From Hygge to Wabi-Sabi

Among the many advantages of learning a language — aside from being able to tap into a whole other world of literature, media, and human knowledge — is the often underappreciated ability to pick up on ideas and philosophies that would otherwise be unknowable outside said language.

While many people see various languages as simply different ways of saying the same thing, almost every cultural and linguistic group has concepts that are so unique to them, they are untranslatable (except roughly, if even that).

It might be difficult to wrap one’s head around this fact, but there are all sorts of ideas, observations, and even emotions that are limited only to certain languages (never mind particular proverbs, idioms, and other sayings that exist only within certain linguistic and cultural contexts).

Nevertheless, it is very important to try to understand these conceptions, because their appeal and usefulness are universal regardless of their inedibility. Consider the following Danish concept of hygge, courtesy of Mother Nature Network (MNN), which lists several other unique concepts from around the world (including Germany, India, and Japan).

“Hygge is a deep sense of cosy that can originate from many different sources. Here is a good example from my life: a cloudy winter Sunday morning at the country house, fire in the stove and 20 candles lit to dispel the gloom. My husband, puppy and I curled up on our sheepskins wearing felt slippers, warm snuggly clothes and hands clasped around hot mugs of tea. A full day ahead with long walks on the cold beach, back for pancake lunch, reading, more snuggling, etc. This is a very hyggligt day.” Now that sounds do-able, doesn’t it?

Indeed, I am sure just about anyone from around the world could see the appeal to this approach.

Many of these concepts also reveal the unique geographic and historical contexts in which they were developed, such that while they can be appreciated elsewhere, they are clearly formed by specific circumstances and influences. For example, the (fun to pronounce) Norwegian idea of friluftsliv:

Friluftsliv translates directly from Norwegian as “free air life,” which doesn’t quite do it justice. Coined relatively recently, in 1859, it is the concept that being outside is good for human beings’ mind and spirit. “It is a term in Norway that is used often to describe a way of life that is spent exploring and appreciating nature,” Anna Stoltenberg, culture coordinator for Sons of Norway, a U.S.-based Norwegian heritage group, told MNN. Other than that, it’s not a strict definition: it can include sleeping outside, hiking, taking photographs or meditating, playing or dancing outside, for adults or kids. It doesn’t require any special equipment, includes all four seasons, and needn’t cost much money. Practicing friluftsliv could be as simple as making a commitment to walking in a natural area five days a week, or doing a day-long hike once a month.

Given Norway’s famously pristine natural environment, characterized by abundant forests, mountains, rivers, and fjords, it makes sense that over the centuries, they would develop such a conception; Japan, a similarly forested and mountainous country with a culturally-ingrained love of nature, developed a similar concept called shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”, which denotes the idea “that spending time in the forest and natural areas is good preventative medicine” (which indeed modern science is starting to validate).

I encourage you to read the rest of the article to learn about other great ways to see the world and live life. While you are at it, check out this list of 11 other untranslatable words (also from MMN). There are single words to describe everything from “being alone in the woods” (waldeinsamkeit, German) to “the road-like reflection of the moon on the water (mangaia, Swedish).

Hat tip to social media buddy Brian Wolf for sharing this aricle.

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