Jorge Luis Borges in Other Inquisitions (1937-1952) refers to this ancient Chinese classification of animals:
Animals are divided into:
(a) those that belong to the Emperor,
(b) those that have been embalmed,
(c) those that are trained,
(d) suckling pigs,
(f) fabulous ones,
(g) stray dogs,
(h) those that are included in this classification,
(i) those that tremble as if they were mad,
(j) innumerable ones,
(k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush,
(m) those that have just broken a flower vase, and
(n) those that resemble flies from a distance.
Most of us would tend to feel, whether consciously or unconsciously, that this seemingly random system of organization conflicts with our modern sorting standards. However, the most integral system that divides the world conceptually is the system of language.
Somehow, those of us who speak English feel that it makes perfect sense having a single word describing “a room where food is kept, prepared and cooked and where the dishes are washed” (kitchen); however, it wouldn’t possibly be worth having a single lingual unit for “a cool basement room where the hottest part of the day is passed during the hottest season of the year”. Nonetheless, the Anglo-Indian word tyconna depicts exactly this concept. How can we justify this fact? Is this linguistic nonentity a casualty of the Great British weather?
Bedouins have ten different words to describe sand, according to its colour or consistency. Perhaps this can be easily explained by the fact that sand is a more important part of these peoples’ lives.
Hopping from verbal overkill to deficiency, did you know that Spanish doesn’t have a single word for the English verb to borrow? Spanish requires a phrase to broadcast that same meaning: pedir prestado. Considering our Bedouin example, can we possibly argue that Spanish people have no concept of borrowing? Very unlikely, it seems.
How about the Pascuense verb tingo, which means ‘to borrow things from a friend’s house one by one until there’s nothing left’? Is this such a common activity among people from Easter Island that it deserves its own word, let alone such a concise one?
Like anything else, this concept can be dangerous when taken to extremes. An irate Arthur Schopenhauer tries to defend the stereotyping of the German character by mentioning that their tongue has more than fifty words to describe drunkenness. It seems that words in some languages are inherently affected by the frequency and relevance of the activity to the speakers, while some have very different etymologies.
Languages divide the world, and they all do it differently. Does anybody else have any examples of words or expressions from different languages that seem to have no English equivalent?