“Language has no independent existence apart from the people who use it. It is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end of understanding who you are and what society is like.” — David Crystal
As lovers of the art of writing, we treasure the beauty of words, the elegance with which they come together to let human beings interact, express and exchange ideas. And in this love for language, the romantic notion of untranslatable words find a little corner of their own. The concept that some languages hold within them words so pure and intrinsic, that they can’t be wholly translated outside of that language. That meanings given to certain groups of letters are so powerful, that they can only belong to those groups of letters. From Wasl, meaning the moment when you come together with a loved one, to Khalish, meaning the combined feeling of remorse, regret and emptiness, we revel in the magic of these untranslatable words.
While the idea of untranslatable words is a romantic one that attributes beauty and charm to languages, linguistic theories could argue otherwise. Any one particular language is a form of expression for the culture which uses it, and the people belonging to that culture think and communicate purely in those words. So does that mean that a person belonging to another culture could never understand a particular aspect of these people, since that word can never be fully translated? That only speakers of Urdu can truly comprehend the patience and dedication of daily practice that the word Riyaaz depicts? Does that imply that a certain human experience or idea is inaccessible to someone because they speak the wrong language? Or does it simply mean that certain cultures have ideas that are unique to their history, and the words they use for those ideas are understood only by people of their culture?
Whatever you choose to believe, it’s nice to imagine that certain ideas do exist that are best expressed through a particular word. India, being the cultural pot-pourri that it is, houses a range of languages so unique and stark, that they truly mirror the diversity of this subcontinent and its people. From Tamil to Urdu to Hindi and more, these linguistic expressions are like melodies that represent a culture, a time, a shared history and a community. As we explored just a handful of these languages, we found 11 distinct terms with meanings so beautiful, they restored our faith in the romance of untranslatable words. To fully explain these meanings, our designer Taarika John decided to illustrate them to aid what they truly represent with quirky pictorial associations and imagery. So scroll on for 11 untranslatable Indian words and their meanings through visual narration.
[Note to readers--if you have any other such ‘untranslatable’ words from Indian languages and dialects, do let us know in the comments section below or email us at [email protected] with the subject ‘UNTRANSLATABLE’ so that we can continue with this series.]
Illustrations: Taarika John