mencolek’. It describes that childish game when you tap someone on their shoulder and then, when they turn round, look all innocent. You’re playing ‘mencolek’.
Filipinos are fortunate enough to have the word ‘gigil’. It’s the urge to pinch or squeeze something that is irresistibly cute.
The obscure Yaghan language (before you ask, no I don’t speak it) contains the word ‘mamihlapinatapai’. It refers to that special look between two people, when both are wishing that the other would do something that they both want but which neither wants to do.
Bantu brings us the opposite of ‘nightmare’. It describes an astonishing dream, one that wakes us up wishing we were back asleep. They call the sensation ‘bilita mpash’. Whilst not easy to say, it does depict a sensation we recognise.
The big-hitter of linguistic creativity is of course German. No other language seems to come up with words that are more unexpected, more playful or so packed with syllables.
Many of us will know, and perhaps use, schadenfreude. It’s the guilty feeling of taking in pleasure in someone else’s misfortune, of laughing inwardly when someone gets into trouble.
Then there’s knowing that you are overeating not through hunger but because of unhappiness. German serves up ‘kummerspeck’. For the regret we feel that we should have said something to someone – a clever retort or put-down, for example – but knowing that now it’s too late, Germans have ‘treppenwitz’.
It’s hard not to feel a sense of word envy.
But my favourite obscure word, the one I’m most in need of in my daily life, is the Japanese term ‘tsundoku’. It’s the habit for buying books and letting them pile up unread. How on earth have I got so far through life without that word?
I’m writing about words like these because they came up in an A-level English lesson I taught on Monday. Students were exploring how social media has changed our language. It got us talking about whether it is possible to ‘police the internet’, to stop people saying things that are obscene, blasphemous or hurtful.
If it is possible, is it a good thing? Should the internet be censored for all of us just because of a few who use it like some rampaging delinquent spraying vicious graffiti round town?
Let’s leave that debate for another time. My students’ discussion got us talking about a word we have in English (though we borrowed it many hundreds of years ago from Latin), but which most people probably don’t know. It’s ‘idiolect’ and it describes the personal features of our individual language.
When someone familiar speaks to you, even if your eyes are closed, you’ll often be able to tell who it is. The combination of accent, the speed with which they speak, the pitch of their voice, the words they frequently use, the fillers – ‘like’, ‘sort of’ – they deploy: all of these give each of us a distinctive and recognisable personal language. It’s our idiolect.
Here’s an example. My wife isn’t the biggest fan of my writing. She says I overuse certain words and phrases – such as ‘shimmer’ and ‘finger-wagging’ and ‘old-fangled’. She thinks I’ve become a walking cliché.
When she first suggested this I was outraged, of course. I was determined to prove her wrong. Then Google, unhelpfully, proved her right. I definitely do overuse those words. They are part of my idiolect.
So now I’m looking for a new word. It doesn’t matter what its original language is. It means desperately avoiding using words like ‘shimmer’ and ‘finger-wagging’ and ‘old-fangled’.
But I fear it’s too late. I’m a lost cause.
Spare the schadenfreude, please.
-- Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds