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I'm looking for an important English word which doesn't have a corresponding word in another language. I would be happy even it's a language spoken only by a small population.

Preferably, the word is not a colour. Please provide a reference if possible.

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  • I'm sure there are plenty of examples, but just to give one, someone writing a dissertation in Welsh, would have to call their dissertation "treithawd hir" (lit. 'long essay'). But just because there's no one-to-one correspondence between words, doesn't mean that Welsh can't express the concept of dissertation, as I've demonstrated. – Danger Fourpence Mar 28 '13 at 20:38
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    also, you might want to define "important", which might not be easy/possible. – Danger Fourpence Mar 28 '13 at 20:39
  • "important" means "within the 1000 words most used in English" according to a random list of frequencies. Thank you for your example, but I would prefer a more "shocking". Like : "water" doesn't exist in this language... (even it's a very very little known language !) – Arnaud Mar 28 '13 at 20:48
  • yes, I guess you could use a Swadesh list or something. Maybe there's a database somewhere, I always thought a Swadesh list database would be very useful... – Danger Fourpence Mar 28 '13 at 20:55
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    Why 'shocking'? What is the intent of such a search? Do you just want one example or do you want more (if so, why), to maybe find a pattern? – Mitch Mar 30 '13 at 23:16
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Your question isn't exact because you didn't describe whether the word should have exact equivalent or it's enough to have a rather synonym in another language but with essential semantic difference.

My favorite example is couple of English words "issue" and "problem" and their translation to Russian. The technical support team at my work is especially trained to use "issue" for any thing which is treated by customer as something which needs explanation or fixing; but it's very hard to translate "issue" to Russian because all translations have a main sense more closer to some another English word; e.g. "вопрос" is "question", "тема" is "topic", "предмет" is "subject" or "thing" or even "agenda", and so on. Similar discussions in Russian tends to use "проблема", but it's much softer than English "problem"; the latter generally means a kind of principal discrepancy, which solving needs even some sacrifice, while Russian "проблема" is closer to "issue" in its level but not in kind ("issue" can be a feature request or even a polite suggestion). So, it's impossible to give a one-to-one translation for English "issue" or "problem" to Russian; each translation variant needs detection of importance level and selecting a proper equivalent among more than ten similar words. Whether is it similar to colors for you, I don't know, but anyway this isn't for colors.

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If you really do mean a common/important word in English without a reasonably-close, single-word translation in at least one other language, there must be many, many examples.

My favorite example is that the word "fewest" is missing in Swedish. Swedish has close equivalents for few and fewer but switches to "minst antal" (roughly "least number") for fewest (though some may mistranslate to the Swedish word for "smallest").

Of course, you might discount "fewest" since only "few" is common enough to qualify as important. A database search should provide better hits.

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  • Thank you. I'm, though, not totally satisfied because this isn't very shocking and because there is no reference. But thank you ! – Arnaud Mar 29 '13 at 19:38
  • No, not shocking but loads of fun to reveal to Swedes. Haven't met one yet who had realized this, despite being highly proficient in English. A proper response is to point out that the Swedish word "lagom" has no equivalent in English -- that's debatable but too far off-topic here anyway. – igelkott Mar 29 '13 at 22:30
  • Completely the same in Russian. "Fewest" translates to "меньше всего" "menshe vsego". – Anixx Apr 6 '13 at 3:38
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Articles would be an easy and probably quite shocking (given their frequency in English) case. As far as I recall, there is no equivalent for “the” in Latin, nor do I recall one in Japanese.

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    The difference between the indefinite, definite, and null articles in English are handled by completely different means in topic-comment languages such as Japanese. Alternatively you could always analyse Japanese as translating them all to the one article in Japanese, the null article (-; – hippietrail May 14 '13 at 13:34
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What could really be hardly translated into Russian is 'privacy' (although some might disagree stating that it is translated as покой).

What is really remarkable is the reported absence of numerals and/or generic terms for 'fish' or 'tree' in some Australian languages.

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  • Those sources are not trustworthy. – Gaston Ümlaut May 16 '13 at 7:49
  • Neither is your remark. – Manjusri May 16 '13 at 16:08
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Here is an example from French: "si", which means "I disagree with your negative statement/question." For example:

Tu parles pas anglais? = You don't speak English?

Mais si. = Your statement/question is incorrect. I do speak English.

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  • Largely related: english.stackexchange.com/a/28582/26446 – bytebuster May 12 '13 at 19:13
  • Bah I just translate such things as "yes I do" or "yes you're right". I think it's like claiming that English doesn't one or other of the Portuguese/Spanish verbs "ser" and "estar". It does but both just translate to "to be". The same imperfect alignment exists to a varying degree for any two words in any two languages. – hippietrail May 14 '13 at 13:32
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The Western Desert Language in Australia does not have a word directly equivalent to English 'love'. Of course, this very important concept can still be easily expressed. One way of doing this is with a construction that combines the serial form of the verb puntuni 'make large/loud' with the verb yuntjurringanyi 'like/want' (to improve clarity free pronouns are used rather than the more typical clitics):

  Ngayulu nyuntu   -nya puntu        -ra  yuntju      -rri    -nganyi    
  1sg.NOM 2sg      -ACC make.large   -SER like/want   -INCH   -PRES
  "I love you."
 

NOM = nominative
ACC = accusative
SER = serial
INCH = inchoative
PRES = present

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In addition to the answer by Netch I would give some other examples of words whose equivalent does not exist in Russian:

  • item

  • entry

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    Any chance you could provide more detail about how Russian expresses these concepts and it how they differ from the English? – acattle Apr 6 '13 at 8:31
  • Actually, there are: item = штука/предмет/экземпляр; entry = ввод + specifying word in genitive (for computer science) or выход (as opposite to 'exit'). – Manjusri May 16 '13 at 6:11

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