by Corinne Muller ‘21
It’s a shocking thing to realize that language isn’t perfect. Language is the one constant in all of our lives: whether we speak one, two, or three languages, we can all turn to words or signs to express ourselves. Even so, there’s nothing like immersion into a new culture to prove that languages have holes. Languages are man-made, so they shift and adapt to the needs of the people speaking them. Yet because languages are man-made, they can also be inadequate. A single word cannot always capture a thought, a feeling. Translations aren’t always exact. Words can fail us. When we’re thrust into a new culture, especially one that demands a knowledge of a different tongue, it’s not just our own inadequacies—the gaps in our knowledge—that grow apparent. When we’re forced to learn new vocabulary, to go hunting in a dictionary for an obscure word, to ask for explanations, we sometimes have to accept that a single word is often not enough, but multiple words are necessary to communicate. The awkwardness and inconvenience of words and grammar is especially prominent in English; the frequent need for lengthy prepositional phrases and relative clauses to communicate a simple idea is one of its major shortcomings. That’s one of the reasons I love German— a straightforward concept can be expressed without as much fuss.
One of the more beautiful aspects of German (and the bane for learners of the language) is the ability to form one-word compound nouns. Germans can create new, complex words by simply throwing pre-existing words together. Unlike English speakers, Germans don’t need to refer to Latin, Greek, or French stems to create a new word. The result is often ridiculously long compound nouns, such as the word Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän (the Danube Ship Navigation Company Captain), made eternally famous by Mark Twain. These compound words can be incredibly useful for describing a single concept without the need for a long train of adjectives. Yet even these complex words have their inadequacies, as I discovered during my summer working abroad in Dresden, Germany—my first time in Germany and my first real experience with loneliness.
Several years ago, I happened upon a website entitled “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.” Compiled in this dictionary are words mostly derived from the Romance languages, German, and Japanese that somehow encapsulate those feelings that always seem impossible to adequately identify, those feelings whose pulse the English vernacular never satisfactorily touches. Among my favorites of these words are ellipsism (“the sadness that you’ll never know how history will turn out”), vellichor (“the strange wistfulness of used bookstores”), anthrodynia (“a state of exhaustion with how shitty people can be to each other”), and sonder (“the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own”). I found comfort in knowing that there are terms for these obscure feelings that most people on this chaotic planet of ours experience, but which they may never really take a moment to consider. That’s a strange psycholinguistic reality: oftentimes, even if we are confronted with an emotional experience, we may not be aware of it, or at least of its depth, until a label is slapped on it. For me, there’s a certain melancholy surrounding this entire dictionary, induced by the realization that, like me, so many people have the desire to be able to identify how they are feeling, especially when that feeling is unfamiliar or incomprehensible. If I can identify it, I would think, then maybe I can make it go away. Label it, and poof.
This summer, I went looking once more in “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” in hopes that its linguistic magic could help me. Though my ability to communicate increased doubly through my time immersed in a new language, I also began to see more holes in language, and I began to find inadequacies in my ability to express myself. I could speak better than I ever could before, in two languages rather than one, but instead of feeling more empowered to speak my mind, I found myself shrinking into myself instead. My bilingualism should have opened doors for me and pulled me closer to the people behind those doors, but I found myself feeling increasingly isolated. I went looking in “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” because I wanted to find a word that captured the feeling of being alone amidst crowds—the loneliness that comes with transitions and new places—because loneliness felt insufficient. Surely, we can be alone, but not lonely, and we can be lonely, but not alone. Homesickness wasn’t the right word. The feeling was not exactly one of missing a place, but of missing a language and of certain people. It was the missing of specific company.
Ironically, the first word in the “Dictionary” to attract my attention was German. The word, Waldeinsamkeit, literally translates to “forest loneliness,” but English does not do justice to the deeper nuances of the word. The word, which has roots in the Romanticism of the 19th century, originally—and still most commonly—refers to the satisfying solitude found when venturing alone in the woods. In most contexts, a speaker uses Waldeinsamkeit to describe the sense of peace that comes from removing oneself from the modern chaos of distraction, technology, and urban life. It’s very appropriate that this word stems from Germany, a country half covered in forests and famous for its production of philosophical literature on Romanticism and transcendentalism. Waldeinsamkeit was an antonym for what I felt. I was not alone in the woods, with pine trees towering above me, birds chirping, and a fairytale castle just visible in the distance. I was alone in a city of half a million people, with people speaking a language I had once found charming, but at that point found more abrasive than not. Instead of feeling like the whole world was open to me, I could only see walls before me.
“The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” led me down another path, to the German adjective mutterseelenallein. This word sits at the opposite end of the spectrum of Waldeinsamkeit. Literally translated, it means “mother’s souls alone.” When you’re mutterseelenallein, you’re so alone that it feels as though even your mother has abandoned you. You feel as if, instead of extending its arms wide for you, the world has turned its back. This word is (pardon the pun) the mother of words for loneliness. But this word, so extreme in its meaning, failed me too.
Am I stuck with no better words than lonely, isolated, and alone? I’m not satisfied with these terms—they don’t speak to the root of the emotion. In a world of seven billion people and nearly seven thousand spoken languages, surely nearly everyone has experienced this feeling. Some language must have a word that encapsulates it in all of its complexity. I hope I find the word someday, because, even though I am sure many others have experienced this feeling too, it would be good not to feel alone in the struggle to identify it as well.
What do we do when words are not sufficient? What do we do when language—this supposedly syntactically and semantically infinitely flexible thing—is limited? What do I do when I feel like my own language is inadequate? Ironically, this summer, when I craved nothing more than to hear English, I turned once more to German for a solution. Though I did not find the right word, I wonder if I should turn to German—or to Latin, Japanese, French, or Spanish—to create my own word to match my emotion. A word for me. A word that the rest of the world doesn’t have to agree on. The best I can think of is Fremdumwelteinsamkeit, meaning “foreign- environment-loneliness,” but this feels too clunky, and even more too literal. Anyway, does a self-created word carry the same weight as one used throughout a culture, one whose usage carries the voice of a people, a history, a literature? My search for a word to describe the specific brand of loneliness I experienced abroad may be personal to me, as every experience is uniquely personal to an individual. The disappointment in language, however, is undoubtedly unoriginal, and surely has been felt since its evolution alongside the human brain and modern cognition. And in this simple fact, I feel less alone.
from the September 2019 issue