Words and language – the world has changed

It’s been a while between posts, but I have recently come across a number of language related posts that I think are worth sharing.

For a while there lists of hot new words were all over the internet. That’s slowed down significantly, but I found two recently that are worth sharing. I particularly liked the list of 216 non-English words “referring to emotional states from the world’s languages that have no correlate in English”. I think what I like most about this list – hell, it’s the reason anyone finds it interesting – is because the emotional states referred to are states we can all empathize with, and because of that lack of correlate, the translations sound like poetry.

* Aware (哀れ) (Japanese): the bittersweetness of a brief, fading moment of transcendent beauty.
* Sabi (侘寂) (Japanese): aged beauty.
* Mono no aware (物の哀れ) (Japanese): pathos of understanding the transiency of the world and its beauty.

哀れ, pronounced a-wa-rey (I’m not a phonetician, sorry), is something that I feel regularly – reflections in puddles, the graceful elderly (侘寂) , my partner singing quietly while cooking. I’m also fascinated by the racial profiling I give these words – do I find that these words are interesting

* Dadirri (Australian Aboriginal): a deep, spiritual act of reflective and respectful listening.
* Koselig (Norwegian): cosy, warm, intimate, enjoyable.
* Mbuki-mvuki (Bantu): to shed clothes to dance uninhibited.
* On (恩) (Japanese): a feeling of moral indebtedness, relating to a favour or blessing given by others.
* Peiskos (Norwegian): sitting in front of a crackling fireplace enjoying the warmth.

because of what they convey or because they seem to be culturally perfect in a stereotypical understanding of their respective cultures?

* Cafune (Portuguese): tenderly running one’s fingers through a loved one’s hair.
* Desenrascanço (Portuguese): to artfully disentangle oneself from a troublesome situation.
* Estrenar (Spanish): to use or wear something for the first time.
* Fernweh (German): the ‘call of faraway places,’ homesickness for the unknown.
* Fingerspitzengefühl (German): ‘fingertip feeling,’ the ability to act with tact and sensitivity.
* Gjensynsglede (Norwegian): (noun) The joy of meeting someone you haven’t seen in a long time.
* Guān xì (關係) (Chinese): building up good social karma.
* Janteloven (Norwegian/Danish): a set of rules which discourages individualism in communities.
* Jugaad (जुगाड) (Hindi): the ability to ‘make do’ or ‘get by’.
* Kvell (Yiddish): to feel pride and joy in someone else’s accomplishment.
* Tîeow (เที่ยว) (Thai): to roam around in a carefree way.
* Ubuntu (Nguni Bantu): being kind to others on account of one’s common humanity.


The Dictionary of Fantastic Vocabulary on the other hand, is a list of completely made up words. By the look of it, the words have been created programmatically (ok, proof: look at the end of section for the letter E/e, just up from H) and meanings have been applied later. The beauty here is the recognition that the words don’t exist for a reason – very few of them are easy to say, they *look* clunky. But you could imagine over time being able to introduce some into everyday usage. The idea is greater than the execution, but I think it’s a noble failure. I really should do some analysis on the distribution across the alphabet… dammit, I just went and did it. As you can see, there are only 15 letters represented at all, and over half start with E, A or S. I presume this is a combination of prevalence in English, prevalence of prefixes starting with those letters, and the author’s internalized biases.

Total 1516 Percent of total
E 334 22.03
A 284 18.73
S 148 9.76
D 142 9.37
I 127 8.38
O 109 7.19
C 108 7.12
P 78 5.15
U 53 3.50
H 52 3.43
R 20 1.32
M 19 1.25
T 16 1.06
B 15 0.99
N 11 0.73

The final explicitly word based interest is Helen Zaltzman‘s The Allusionist podcast – not only is it a great short podcast about words, the latest is actually about dictionary.com’s word of the day – which is a mail out with 13 million subscribers. People really do love words.


The final post is an interesting linguistic article I stumbled across titled Your Ability to Can Even: A Defense of Internet Linguistics that starts with “I can’t even” and a friends recent claim “I have lost all ability to can” as a riff on the former:

Loose translation: “This link is so amazing that I have lost my ability to express my appreciation for it in fully formed sentences. All speech has been reduced to this ill-formed sentence. Thus is the depth of my excitement about this. Click on it. Click on it if you too would like to experience this level of incoherent excitement.”

While the article doesn’t address the contemporary obsession with communication via emoji (and its sometimes miscommunication, depending on OS) it does address the new field of “internet linguistics” and a new wave of conservative backlash from those that would have language stagnate. There is also some great gender analysis of the roles played in language creation:

In short, this dialect results when people who already share a language are given new tools. The result isn’t a butchering of English language but a creative experiment with it. Am I claiming that the Internet as a whole is operating on a level of postmodernism that would make Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon seem like novices? maybe i am maybe im not u punk wut of it like who r u to tell me otherwise

Dr. Tannen does the interesting work of examining gender and tech language. In studying sample text messages, she found that women were much more likely to use enthusiasm markers like exclamation points and add emphasis via capitalization. Most linguists emphasize the lack of understanding that can take place between men and women as a result of the different value that each gender places on conveying emotions. Supposedly, women perceive men’s lack of enthusiasm markers and capitalization as coldness and men perceive women’s use of them to be unnecessary.

However, what I find most fascinating about the Internet Language is that it is making language less, not more, gendered. Men and women on the Internet use many of the same tropes, enthusiasm markers and emphasizers in order to communicate. In the world of blogging and Internet writing, women are the creators of language. It is a realm in which women are not being socialized with already existing language but are doing the work of socializing and creating a community. Women dominate every important social media platform. Women outnumber men on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest and account for 72% of all social media users. On Tumblr, where the number of men and women is roughly equal, women dominate the conversation.

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