English is a great language. It’s extremely flexible, relatively easy to learn, and not without its unique quirks. There’s hardly another tongue that allows you to use adjectives as verbs, turn nouns into adverbs, and invent new words by mashing together old ones, as generously as English.
Of course it’s not perfect. It suffers from lack of structure, randomness of pronunciation, and its sometimes unclear or obscure vocabulary. Why would the clunky “unfortunately” be more popular than the swift “alas?” Why in the world is “Wednesday” spelled like that? And seriously, wtf is up with your pronunciation, you madmen?
So sometimes it’s nice to have other languages to borrow and learn from. Perhaps it’s time to update the English language a bit and add the following ten expressions from Spanish, German, French, and Portuguese:
What do you get if you crossbreed a French male cat (“chat”) and a female English dog (“bitch”) in Brazil? The answer is “chato:” a neat little adjective you can use to describe a spiteful child, stubborn lover or that one cashier who’s perpetually in a bad mood. Although “grumpy” isn’t exactly the same thing, I like how Grumpy Cat would be Gato Chato in Portuguese.
Do you know how when you just walk around town without a clear destination in mind? Just strolling through the streets to soak up the sights? Well, the French have not only designed their capital exactly for this purpose, they also have the perfect word to describe the activity: “flâner.”
Sometime it’s nice to just aimlessly wander through an unknown city. It gets you closer to experiencing actually living there – much more so than riding one of those tourist busses, at least. So next time you’re in the city of lights – or anywhere else, really – take your time to take a walk. Flânez!
Everybody knows the expression “Schadenfreude,” a German word describing the joy of watching somebody else’s misery or pain, but there’s another great term that’s related but doesn’t get enough love in my opinion: “fremdschämen” means to be embarrassed or uncomfortable because of witnessing someone else’s awkwardness or public humiliation. You know how you cringe when a terrible singer comes on stage on shows like “The Voice”? That’s “Fremdschämen” for you. A lot of reality TV shows and all Adam Sandler comedies do this for me, as well.
In the hilarious book about the exploration of early America “A Voyage Long and Strange” by Tony Horwitz, the author visits the Dominican Republic just to be screwed over by locals, again and again. “Estámos jodidos,” his Spanish-speaking companion says every time things go wrong (which happens pretty often during the trip) in an almost apologetic tone. “We’re being hosed,” or perhaps “we’re f*cked,” might come close but certainly can’t convey the just-a-regular-Tuesday attitude of the Dominican mantra.
Example: The world’s richest 1% own as much as the rest of the population combined? Estámos jodidos!
Not to be confused with “Führer” – an entirely different concept we shall not explore today – the neat little word “früher” can take us to times past, to the olden days, to an ancient era of milk and honey and better pay for less work. Sure, an English speaker can tell me without hassle what things were like before something else happened, or talk about life “back then,” meaning a relatively specific point in time. “In the past” doesn’t cut it either, because of the implication that the topic at hand only recently changed. Oftentimes, a simple “used to” can help gap the bridge, which German speakers could use as well, but it doesn’t work in every constellation and for every sentence.
The German “früher” does away with all these problems of precision and creates the impression of a vague yesteryear that doesn’t even have to have existed – all it takes is the listener’s imagination to think of a time that is not now, not tomorrow, and not exactly yesterday. Just… früher.
Although part of many languages, I think Spanish has the most elegant solution to what I call the “politeness problem.” While “Sir” and “Ma’am” are somewhat of a compromise, in English there’s no clear distinction between friends and strangers. Of course, this might make people more cordial and amicable around each other, but sometimes a formal pronoun in place of “you” could be helpful to establish some distance between yourself and another person.
German and French speakers formally address people by recycling other pronouns, which gets especially confusing in German where “she,” “they” and the aforementioned “usted” are all “sie”! It’s not much of a consolidation to me that the formal pronoun is capitalized, to grant at least some kind of distinction. In Portuguese, “você” is used differently in different places, so that’s even more chaotic. “Usted,” however, is not only exclusively used as a formal second person pronoun, it even has a plural in “ustedes.” Who would’ve thought that the Spanish are the most organized out of the bunch?
Speaking of a lack of pronouns, there is another huge gap in the English vocabulary: the plural of “you.” While some regions have adopted their own version of a plural second person pronoun, e.g. “y’all” or “youse,” there’s no universal way of addressing more than one person at once. As with the aforementioned “usted,” other languages besides Portuguese know this concept and have their own word for “you guys” (the German “ihr” and French “vous” come to mind), but the Portuguese “vocês” is not used for anything else beside this meaning, while the Germans are again very economical with their pronouns, using “ihr” to additionally mean “her,” and the French not being very consistent in differentiating between singular and plural pronouns.
It’s pretty obvious what this conversation between person A, B, and C is about:
A: “Would you like a drink?”
B: “No, I don’t.”
C: “Yes, you do!”
But once we shorten the sentences a little, things get more complicated:
A: “Would you like a drink?”
Instead of being bossy towards person B, Mr. C now just seems to want something to drink.
Fortunately, there’s a solution to this problem – and it’s French: “si” is used to rebut someone else’s “no.” So in this particular scenario, things would be much more clear if held in French:
A: “Est-ce que tu veux une boisson?”
P.S.: The German “doch” does the same thing, but it’s much harder to pronounce!
Do you know this feeling of melancholy that you get when you deeply miss the person you love? It’s a kind of longing – an aching for your other half. A state of incompleteness, unrest, mournfulness. A feeling English speakers can’t quite put their fingers on, because they don’t have a word for it!
The German “Sehnsucht” isn’t bad, but the Portuguese “saudade” is one of these expression that fit so perfectly, so seamlessly, so impeccably, that it would be a real shame not to use it, even when speaking other languages. It’s also one of the prettiest words ever, to be frank. So next time you get out your bucket of ice cream, curl up under your sheets, surrounded by a thousand pillows, and cry to the moon for your significant other, please use the mental hashtag #saudade.
Strangely enough, a popular translation for this German word is another German word: Wanderlust. Of course, English natives aren’t unfamiliar with the subject, sometimes calling it “itchy feet” or “the travel bug.” But just like “saudade,” “Fernweh” is much more fitting and more pictorial, meaning something like “far pain:” aching to go out into this big wide world to see, discover, and explore the unknown.
What makes this expression even better is that it has a perfect complimentary counterpart: “Heimweh.” The English “homesickness” comes very close, although I never liked the mental image its similarity to “seasickness” gives me.
Another German term, namely “Sehnsucht,” deserves an honorable mention here, translating to “yearning,” but possibly meaning anything from “saudade,” to “Fernweh,” to “Heimweh.”
Do you know any other foreign words that you think deserve to be part of the English vocabulary? Tell me in the comments below, along with which of these words you’re going to be using from now on!