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  • We're hugely dependent on language to help us express what we really think and feel

  • but some languages are better than others at crisply naming important feelings.

  • Germans have been geniuses at inventing long or what get called "compound words"

  • that elegantly put a finger on sensations that we all know, but that other languages require whole clumsy sentences or paragraphs to express.

  • So, here is a small selection of the best of Germany's extraordinary range of compound words.

  • "Erklärungsnot"

  • Literally, a distress at not having an explanation,

  • the perfect way to define what a partner might feel when they're caught watching porn

  • or spotted in a restaurant with the hands they shouldn't be holding.

  • More grandly, "Erklärungsnot" is something we feel when we realize we don't have any explanations for the big questions of life.

  • It's a word that defines existential angst, as much as shame.

  • "Futterneid"

  • The feeling when you're eating with other people

  • and realize that they've ordered something better off the menu that you'd be dying to eat yourself.

  • Perhaps you were trying to be abstemious. Now, you're just starving.

  • The word recognizes that we spend much of our lives feeling we've ordered the wrong thing, and not just in restaurants.

  • "Luftschloss"

  • Literally, a castle in the air, a dream that's unattainable

  • A word suggesting that German culture is deeply indulgent about big dreams,

  • but also gently realistic about how hard it can be to bring them off.

  • "Backpfeifengesicht"

  • A face that's begging to be slapped

  • Generosity towards others is key but German is bracing and frank enough to acknowledge

  • that there are also moments when it's simply more honest to realize

  • we may have come face to face with a dickhead.

  • "Ruinenlust"

  • This word shows German at its most delightfully fetishistic and particular

  • meaning the delight one can feel at seeing ruins.

  • Collapsed palaces and the rubble of temples put anxieties about the present into perspective

  • and induce a pleasing melancholy at the passage of all things.

  • "Kummerspeck"

  • Literally, "sorrow fat". A word that frankly recognizes how often, when one is deeply sad,

  • there is simply nothing more consoling to do than to head for the kitchen and eat.

  • "Fremdschämen"

  • A word full of empathy that captures the agony one can feel at somebody else's embarassing misfortune or failing.

  • A capacity to feel Fremdschämen is a high moral achievement and is at the root of kindness.

  • "Weltschmerz"

  • Literally, "world sadness". A word that acknowledges that we are sometimes sad, not about this or that thing,

  • but about the whole basis of existence.

  • The presence of the word indicates a culture that isn't forcely cheerful, but takes tragedy as a given.

  • It is immensely reassuring to be able to tell a friend that one is presently lying under the duvet, suffering from Weltschmerz.

  • "Schadenfreude"

  • We're meant to be sad when others fail, but German will wisely accept that we often feel happiness,

  • "Freude" at the misfortunes, the "Shaden", of others.

  • That isn't because we're mean, we just feel deeply reassured when we see confirmation that life is as hard for other people as it is for us.

  • We can thank German for having so many of the right words to bring dignity to our troubles and hopes.

  • Learning languages, ultimately, has little to do with discovering the world per se

  • It's about acquiring tools to help us get a clearer grasp on the elusive parts of ourselves.

We're hugely dependent on language to help us express what we really think and feel

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Why Germans Can Say Things No One Else Can

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    Kristi Yang posted on 2017/02/02
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