7 Things You Can Say in Other Languages That You Can’t Say in English
by Emma Bates
English is a rich, varied and flexible language, with a tendency to borrow enthusiastically any words in other languages that seem like they might be handy.
All the same, there are things that you can express in other languages that you simply can’t say in English – at least, not without using more words and a good deal of effort. The following words, phrases and grammatical structures are available in other languages but challenging in English, whether you’re a native speaker or only just learning.
1. Specific words
Have you ever tried to come up with a concept that there is currently no word for? Science fiction writer Douglas Adams and comedy producer John Lloyd did exactly that in 1983, producing The Meaning of Liff, “a dictionary of things that there aren’t any words for yet”, using place names for the words themselves. One example is abilene: the pleasing coolness on the reverse side of the pillow. Another is the very British everscreech: the look given by a group of polite, angry people to a rude, calm queuebarger.
Yet there are plenty rather more obvious concepts that English has no word for. Georgian has the wonderful, simple zeg, meaning the day after tomorrow. Spanish has antier for the opposite – the day before yesterday. In Norwegian, you can refer to pålegg, whereas in English you’d be stuck with “things you put in a sandwich” – which sounds like something you might say in a supermarket when you’re so tired you’ve forgotten the word for cheese. Finally, it says something worrying about the British national character that we’ve adopted the German word schadenfreude, taking pleasure in the suffering of others, but not the Hebrew word firgun, taking pleasure in the success of others.
2. Distinguishing between the singular and plural you
The history of second-person pronouns is really quite odd, especially in English. The story goes that in the time when three Roman emperors formed the triumvirate, addressing one of them meant that you really addressed them all – so you would use you-plural (or vos, to be Latin about it) rather than you-singular (tu). Instead of staying restricted to emperors, this expanded across the Romance languages into a general form of deference to social superiors and people you didn’t know that well.
Old English, in the meantime, distinguished between the singular and plural in the second person, but made no distinction on the basis of rank – King Alfred’s servant would have addressed him as þū and Alfred would have responded in the same way. Only in the case of multiple servants (or the less likely scenario of multiple Alfreds) would the plural, gē, have been used. This straightforward state of affairs continued until the Norman invasion, after which English began to use the plural for politeness as well, in line with most other European languages.
But the English are a polite bunch. In the 18th century, the singular you – thou – began to die out, we can only assume, as people got more and more polite and formal and less inclined to use a word as uncouth as thou. But as the informal version died, so too did the singular. Now, if you say to a group of people, “could you bring me some cake?”, you’ll have to specify which particular person you’re speaking to, or you’ll end up with an awful lot of cake.
Which is maybe not entirely a bad thing.
3. Distinguishing between we inclusive and we exclusive
Continuing on the theme of pronouns, have a read of this conversation and see if it sounds familiar:
Susan is leaving History class and bumps into Lucy, coming out of Biology. “Any plans for the weekend?” Lucy asks.
Susan grimaces. “Nothing fun – we’ve got a tonne of homework.”
Lucy looks dismayed. “I didn’t realise – what do we have to do?”
… and then follows a long conversation where Susan has to reassure Lucy that the History class has a tonne of homework, but as Lucy is taking Biology instead, her weekend is free and clear. So what’s the problem? It’s another pronoun distinction – the difference between the inclusive we and the exclusive we, which, somehow, every European language outside the Caucasus manages to stumble along without making.
The crucial difference is between a group that includes all parties in the conversation – e.g. both Susan and Lucy – which is the inclusive we, and a group that includes the speaker, but excludes the listener – e.g. Susan, but not Lucy – which is the exclusive we. It seems complicated when it’s not a distinction you’re used to making, but it becomes extremely useful if, say, you have to organise something with large and varying groups of people.
English pronouns might be sadly limited now, but it wasn’t always the case. Go back a thousand years and you’ll find that in Old English, there was a whole extra distinction that doesn’t exist in the language today: instead of singular and plural, there was singular, dual and plural. The dual form of we was wit – so Lucy and Susan’s conversation could continue thus:
“By the way,” says Lucy, “I’m thinking of having a bunch of people over to my house next Saturday – want to come?”
Susan shrugs. “I’m not feeling very sociable at the minute,” she says, “but wit could go to the cinema or something, if you wanted.”
See how neat it sounds?
4. A proper subjunctive
There was an odd announcement from the British government recently, concerning how grammar would be taught in British primary schools. Specifically, that 11-year-olds taking their SATs would need to be able to recognise the subjunctive mood, which students up until now might only have encountered when taking a foreign language GCSE – if then. This is unsurprising because the subjunctive is scarcely used in English any more. Most people would instinctively say “if I were you…” rather than “if I was you…”, but chances are, they wouldn’t know why. The (correct) subjunctive in “I recommend that he learn grammar” will sound wrong to a lot of people’s ears. Few people realise that “God save the Queen!” is an expression of hope, not an order.
The subjunctive mood is something you don’t realise you’re missing unless you’ve experienced it. There’s something poetic about it – a special way of speaking if you’re doubtful, uncertain or hopeful, or reporting words that aren’t your own. It seems philosophical. It seems a little bit French. It’s really no shock that it’s almost vanished from the English language.
There are entertaining consequences to the lack of the subjunctive. If you’re speaking German and you want to make it clear that you’re repeating what someone else has said, rather than expressing your own thoughts, you can simply slip into the subjunctive. If you’re speaking English and doing the same thing, you’re obliged to put on a funny voice.
5. Adapting the language for politeness and formality
We’ve already mentioned how English began to use you so much that the thee/you distinction died out altogether and now we address everyone in much the same way. In many ways, English remains a very polite language – in Britain, the words please, thank you and sorry are used with the frequency of punctuation – if someone steps on your foot, you say sorry, and you might well say thank you as you give the cashier your money in a supermarket. Danish, by contrast, doesn’t have a word for please at all.
English pales in comparison with some Asian languages, however; Japanese, for instance, conjugates verbs differently depending on how polite the speaker wishes to be, alongside an elaborate system of honorifics. Emperor Shōwa (also known as Hirohito), famously used such formal and archaic language in his speech surrendering at the end of WWII that his language was not comprehensible to a substantial proportion of the population. The English language’s trappings of politeness vary around the English-speaking world (for instance, the use of the word loo is more polite than toilet in British English, but much less so in Hiberno-English) and seem superficial by comparison.
6. Fully-accepted gender-neutral pronouns and epithets
English is in a funny situation as far as gender-neutral language is concerned. We have more gender-neutral pronouns than some languages (compare, for instance, the English they with the French ils or elles), but a good deal less than others – for instance, where a Norwegian person can refer to their kjæreste, or ‘dearest’, an English person is stuck with referring to their boyfriend or girlfriend. The alternatives are the slightly anaemic and non-specific partner (which could just as easily be a business partner as a life partner), flowery terms like my better half, or significant other, which can either be said in an ironic tone or ends up sounding like something you might write on a tax form. If you get married, there’s spouse, which isn’t a great improvement.
The Scandinavian countries also have the flexibility of gender-neutral pronouns: Finnish entirely lacks grammatical gender (a rare kindness to learners, given it has 15 noun cases), whereas Sweden has introduced a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun, hen, and there are moves to do the same in Norway. English struggles on with awkwardness like s/he, they used ungrammatically in the singular, ugly-sounding neologisms like ze and the unforgivable rudeness of referring to a person as it.
Moves towards more politically correct language in the 90s and 00s have had mixed effects on English, a language that doesn’t take well to artificially imposed changes. English speakers will dither over whether to refer to Carey Mulligan as an actor or actress (the Guardian’s style guide prefers actor but admits to complications) and very few people will instinctively ask whether the postal worker has arrived yet. Then again, the use of the word chair instead of chairman used to be a favourite for people with a fondness for the phrase ‘PC gone mad’ to complain about – and now it sounds utterly natural.
7. Double negatives
There’s a language joke that goes like this:
A linguistics professor is giving a lecture. “In English,” he says, “a double negative forms a positive. In Russian, a double negative remains a negative. In no language, however, does a double positive form a negative.”
A voice from the back pipes up, “yeah, right!”
In fact, this is one of the ways in which colloquial English can be much more flexible than standard English (another is that while in point 2, in standard English these is no singular/plural distinction in the second person, some dialects solve the problem by using a new plural form: youse). In standard English, a double negative usually forms a positive, although it can be a more qualified positive than the version without any negative involved – compare establishmentarianism, desiring a state religion (especially in relation to the Church of England), with antidisestablishmentarianism, not necessarily thinking that a state religion is a great idea, but not wanting to change matters since we’ve already got one. Or, for a simpler version, the difference between “he said he’d give me a pay raise” and “he didn’t say he wouldn’t give me a pay rise.”
Colloquial English allows for these sophistications too, but takes it a step further. A double negative can be either a qualified positive, as in the above, or just an emphatic negative – grammatically incorrect as it may be, no one hears the sentence, “I can’t find no happiness here” and thinks that the speaker is dancing for joy. Double negatives were in standard usage all the way up to the 1700s, but you can’t use them no more.
English is a hugely adaptable language, so in 50 years’ time this list might well be out of date, as double negatives once more become acceptable, alongside talking about how the vet “said hirself that ze didn’t know what was wrong with the dog” and suggesting that wit go out for pizza zeg. Until then, well, we’ll just have to use more words than other languages need for the same concept and cope with the odd misunderstanding over who is going out for pizza when and with whom.