BY NOW, THE STATISTICS are well known: About 25 languages are being lost to humanity a year, and the pace is accelerating. Currently, there are 6,800 languages, and roughly one dies a fortnight. The world is shrinking, the rarity of isolation is contributing to the disappearance of languages, and the Internet, commerce and the media are causing English to increasingly dominate the international landscape.
We should all lament this loss, and many of us do. But not just for sentimental reasons. Each language is, at least in part, a unique map of the same shared territory of human life on Earth, and each language contains within its lexicon something to teach the rest of us. I should know; I’ve made the collection of foreign words that don’t have an English-language equivalent an obsession for some years now. It’s like collecting butterflies; you can never stop.
There’s so much arresting beauty in words that describe things for which we have no concise expression in English, such as wabi, Japanese for “a flawed detail that enhances the elegance of the whole work of art,” or wamadat, Persian for “the intense heat of a sultry night.” You find words for all stages of life, from paggiq, Inuit for “the flesh torn when a woman delivers a baby,” to torschlusspanik, German for “the fear of diminishing opportunities as one gets older.”
You come to savor the direct logic of Danish, the succinctness of Malay, the sheer wackiness of Japanese, and you realize that sometimes a dictionary can tell you more about a culture than a guidebook.
Some strange words describe strictly local concepts and sensations, such as the Hawaiian kapau’u, “to drive fish into the waiting net by striking the water with a leafy branch”; or pukajaw, Inuit for “firm snow that is easy to cut and provides warm shelter.” But others reinforce the commonality of human experience. Haven’t we all felt termangu-mangu, Indonesian for “sad and not sure what to do,” or mukamuka, Japanese for “so angry one feels like throwing up”?
Most reassuring is to find the thoughts that lie on the tip of an English tongue, here crystallized into vocabulary: from the Zambian sekaseka, “to laugh without reason,” through the Czech nedovtipa, “one who finds it difficult to take a hint,” to the Japanese bakku-shan, “a woman who appears pretty when seen from behind but not from the front.” And which of us has not at some point experienced what the Germans define as backpfeifengesight, or “a face that cries out for a fist in it”?
The English language has a long-established and voracious tendency to naturalize the best foreign words: ad hoc, feng shui, croissant, kindergarten. We’ve been pinching words from other cultures for centuries. But there are a great many we’ve missed, and we’re losing thousands of opportunities a year.
It’s time to wake up to what we’re losing. Take on board enough foreign words, and while there’s no guarantee you’ll never pana po’o again (Hawaiian for “scratch your head in order to help you remember something you’ve forgotten”), much less that you’ll mingmu (Chinese for “die without regret”), you’ll expand the map in your mind, and that’s no small thing.