The Joy of Untranslatable Words

Gezellig (pronounced heh-ZELL-ig) is that feeling when you are cuddled up watching films with your favourite friends in bed eating ice cream and feeling cosy. It’s being at pre-drinks where the alcohol is flowing, you like everyone there, and you just feel comfortable. It’s that feeling you get when you are so comfortable in your surroundings and company that you can feel the safety and warmth glowing inside of you. It’s feeling like home.

It’s a Dutch word that I learnt on my year abroad – and is probably the most common answer to “what is your favourite Dutch word?” I think it probably is the favourite word, because it is more than a word, it’s a feeling and it’s a state of being that is so uniquely Dutch. It fits the culture so well – cycling home in the rain and arriving back at your house with huge windows looking into your living room, having blankets on outside chairs in every bar all-through winter, and that once you’ve made your place in their heart you’ll stay there forever.

I didn’t learn much Dutch at all – not for lack of trying – but gezellig is one of those that has stuck with me. It has also made me realise the true triumphs of multilingualism and multiculturalism.

By learning other languages and experiencing other cultures, not only do we enrich our communities and experience so much more, but we also see so much more beauty in our own lives.

Whether you agree with the Whorfian hypothesis, that language can dictate thought and cognitive function, or not – there is something to be said for finally being able to acknowledge and recognise that feeling. Previously I would have just felt content, or cosy, or comfortable – using words that just didn’t quite fit and that didn’t quite encapsulate everything. Being able to put your finger on it and label that sensation or that moment allows you to appreciate it and really convey what you are feeling.

The power of language is so amazing and so beautiful – and all the untranslatable words to me are the most beautiful. I guess partially it’s the mystery, but also its seeing what is valued in a community or country, and the fact that each culture differs just slightly.

To fully experience all that the world and existence has to offer we need a mix of cultures, and languages and to learn from each other. We need to be taught these words and feelings so we can see the beauty in our own lives – so we can label and experience the full beauty of buying a book and leaving it unread and stacking it up with other books (Japanese: Tsundoku aka my hobby). Experience the whole frustration of waiting for someone to turn up (Inuit: Iktsuarpok). So you can bathe in the pleasure from other people’s misfortune (German: Schadenfreude).

But most of all, so you can look around a room of people and think “this is so… gezellig!”

Dictionaries might try and translate it to cosiness, but the Dutch know it is so much more.

Emma Healey

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