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I am interested in how concept of luck is expressed in different languages. As far as I know, in most Indo-European languages, there are similar ways to express the concept of luck and situations around it. I am going to provide some examples known to me, primarily, in English. I would be grateful for the examples in other languages or corrections of my mistakes.

1. Negative/positive aspect

Common semantics:

noun luck - positive improbability

negation of noun luck - negative improbability

adj lucky - positive result of improbability

negation of adj lucky = unlucky - negative result of improbability

In English: In collocations bad luck and good luck, the word luck itself does not seem to carry negative or positive aspect to it and just expresses improbability. However: He got to where he is today with a lot of luck. implies positive results from positive improbable events.

What about other languages? Do you know other languages besides English, where luck does not imply positive occurrence? Can it also be inconsistent like in English? Does negation of luck always transforms improbability from positive to negative, or can it rather neutralize positivity, so unlucky = mundane, uneventful?

2. Improbability pattern

In English, describing someone as lucky or unlucky implies repeated pattern of positive/negative improbable occurrences affecting the person when luckiness or unluckiness is attributed to person character in general.

But someone or something can also be called lucky or unlucky just from a single improbable occurrence. E.g. Someone who just won the lottery is lucky. Someone who was pushed on accident and dropped food was unlucky.

What about other languages? Is pattern required for unluckiness?

3. Scale of improbability or event

In German, negation of noun luck = das Unglück is used only for serious misfortunes. For dropping food, one would use das Pech.

Similarly, different words could also be used to express measurable difference in improbability (probability of recurrence), e.g. Guillaume Le Gentil was unlucky to miss transit of Venus two times because it would not occur again in his lifetime. vs dropping food example

Do you know of the other languages in which those differences are specifically expressed by using other words, declension or otherwise?

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I disagree with some of the assumptions, but maybe you can revise your theory. There are at least two separate semantic issues, positivity, and the ontology of luck. I think that "luck" is by default positive, but it can be negative in some contexts – which means, I conclude, that "luck" is neutral. In a statement like "With any luck, we'll get there before they leave" suggests that we want to get there before they leave. In a statement like "With my luck, they'll leave before we get there" still suggests that we want to get there before they leave, however with added "my" it adds a belief that the speaker doesn't have any luck. You can compare "luck" and "fortune", where the latter more strongly tends to be positive.

The ontological question is a complex non-linguistic matter, an answer to the question "the outcome was thus because of ___". Generally speaking, this is a personal, philosophical matter – you can attribute outcomes to supernatural causes, metaphysical randomness (if there is such a thing), factors that you don't know about or can't control, and so on. The word "blessing" is about supernatural causes, but that is a cultural fact and not a strictly linguistic fact. Positive and negative (im)probability is one ontology of "luck", but that's ideological and not linguistic.

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  • Regarding the positivity issue - that is exactly my point about English language. In English the word "luck" is not consistently positive, like in most other European languages. So I am interested if there are other languages like this. Maybe I did not make it clear, I will try to revise that point. – Dima Dmitriev Mar 15 at 21:37
  • Ontological point of view is very nice, I will add it to my question. – Dima Dmitriev Mar 15 at 21:39
  • +1 for answers to both questions. Be sure to note that Fate can also be involved. In Terry Pratchett's Discworld® novels, both Fate and "The Lady" (it's .. um .. bad luck to say Her name; Pratchett says "just think of her as the waitress at the Last Chance Saloon") are gods who play games with humans for fun. The novel Interesting Times is framed as a game between these two gods. The luck that the main character gets can be described as either good or bad, depending on the viewpoint. – jlawler Mar 17 at 14:33

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