February 19, 2015

Alternativa de sucesos prósperos y adversos

My native German is famous for its creative array of words for events, sentiments and phenomena. You have surely heard of the usual suspects: Weltschmerz describes the overall pain you feel when looking at the world, Schadenfreude the enjoyment you derive from seeing somebody else’s misfortune. The list goes on and on.

It is a true shame that there’s no term for having a word for everything, because that not only taints an otherwise charming narrative but actually makes it harder to write the following sentence: Having a word for everything, I am convinced, is rooted in our culture. It has something to do with the German compulsion to very accurately pin down every phenomenon out there, to remove all ambiguity in a quest for clarity and predictability. It is what gave us words other languages don’t have and even made us invent diseases that don’t exist abroad.

By slapping a name onto something we imagined to observe, we invented such marvels as Hörsturz (the sudden loss of hearing due to stress) — which is unheard of beyond German borders. In a sense, this linguistic behavior is the exact opposite of Orwellian newspeak: Not a reduction in words but a multiplication.

I wonder if foreigners find it liberating or draconian. The downside of having grown up with so many terms is that you seldom have the epiphany of encountering a word missing in your own language. Japanese seems to be great at coining terms, too, but the communication barrier is too high for it to truly register.

So picture my surprise when I came upon the Spanish word vicisitud the other day: It describes the alternation between opposing and contrasting things, some good and some bad. In Spanish, it is used all the time”, my Spanish teacher had said, and I immediately wondered how I had so long been able to talk about the regular ups and downs of life without being able to use a word for them. That’s the beauty for foreign languages, whether it be German, Spanish or Japanese: Learning them not just enriches your vocabulary, it injects a nice dosage of perspective into your daily life.

Learning new words makes it easier to identify a sentiment on the spectrum of possible emotions. To me, it is doubtlessly one of those little things causing the ups, rather than the downs of life.

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