The gaps in our languages

Fingerspitzengefühl. Hygge. Ubi sunt. What do these words have in common?

While these words come from German, Danish, and Latin respectively, they all share a common feature — that they do not really have any kind of direct English translation. Very often, translators may encounter obstacles and challenges in finding equivalents of certain words or expressions to be translated into another language.

Words that are deemed “untranslatable” are known as lexical gaps. In fact, many of these exist, that books like Lost in Translation by Ella Frances Sanders are on sale, conveying the uniqueness of certain words from various languages that do not quite translate to English. This shows the difficulty in bridging across certain gaps in translation, where very often, can be quite culture or nation-specific.

Gaps like these are not just restricted to the realm of the untranslatability of certain words. In linguistics, such gaps are termed accidental gaps, where certain words do not exist because of the boundaries in the sounds, word formation, or other such rules in the language. Let’s dive in some examples of these gaps!

Perhaps the most noticeable gaps (in English, that is) you may find are called semantic gaps, where some distinction in some meanings that can be found in other languages are not seen in another language’s lexicon. To illustrate this, let’s take English family member terms for example, where gender distinction is seen. A male parent is called a father, a female parent is called a mother, and a parent functions as a neutral term. However, what is a male or a female cousin called? What is the neutral term of niece and nephew, or uncle and aunt? English simply lacks the terms to distinguish them, or has neutral words covering the two distinctions made. This is what we could call a semantic gap.

The next bit I would want to cover is phonological gaps. We have various rules regarding the sounds we can make, but yet, even if all of these rules are “obeyed”, some words would not be considered words. For example, the consonant cluster /spr/ is quite common, with words such as “spring”, “spread”, and “sprocket”, and syllables can end in sounds like /ɪk/, as in “flick”, “prick”, and “turmeric”. However, there is no such English word with the pronunciation /sprɪk/. This can be treated as an example of a so-called phonological gap.

Lastly, think of an English word that means “someone who sells things”. Does the word “seller” come to mind? For some, the word “vendor” might also pop up. But the point is, the ending “-er” adds the marker that means “someone who…” to the verb it follows. However, “someone who lives” is not really referred to as a “liver”, and that the word “liver” is more commonly associated with the organ. Similarly, “someone who steals” is not usually called a “stealer”, but a “thief”. Because of such morphological rules governing word formation, such words like “stealer” and “liver (someone who lives)” are known as morphological gaps.

Such morphological gaps can extend beyond such word formation. Think about the verb “to be”. While English has the present, past, and future tense conjugations for this verb, we see the present tense form of this verb missing in languages like Arabic and Russian. As such, the verb “to be” is often referred to as a defective verb in Arabic and Russian, and that this is an example of a morphological gap.

So this concludes a little foray into the world of gaps our languages. Untranslatability is just a small part of this wider picture, but also influenced by different factors compared to the gaps we have discussed. Grammatical patterns, word formation patterns, and sound patterns can influence which words occur in a language’s lexicon, and which words do not.

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