If you're traveling in a foreign country where you don't speak the language, there are ways you can get by -- from hiring a bilingual translator to downloading a cross-dictionary or a phrasebook app to your smart phone. But even with the best of help, every so often you'll encounter an expression that'll leave you scratching your head. These words or phrases usually aren't literally untranslatable, but are difficult to grasp because they fall into what linguists call a lexical gap, meaning there's no equivalent phrase for them in English.
In some instances, you might understand the phrase's meaning, but not the seemingly nonsensical metaphor the speaker uses to express it; for example, when a German speaker utters the phrase jermandem einen Bären aufbinden, you might not understand that he means someone is lying, since the literal translation of the words is "someone tying up a bear."
In other cases, the meaning itself might be so rooted in an unfamiliar culture that you have difficulty making sense of it. For example, the Inuktitut language, spoken in the Arctic, has numerous words for types of snow: Autturunniq describes snow that's been pressed, melted and re-frozen; atairranaqtuq denotes snow that makes a crunching sound when someone steps in it; and ikumaliniq is snow stained by soot from a torch or fire inside a structure, according to the Inuktitut Living Dictionary.
Here are five of our favorite difficult-to-comprehend expressions.
You may hear this expression from speakers of the Yagan language, which is indigenous to the Tierra del Fuego, an Argentine province on the southernmost tip of South America. It expresses such a complex scenario that the book of Guinness World Records designates it as the most succinct word in any language. Yet it's so puzzling to English speakers that it's been looked up more than 2,500 times at the dictionary Web site Wordnik.com, which, by the way, doesn't offer a definition and notes that the word is not acceptable for use in Scrabble.
While Mamihlapinatapei has been translated several different ways in English, it seems the consensus is that it describes a wordless, yet meaningful, glance shared by two individuals who both desire to initiate something, but are reluctant to actually start.
The Danish word hyggelig is one of those rare expressions that is truly untranslatable, or at the very least so difficult to explain to foreigners that most Danes are reluctant even to try. When writer Roger Smith, who was visiting the land of Hamlet and Ibsen, asked an acquaintance to translate, she replied: "Oh, hyggelig, hyggelig, hyggelig - it's hyggelig this, hyggelig that. Everything's hyggelig to us Danes."
Eventually, Smith deduced that the word has something to do with sincerely feeling nice or cozy about something or someone, without an ounce of false polite sentiment.
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This expression comes from the Kannada language of southern India, and its literal translation is a bit bizarre: "The pot which is full does not splash." The word actually denotes a person who not only is conceited and pompous, but who is even more insufferable -- he or she is unaware that he or she is conceited and pompous, according to the book "Toujours Tingo: More Extraordinary Words to Change the Way We See the World."
This word, from the Pascuense language of Easter Island, refers to people who are outrageous borrowers of items from neighbors, but who do it as a subtle form of flattery. If you're familiar with the classic comic strip "Blondie," try to imagine Herb constantly borrowing tools from Dagwood and neglecting to return them -- not because he's inconsiderate or absent-minded, but in an effort to express admiration for his friend and regular bowling companion.
With hakamaroo, one borrows things and deliberately refuses to give them back, until the owner demands them. Easter Islanders have another related word, tingo, which means to continually borrow things from a person, until you've accumulated all of their possessions and there is nothing left, according to the book "They Have a Word for It."
In 2004, BBC News reported that this word, from the Tshiluba language spoken in the southeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was the most difficult to translate word on the planet, based on a poll of 1,000 linguists. Part of the problem is that the meaning of ilunga is a bit arcane and complicated, even for native speakers. It essentially means "a person who is ready to forgive any abuse the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time," according to BBC News.