Words that Belong to One Language But All People

This article appears in the spring 2020 issue of STILLPOINT magazine: “Generation Gordon.”

There are many words out there that can’t be translated because they only exist in one language. When Rose Baker ’21 studied abroad in Germany for 10 months, following her high school graduation, she came across her first untranslatable word: sehnsucht. “A lot of times when people first see it, they think it means ‘wanderlust,’” says Baker. “It doesn’t actually mean that. The root of the word is sucht, which means ‘to search,’ and sehn has to do with your soul. It’s kind of a soul searching.” At that time in her life, her soul was searching for something, and that something was language.

“Every day when I was in Germany, I would repeat words to myself, trying to figure out pronunciation, but also just tasting them. And sehnsucht was really fun to say because it’s soft. It’s like a whisper.”

After Germany, her love of languages led her to Gordon—one of the few Christian colleges with a linguistics major. As a sophomore she joined the College’s new Bible Translation Program, which gave her the opportunity to shadow a Wycliffe linguist in Cameroon this past summer.

And that’s how she found herself in a classroom with mud floors, cement walls, a tin roof and a solitary hanging lightbulb, teaching syntax and morphology to Cameroonian seminary students over the drone of goats bleating outside. The students’ aim was to learn enough linguistics to begin translating the Bible into their village language. For most, this was the first time they began to see their native language as intelligent— as something they could actually study.

Baker explains that in Cameroon everyone speaks three languages: their village language,Pidgin and English. But because they don’t use their village language in school or church, they start to think of it as less intelligent and less spiritual. So, they talk to God in English and Pidgin instead.

This creates a linguistic divide and also a spiritual divide between village people and the God they worship. Having a Bible in their own language removes that divide. “Imagine reading the Psalms in Spanish with a couple of years of school Spanish,” poses Baker. “You know what it’s supposed to mean, but it hasn’t really ever spoken to your heart. When you read the Bible in your native language, it’s much more personal and we love a personal God.”

Untranslatable words like sehnsucht make language feel personal. “We can’t translate it the way it should be translated,” says Baker. “The only person who can write the Bible in a language is the person who actually speaks that language.”

Even untranslatable words can describe something we all know and feel, regardless of which language we speak. “Soul searching” may be two words in English instead of one, but it carries the same meaning. Even though there is no synonym for sehnsucht, the idea of a soul searching for something is universal.

Languages, as a whole, may differ in sound, tone and even direction (think Hebrew or Japanese), but each one gives people the ability to communicate. This bird’s eye view of language has transformed the field of linguistics rather recently, says Baker. She explains, “Over time, linguists have realized they are not studying differences, they are studying what’s the same.”