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11 words that don’t translate to English

Language is a powerful tool that allows us to communicate with each other. From expressing emotions to sharing laughter and joy, we rely heavily on our linguistic abilities. Language is so impactful that it even influences the way we see the world. Having a common language is often enough to allow for communication across cultural and language barriers. However, occasionally we find words and phrases that just don’t translate well. This is one of the beautiful things about language learning; we get a peek into different cultures when we learn new things! 

Today, we want to share with you 11 words, from 11 languages that don’t translate into English very well. We’ve also included the phonetic spelling, to help you understand how natives pronounce them. We hope you’ll find them as interesting as we do!

1. Dépaysement  (day-pa-EEZ-MAHN) –  Dépaysement is a French word which refers to the feeling of not being at home or in a familiar context. It can also refer to a change of scenery and can be used in a positive or negative way.

Example: While exploring a vibrant and bustling market in Marrakech, the traveller experienced a sense of dépaysement, surrounded by new sights, sounds, and smells.

2. Fernweh (FEHRN-veh) –  Fernweh is a German word which is the opposite of homesickness. It represents a strong desire to travel and explore distant lands, a longing for adventures and faraway or unseen places.

Example: She felt a deep sense of fernweh when she saw photos of the breathtaking landscapes of New Zealand, setting off a strong urge to plan her next adventure.

3. Gezellig (heh-ZEH-luhkh) – Gezellig is a Dutch word used to represent and express a sense of cosiness, conviviality, fun and togetherness. It is often used to describe a social and relaxed occasion.

Example – On a cosy afternoon, a group of friends gather in a cafe to share stories, laughter and food. The cafe is softly lit and offers comfortable seating. This would be described as gezellig, or a gezellig atmosphere – gezelligheid (heh-ZEH-luhk-hait).

4. Hygge (HOO-guh) – Hygge is a term that encompasses cosiness, comfort, and contentment. It is all about creating a warm and inviting atmosphere to enjoy simple pleasures, especially during winter. While Hygge is mostly known as a Danish term, it is also used in Norway.

Example: On a chilly or rainy winter evening, a person might put on some soft music, wrap themselves in a comfortable blanket, and enjoy a book by the fireplace, creating a hygge atmosphere.

5. Jayus (JAH-yoos) – An Indonesian term, Jayus describes a joke, or person, that is so unfunny that it becomes funny in its own right because of its awkwardness.

Example: Even though his dad’s puns were terrible and made everyone groan, he couldn’t help but laugh because they were so jayus.

6. Lagom (LAH-gohm) – Lagom represents the Swedish concept of moderation and balance. It means “just the right amount” or “not too much, not too little.” It emphasises the idea of contentment and avoiding excess.

Example – If serving a drink to a guest, you might ask, “Would you like more?” and they might respond with “No thanks, I had lagom”.

7. Sisu (see-su) – Well-known and pridefully carried, sisu is a Finnish concept that contains characteristics such as determination, stoicism, resilience and bravery, especially when dealing with a challenging situation or adversity. It is also often described as having an attitude of never giving up.

Example: A marathon runner starts experiencing bad leg cramps about 2/3rds of the way through the race. Despite the pain and physical limitation that comes from it, the runner accesses their sisu and pushes through, ending the race with a determined stride.

8. Sobremesa (soh-breh-MAY-sah) – Sobremesa is a Spanish term which refers to the time spent sitting around the table and chatting with friends or family after a meal. It’s a relaxed, post-dinner conversation, often accompanied by a drink, dessert, and sometimes a cigar. 

Example: After a delicious homemade dinner, the family lingered at the dining table, engaging in sobremesa, sharing stories and sipping coffee. It is worth noting that in Spanish, you DO sobremesa, though when translating to English engaging is more appropriate.

9. Pennichella (penny-kel-lah) – Pennichella is an Italian word which refers to a short nap, specifically taken after lunch. Such naps are common in Mediterranean cultures, as people often take breaks from the heat when the sun is at its highest.

Example: After enjoying a meal at a local trattoria, Maria took a pennichella to restore her energy for the afternoon and evening. After 20 minutes, she was refreshed and ready to continue with her work.

10. Tsundoku (tsoon-DOH-koo) – Tsundoku is a Japanese word describing the habit of acquiring books and letting them pile up without reading them. It reflects the tendency that many people have to collect books with the intention of eventually reading them.

Example: Her bookshelves were filled with novels she hadn’t yet read, a testament to her ongoing battle with tsundoku.

11. Tarab (tah-RAHB) – Tarab is an Arabic term which expresses the emotional and spiritual joy experienced when listening to live music, particularly during an engaging performance. It represents the deep emotional connection that music can create.

Example: As the singer’s powerful voice filled the concert hall, the audience was swept up in a sense of tarab, feeling a profound connection to the music and the moment.

Was this as interesting for you as it was for us? Each of these words offers a small insight into a bit of the culture they come from. Exploring the connection between language and culture is one of the fun bits that comes from learning a language. Of course there are also plenty of other benefits such as increased prevention from forms of dementia and increased executive functioning capabilities. 

Want to start improving your communication skills with a language training? We’ve got over 50 languages to choose from, all offered in different ways designed to suit you and your schedule. Click here to find out more about our language courses!

Paul Van Zanten
Paul is an American intercultural communications professional living in the Netherlands and connecting with his Dutch roots. With a passion for travel, as well as gaining new perspectives and experiences, Paul aims to further his growth, as well as that of others at Language Partners.

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