Delving into a language is always partly about exploring a new emotional terrain and figuring out how new notions go with a new set of words. According to linguist Steven Pinker, this is the essence of language: “People do not think in English or Chinese or Apache,” he writes in his book The Language Instinct, “they think in a language of thought.” Pinker says this is sometimes called “mentalese,” and it isn’t the same as what we speak. Instead, we translate our thoughts into words, which is why many foreign words are so hard to translate: You need to understand the ideas behind them.
Words in other languages are like icebergs: The basic meaning is visible above the surface, but we can only guess at the shape of the vast chambers of meaning below. And every language has particularly hard-to-translate terms, such as the Portuguese saudade, or “the feeling of missing someone or something that is gone,” or the Japanese ichigo-ichie, meaning “the practice of treasuring each moment and trying to make it perfect.” Linguists refer to the distance between these words and their rough translations as a lacuna, which comes from the Latin word for “pool” or “lake.” There’s a space we need to swim across to reach the other side.
I admit it; I totally geek out to read about stuff like this. (And yūgen is another Japanese word that I’ve always found fascinating.) I remember the foudroyant understanding as a teenager when it finally dawned on me that learning a new language wasn’t a matter of simply making a like-for-like exchange of words from one language to another. The helpful question wasn’t “How do you say such-and-such in Spanish?” but rather more like, “What phrase would I use if I wanted to express such-and-such a thought, feeling or experience?” It’s so fascinating to consider how different cultures have different degrees and shades of experience that they consider noteworthy, ones that we might ignore altogether. I really need to find some more good reading material on this subject.
On a different note, I’ve always been amused by those who believe in some form of telepathy, mind-reading, ESP, what have you, for this same reason. They act as if people’s thoughts take the form of linear text scrolling across a screen in more or less complete sentences, and “reading your mind” is simply a matter of being able to somehow tune in to your mental screen and follow along.