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Experiential cartography, and the significance of "untranslatable" words



Mainstream psychology can be regarded as largely Western-centric, with its concepts and priorities biased towards Western ways of thinking and understanding. Consequently, the field would benefit from greater cross-cultural awareness and engagement. To that end, this article offers one means of engagement, the study of “untranslatable” words (i.e., terms without an exact equivalent in another language, in our case English). A key function of language is that it offers a “map” that allows us to understand and navigate the world. In that respect, such words point to cultural variation in the maps we use, and even to variation in the actual territory mapped. The paper concludes with suggestions for why and how psychology could benefit from engaging with such words.
Experiential cartography, and the significance of untranslatable words
Dr. Tim Lomas
University of East London, School of Psychology,
Theory and Psychology
Note. This draft may not match the final version in Theory of Psychology. It is not the copy
of record.
Mainstream psychology can be regarded as largely Western-centric, with its concepts and
priorities biased towards Western ways of thinking and understanding. Consequently, the
field would benefit from greater cross-cultural awareness and engagement. To that end, this
paper offers one means of engagement, the study of “untranslatable” words (i.e., terms
without an exact equivalent in another language, in our case English). A key function of
language is that it offers a “map” that allows us to understand and navigate the world. In that
respect, such words point to cultural variation in the maps we use, and even to variation in the
actual territory mapped. The paper concludes with suggestions for why and how psychology
could benefit from engaging with such words.
Keywords: cross-cultural; linguistics; translation; cartography; lexicography.
Mainstream academic psychology tends to be strongly Western-centric, to the extent that it
could even be viewed as a Western “ethnopsychology” (Wierzbicka, 1989). That is, like all
systems of knowledge, the field is culturally-situated, influenced by the mainly Western
contexts in which it has been formed and developed. For instance, much of its empirical work
has involved scholars and participants described by Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan (2010)
as WEIRD, belonging to societies that are Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and
Democratic. As a result, the concepts developed within the field are arguably biased towards
Western ways of thinking and understanding the world, such as a North American tradition of
expressive individualism” (Izquierdo, 2005). And yet, Western psychology is often unaware
of its situatedness with its cultural bias constituting a “disguised ideology” – uncritically
regarding itself as psychology in toto (Christopher & Hickinbottom, 2008). As such, the field
would benefit from greater cross-cultural engagement, awareness, and understanding.
To that end, this paper offers one such means of engagement, namely the study of
untranslatable words (i.e., those lacking an exact equivalent in another language, in our
case English). The nature and significance of such words will be introduced over three
sections. The first section highlights cross-cultural variation in the way people experience and
understand the world, drawing in particular on linguistic differences. It also addresses the
implications that such variation has for psychology. The second section then introduces a
theoretical approach which helps us make sense of cross-cultural differences. Specifically, we
will explore the “cartographic” properties of language, a key function of which is mapping
our experiential world. Crucially, cultures vary in how they draw their maps, which
influences how people in those cultures experience and understand life. The third section then
addresses the significance of untranslatable words, arguing that these signify areas or aspects
of the world that one’s culture has overlooked. As such, it will be proposed that psychology
would benefit from engaging with such words. A case study of such engagement is presented
featuring the Pāli term sati, which is the basis (as a “loan translation”) for the concept of
mindfulness. The paper concludes with suggestions for how academic engagement with
untranslatable words could unfold going forwards.
The Challenge of Linguistic Relativity
Psychology has inevitably been influenced by the cultural contexts in which it has been
developed and practiced. In that respect, one might speak of multiple “ethnopsychologies”
across the globe. These can be identified and analysed on varying levels of scale, from the
transnational (e.g., “Western ethnopsychology”; Wierzbicka, 1989), to the national (e.g.,
“Nepali ethnopsychology”; Kohrt & Maharjan, 2009), to the subnational (e.g., “Ifaluk
ethnopsychology”; Lutz, 1985). However, over recent decades, Western ethnopsychology,
and more specifically American ethnopsychology, has come to dominate the field as a whole
i.e., academic psychology as an international endeavour to the extent that it is often
regarded uncritically as psychology in toto (Pickren, 2009). Kurt Danziger (1985, 2006), the
historian of psychology, has provided an influential analysis of these power dynamics using
the metaphor of centre and periphery. Prior to the Second World War, he suggests there were
various centres of knowledge and practice, including Berlin, Cambridge, and Chicago, as
well as peripheral locations where such knowledge/practice was reproduced. However, in the
post-war period, the economic and military dominance of the United States meant that
American psychology was exported globally, effectively becoming the sole centre, to the
extent that the qualifying adjective “American” soon became erased as superfluous.
This has meant that concepts, ideologies, priorities, and methods associated with
American psychology have come to dominate the international scene. One aspect of this
dominance is that (American) English has become the default language for the field. Consider
that most of the field’s literature and discourse (e.g., at conferences) is in English. This means
most of its ideas and theories are structured around the contours of the English language. This
linguistic bias is an issue, since the knowledge developed within the field is therefore to an
extent provincial and culturally-specific. Or, to be more precise, this linguistic bias is one
way in which psychology as a whole i.e., an international endeavour which is nevertheless
driven by America as the sole centre is culturally-specific (i.e., influenced by this American
centre). Other factors include the ideological and economic traditions associated with the
United States, from individualism to consumer capitalism (Becker & Marecek, 2008). But
this linguistic bias certainly is a key issue. Its significance can be understood by considering
the linguistic relativity hypothesis.
The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis
The idea that culture, via language, influences thought can be traced back centuries. It is
common to track this line of thinking now known as the linguistic relativity hypothesis
(LRH) at least as far as Herder (1772), who argued that differences in the mentalities of
individual countries derived in large part from the nature of their language. Entering the
modern era, these ideas found their most prominent articulation with the anthropologist Sapir
(1929) and his student Whorf (1940), to the extent that the LHR is sometimes referred to as
the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.” In line with the general tenets of the LHR, they argued that
language plays a constitutive role in the way people experience and understand life. As
Whorf (1956) put it, “We dissect nature along lines laid out by our native languages… The
world is presented as a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized… largely
by the linguistic systems in our minds (pp.213-214).
Such linguistic “parsing” takes two main forms: grammatical structure and lexical
content. According to Whorf, the most impactful relativity effects pertain to the former, an
argument endorsed by many subsequent theorists (Lucy, 1996). That is, cultural differences
in grammar are thought to exert a relatively powerful effect on cognition and experience,
since grammar structures are arguably “deeper” and more foundational to the mind than are
lexical frameworks, which essentially fit within the structures provided by grammar. For
instance, Whorf argued that the Hopi have a different experience of time in contrast to
Western cultures due to particularities in their grammar, which he appraised as lacking a
linear sense of past, present and future. By contrast, lexical variation may exert a relatively
weaker effect, since such content is less foundational (Davies & Corbett, 1997). That said,
lexical variation is still notable and impactful (e.g., from an epistemological perspective). For
instance, Whorf observed that the Hopi have the same word for pilot, dragonfly, and airplane,
whereas these are evidently differentiated in English. Functionally then, these are all the same
category of entity for the Hopi, whereas English has broken down this broad category (i.e., of
airborne objects) into more granular categories. This phenomenon of cultures differently
parsing the world for instance by differentially drawing categorical boundaries around
things is central to this paper, as elucidated further in the second main section below.
As one can imagine, the LHR has generated much debate over the decades, with a
vast body of empirical research teasing apart its nuances. To give a prominent example, the
phenomenon of colour perception has attracted considerable attention, dating back to the
Cambridge expedition to the Torres Straits, in which scholars observed that colour-term
inventories vary across languages (Rivers, 1901). According to Davies and Corbett (1997),
scholarship up until the 1970s was dominated by a strongly relativist, and even determinist,
perspective, in which colour perception was regarded as being heavily influenced by one’s
cultural conditioning. Thereafter came a surge of work taking a more universalist perspective,
which held that lexical differences vis-à-vis colour are superficial, with considerable cross-
cultural communality in colour perception (Franklin, Clifford, Williamson, & Davies, 2005).
The debate continues apace, of course. But an important point to note is that cultures may not
merely vary in how they parse the colour spectrum (e.g., segmenting this into more or fewer
categories). Theorists such as Lucy (1997) drawing on anthropological scholars like
Conklin (1955) have argued for cross-cultural differences in what is meant by “colour”
itself. In English, colour terms usually identify properties such as hue, saturation, and
brightness. By contrast, colour terms in other languages may also pertain to properties like
lustre, luminosity, and reflectance, and thus capture different dimensions altogether (such as
succulence versus desiccation).
Language Shapes Experience
The key message of the LHR for this paper specifically, and for psychology generally is
therefore that language affects the way people experience the world. (The debates within the
LHR literature then centre on how and to what extent it does.) Moreover, as the above
discussion of colour indicates, language does not simply map a pre-existing phenomenon
(i.e., segmenting the colour spectrum), thereby influencing people’s experience of it. More
significantly, it is now well understood that language may actually help to constitute and
create the very phenomena it signifies, such as influencing which stimuli are understood as
pertaining to colour in the first place. The constitutive role of language in this respect
shaping and even forming what is taken to be reality itself has long been recognised by
theorists aligned with areas of psychological enquiry such as social constructionism and
discursive psychology, like Gergen (1985) and Potter (1996). These discursive paradigms
continue to generate fruitful lines of enquiry, such as analyses of the role language plays in
constituting and defining the self, as explored in a recent special issue of Theory &
Psychology for example (Bertau, 2014). This literature shows us that language can even
disclose and create new realms of experience that might not be perceived or accessed by
people who are unfamiliar with that particular language. For instance, various Eastern
philosophies, and related branches of practice from medicine to martial arts have
developed lexica pertaining to subtle forms of “energy” in and around the body, from the
Chinese notion of qi (Jonas & Crawford, 2003) to the Sanskrit concept of chakras (Albanese,
1999). Whatever these energies “actual” ontological status, such energies may not necessarily
be universally experienced or perceived. For many people outside the cultures that produced
these terms, it would be as if the relevant phenomena did not exist.
Indeed, following this line of thinking to its conclusion, it’s been argued that culture
via language may even shape people’s experience and understanding of ontology itself
(Course, 2010). For instance, Western thinkers frequently endorse a dualist ontology,
differentiating between an “inner” subjective world of qualia and an “outer” objective world
of material objects (Chalmers, 1995). Thus, it is standard to speak of such binaries as mind-
body, subjective-objective, interior-exterior, and so on, even if the dyadic nature of these
interactions has always been a topic of philosophical debate. However, in other cultures,
these binaries are not similarly assumed. For instance, many schools of Buddhism such as
the Yogācāra tradition – tend towards versions of idealism, in which all phenomena, both
“internal” and “external,” are seen as arising within a “clearing” provided or accessed by
consciousness (Arnold, 2008).
Thus, as one can see, the LHR challenges the preconceptions and assumptions of
fields such as psychology, for instance regarding the nature of the self and its relationship
with the world. Or more specifically, one might say it challenges Western ethnopsychology,
which, despite being culturally-situated, tends to regard itself uncritically as psychology in
toto (Danziger, 1985, 2006). But that challenge need not be regarded as a negative. One can
argue that psychology would benefit from a thoroughgoing engagement with the implications
of the LRH. Indeed, it already has benefitted in that way, with a wealth of scholarship
exploring the significance of the LRH in intersecting paradims such as cross-cultural
psychology (Berry, 2000), indigenous psychology (Kim, Yang, & Hwang, 2006), discursive
psychology (Quigley, 2001), and social constructionism (Kramsch & Steffensen, 2008). In
that respect, one fruitful line of enquiry which has already been pursued to a limited extent
(e.g., Wierzbicka, 1997) is the study of so-called untranslatable words. In lacking an exact
equivalent in another language, they highlight constructs and categories which have been
identified in one language but not in another. As such, they offer an accessible starting point
for examining cross-cultural linguistic and conceptual differences, as demonstrated by
scholars like Wierzbicka (for whom untranslatable terms constitute “key words” which
enable us to understand their respective cultures). We shall address the nature and
significance of such words in the third part of this paper below. First though, it will help to
dwell further on the nature of language, and specifically the processes by which words are
created. To that end, this paper draws upon a well-established idea, namely that language
constitutes a “map” that allows us to conceptualise and navigate our world. In that sense, it
might be suggested that language facilitates a process of “experiential cartography.
Experiential Cartography
The notion that language offers a “map” of existence, allowing people to chart and navigate
their world, has a long pedigree. The metaphor was utilised, for example, by de Saussure,
(1916), founder of structuralism (which recognises language as a system of signs), as well as
influential theorists such as Peirce (1955) and Korzybski (1933). Harnessing this metaphor,
this second section will elucidate some of the parallels between language and conventional
cartography (i.e., geographical maps), and especially the drawing of boundaries. For doing so
will allow us to further appreciate the import of the LRH for psychology, and in particular to
acknowledge the significance of untranslatable words. First though, to clarify this suggestion
that language can map the “world,” it will help to consider the relationship between language
and the world it purports to map.
Language and the World
A useful theoretical framework for understanding the relationship between language and the
world is provided by Popper (1980). He identifies three worlds, each of which interpenetrates
and influences the others, thereby shaping this process of mapping. The first two worlds were
already alluded to above: World 1 (W1) is the subjective inner terrain of qualia, while
World 2 (W2) is the objective “outer” realm of material entities (including the physical
bodies of human beings themselves). The ontological nature of these worlds, and the
dynamics of their relationship, have been the focus of philosophical debate for millennia
(Chalmers, 1995). In addition, though, Popper helpfully adds a third world (W3): the
conceptual world of abstract thought and its products. Most relevantly, for our purposes here,
this includes language. As Popper puts it, W3 is the “world of the products of the human
mind, such as languages; tales and stories and religious myths; scientific conjectures or
theories, and mathematical constructions; songs and symphonies; paintings and sculptures”
(p.144). The ontological nature of W3 has been much debated, particularly in fields like
mathematics, where the existential status of mathematical entities is a perennial discussion
point (Shapiro, 2000). It is beyond the scope here to delve into such debates. Suffice it to say
that while conceptual thought does “supervene” (i.e., depend) upon W1 and W2 in that
thought consists of a subjective mental experience (W1), and also resides in the physical
architecture of the brain, and in externalising devices such as writing (W2) Popper and
other theorists argue that it is not reducible to these worlds.
This framework is useful in allowing us to appreciate how language sits in relation to
the phenomena it maps. (I should add though that this schema is simply a useful heuristic and
shorthand in this regard. The idea of “experiential cartography” presented in this paper does
not require one to endorse Popper’s notion of three distinct worlds. If one prefers, rather than
speak of W1, W2, and W3, one could simply refer respectively, in conventional terms, to
subjectivity, the external world, and language.) Language as a W3 phenomenon, to use
Popper’s terminology intersects with W1 and W2 in complex ways, at least three of which
can be identified. First, in an ontological sense, W3 could be regarded as supervening upon
both W1 and W2, as noted above. Second, in a substantive and epistemological sense, much
of W3 pertains to W1 and W2. That is, many of W3’s products from scientific theories to
religious narratives concern phenomena situated in W1 (subjective experiences) and W2
(objects and events in the external world). To put it another way, a large part of W3 consists
in the mapping of W1 and W2, as well as W3 itself. That is, language can delineate territory
in W1 (e.g., differentiating emotional states), W2 (e.g., identifying objects), and W3 (e.g.,
arranging ideas into comprehensible frameworks).
The third point of intersection is that W1 and W2 influence the structure and contents
of W3, as elucidated by theorists such as Lakoff (2008). That said, he suggests this influence
has only been recognised relatively recently. Before the 20th Century, theories of knowledge
tended to be characterised by a stance of “objectivism.” This holds that “rational thought
consists of the manipulation of abstract symbols and that these symbols get their meaning via
correspondence with the world [i.e., W1 and W2], objectively construed” (p.6). However,
recent decades have seen the emergence of a perspective Lakoff refers to as experiential
realism, or experientialism. This recognises that “thought [i.e., W3] is embodied,” whereby
our conceptual systems “grow out of bodily experience… directly grounded in perception,
body movement, and experience of a physical and social character” (p.xiv). Thus, language is
a product of all three worlds. Of course, it is primarily a product of W3, the world of
conceptual thought. Indeed, one might view language as the exemplar W3 product, upon
which most of its other products from scientific theories to historical narratives depend in
a foundational way. However, Lakoff’s point is that language is intricately shaped by
processes in W1 (e.g., the dynamics of subjective experience) and W2 (e.g., our environment,
and our experiences within it). To give one example, Johnson and Lakoff (2002) discuss how
people tend to equate quantity with verticality i.e., where “more” equals “up” – on the basis
of embodied experiences (such as filling a glass with liquid). So, in sum, language can map
all three worlds, and is also a product of all three.
Moreover, language does not only map our worlds. It has other functions beyond this
capacity for referential representation, and as such, other forms of relation with the worlds.
For instance, language can have a rhetorical function, where it is not so much mapping the
worlds as attempting to lead people into certain regions, such as trying to evoke a W1
experience in listeners (e.g., a specific emotion). Similarly, Austin (1962) highlighted the
performative function of language, such as the act of pronouncing a couple husband and wife.
That could also be viewed as language leading people into regions of experiential space, in
that instance the state of being married. More importantly though, it also reflects one of the
most powerful functions of language: to create or constitute new dimensions of experience
(Searle, 2005). When the concept of marriage was created, it opened up new areas in all three
worlds, including the subjective experience of being married (W1), events such as weddings
(W2), and religious and legal frameworks pertaining to marriage (W3). We shall return to this
issue of the creative/constitutive power of language below, when we consider the significance
of untranslatable words. Before addressing the phenomenon of such words, though, we need
to consider the way in which language maps our worlds. Arguably the central process here is
the drawing of boundaries.
Drawing Boundaries
As with conventional (geographical) cartography, language maps our worlds (1, 2, and 3) by
imposing boundaries upon these, thereby parsing them into cognitively digestible elements.
There are two related ways in which this parsing occurs, namely, grammatical structure and
lexical content. First, grammatical structures offer a powerful way of organising and bringing
order to the dynamic complexity of all three worlds. They do this by parsing the worlds
according to considerations such as temporal dynamics and relationships between entities.
With the former, for instance, people can segment the stream of experience into past, present,
and future, through grammatical tenses. Then with the latter, one can delineate relationships
according to such factors as ownership (e.g., through possessives), causality (e.g., through
assignations of subject and object), and spatial positioning (e.g., through prepositions)
(Levinson, 1996). Then, in a related way influenced by these grammatical structures the
worlds can also be parsed into lexemes of various sorts. This includes delineating objects (via
nouns and pronouns), processes (verbs), qualities (adjectives and adverbs), relationships
(prepositions and conjunctions), and communicative acts (interjections). Different languages
may also feature other categories, such as classifiers, that are not used in English.
In considering this process of boundary construction, there are four particularly salient
points to consider. These go to the heart of the LRH, and to the significance of untranslatable
words. These are that boundaries are somewhat: (a) fuzzy; (b) fluid; (c) socially constructed;
and (d) culturally-dependent. Let’s briefly take these in turn. First, when we delineate regions
of a world using a boundary, and label it linguistically (e.g., with a lexeme), these boundaries
are not usually clean-cut, but are rather “fuzzy.” For instance, in terms of affective states
(W1), we become accustomed to demarcating a particular configuration of valence, intensity,
duration, etc. as “ecstasy,” and a somewhat related configuration as “contentment.” However,
it’s not that a particular point within this inner world is identified as ecstasy or contentment.
It’s more that we draw boundaries around a localised range along each of these dimensions,
and base the category label on the resulting region of our inner world. However, words can
be defined and deployed in different ways by different people, and indeed by the same person
at different times. As such, these regions are not usually precisely defined, with a clear and
unambiguous demarcation. Rather, better to think of them as a “fuzzy set” (Zadeh, 1965,
2015) where the “transition between membership and nonmembership is gradual rather than
abrupt” (Dubois & Prade, 1980, p.1) arising from all the overlapping yet varying definitions
that people ascribe to the word in question. That is, with a label like “ecstasy,” the question of
where the boundaries of this state are which experiences are deemed “members” of this
category is a matter of interpretation and debate. Wittgenstein’s (1953) notion of family
resemblances makes a similar point.
Related to the fuzziness of categories and labels is their fluidity. This was one of the
great insights of poststructuralism, which recognised the shifting, dynamic nature of language
structures (in contrast to early structuralism, which regarded these structures as more fixed
and stable). Thus, theorists such as Derrida (1982) argued that meaning is not unitary or
fixed, but “slippery and elusive” as Rail (1998, p.xii) puts it, open to multiple interpretations
that moreover can change across time and context. For instance, to return to the notion of
ecstasy, this has been subject to interesting shifts in meaning over the centuries. The term
originates in classical Greek, where ékstasis combined ek, meaning outside or beyond, and
stasis, meaning stature or standing. It thus connoted a person “standing outside” themselves
in some manner. This notion was deployed in various ways, from the relatively benign (e.g.,
being astonished or entranced) to the more troubling (e.g., insanity or spiritual “possession”)
(Michaelsen, 1989). It was then “borrowed” by English in the 14th Century, thus becoming a
loanword, a phenomenon to which we shall return below. At first, it was mainly deployed in
religious contexts to depict an exalted state sometimes also referred to as rapture that
could arise from contemplation of the divine (McGinn, 1987). Then, over time, with the
gradual secularisation of the West, these spiritual connotations were eroded, with the term
now generally just denoting an intense experience of pleasure. Even so, there are differences
in how the term is interpreted and used in context. In some modes of discourse, such as
psychiatry, it can carry pejorative connotations of being problematic, potentially too intense,
artificial, and/or socially inappropriate (Wilmot, 1985). Conversely, other people may merely
use it to express strong happiness or satisfaction (e.g., being “ecstatic” about a promotion).
The key point here using Peirce’s (1955) semiotic terminology is that there is a relatively
loose link between a given signifier (such as “ecstasy”) and the “object” it signifies (in this
instance, a W1 region of affective experience). As such, at a cultural level, the region denoted
by the label can shift over time as per ecstasy producing changes in what is signified by
that lexeme.
Reflection on the fuzzy and changing nature of linguistic terms and categories leads to
the third key point about linguistic boundaries: they are socially constructed. The way they
are drawn is somewhat arbitrary, and subject to convention. This can be easy to appreciate
when the boundaries are especially fuzzy, or not self-evident. For instance, it is not obvious
how the W1 affective space signified by ecstasy differs from that denoted by near-synonyms
like euphoria or bliss. However, one of the great insights of the social constructionist schools
of thought is that even categories we usually take for granted as “natural” – e.g., separating
people into men and women are likewise socially created to an extent (Brickell, 2006). This
point takes us back to Lakoff’s (2008) argument against “objectivism. W3 concepts are not
abstract symbols that exist in a perfect and fixed correspondence with phenomena in W1 and
W2. Rather, they arise out of our embodied experience, influenced by processes in W1 and
W2. Crucially, this experience is not simply an individual phenomenon, but a social one. W3
is a communal creation: forged and developed through negotiation, disputation, and
agreement within cultural groups, and then built and maintained through practice and through
living together and coping with the world.
This point brings us to the fourth point about boundary construction, and one that is
central to this paper: language is a product of culture. And, given there are multiple cultures,
this means there are many different linguistic “maps” across the globe, producing variation in
how people experience and understand the world. This contention is of course at the heart of
the LRH, as explored above. And it has implications for psychology, whose Western-centric
nature means that most of its ideas and theories have been structured around the contours of
the English language. From the perspective of the LRH, this linguistic bias is an issue, as it
means that the knowledge developed within the field is to an extent provincial and culturally-
specific. Thus, psychology indeed all fields would benefit greatly from engaging with the
implications of the LRH, as indeed it already has to an extent, as elucidated above with
respect to colour perception for instance. One particularly interesting means of engagement is
the study of untranslatable words, which offer an accessible starting point for exploring cross-
cultural linguistic and conceptual differences.
Untranslatable Words
There are many reasons for encouraging an engagement with untranslatable words. For a
start, such terms provide a “window” onto other cultures’ experiences and understanding of
life, as Wierzbicka’s (1997) analysis of various cultures’ “key words” has shown. These
terms therefore offer a portal through which people from other cultures might look (if not
actually “step”). Such words provide a glimpse however partial or obscured into ways of
being, doing and thinking in that culture. This doesn’t mean that people outside the culture
could actually step into” it (i.e., fully experience and know what it means to be a member of
that culture). To return to an example above, Eastern philosophies have developed lexica
pertaining to subtle forms of “energy” in and around the body, from the Chinese notion of qi
to the Sanskrit concept of chakras. Westerners who encounter such terms may not be able to
fully acquire the “experiential familiarity” that people native to those languages may have,
nor understand their functioning in the local “stream of life,”’ as Wierzbicka (1999, p.8) puts
it. Yet, from a Western perspective, such terms provide at least some indication, however
fragmented, of modes of experiences in those cultures. Of course, for researchers in those
cultures who may be developing their own ethnopsychologies (e.g., Yang, 1999) such
concepts may be comprehensible on their own terms. But from a Western perspective too,
there is also merit in engaging with such concepts, if only to appreciate how culturally-
specific mainstream (i.e., Western) psychology currently is.
But what exactly are untranslatable words, and why are they so significant? Broadly
speaking, they are words which lack an exact equivalent in one’s own language. Such words
have attracted much attention in recent years, within academia (e.g., Cassin, Apter, Lezra, &
Wood, 2014) and popular culture (e.g., De Boinod, 2007). That said, the term itself can be
problematic, and is disliked by some linguists (who prefer “unlexicalized”). On one hand, it
could be argued that no word is truly translatable. Ever since de Saussure (1916), it’s been
generally accepted by structuralist and poststructuralist theorists that words are embedded
within complex webs of meanings. Thus, even if languages have rough equivalents Liebe as
the German counterpart to love, for instance translators have long argued that something is
always lost in the act of translation (McClaren, 1998). Conversely others argue that nothing is
ever genuinely untranslatable. That is, even if a word lacks an exact equivalent in our
language, at least something of its meaning can often be conveyed in a few words or
sentences (Pullum, 1989). However, it’s generally that a word doesn’t appear to have an
exact match that renders it untranslatable in common parlance, and moreover makes it so
intriguing to us here.
Semantic Gaps
Specifically, the significance of untranslatable words is that they highlight “semantic gaps” in
our language, i.e., “the lack of a convenient word to express what [one] wants to speak about”
(Lehrer, 1974, p.105). Such gaps are also known by the Italian phrase “traduttore traditore”;
literally meaning “translator, traitor,” this is deployed in situations where a word or phrase in
one language lacks a precise equivalent in another, rendering translation difficult (or even
impossible). In such instances, it is common for a language to simply “borrow” the word as a
“loanword.” That said, not all instances of borrowing are due to untranslatability. Haspelmath
(2009) differentiates between “core” versus “cultural” borrowings. The former is when a
loanword replicates a word that already exists in the recipient language. This may happen for
sociolinguistic reasons, such as the cultural capital associated with using foreign words
(Blank, 1999). Such borrowings are not of concern here. However, the second category of
“cultural” borrowings is central. For these are “loanwords by necessity,” as Haspelmath puts
it, whereby the recipient language lacks its own word for the referent in question.
This might occur, for instance, when a new invention, practice, or idea is introduced
to a culture. Thus, in the absence of an appropriate native word or a new word being coined
the loanword is taken up because it is cognitively and socially useful, allowing speakers to
articulate ideas they had previously struggled to. As a result, it can fill a semantic gap. For
instance, analysing loanword adoption across languages, Tadmor (2009) found that most
borrowed words belong to categories susceptible to the introduction of novel ideas and
practices, such as religion and belief (of which 41% of English words are loanwords), and
clothing and grooming (39%). By contrast, aspects of life less susceptible to such innovation
have far less borrowing, such as the body (14%), spatial relations (14%) and sense perception
(11%). The point is that semantic gaps are less likely to arise in relation to phenomena which
are common across cultures, such as bodily structures and processes. By contrast, phenomena
that are more subject to creativity and innovation such as belief systems are more likely to
have culturally specific elements; this, in turn, means that other cultures may have semantic
gaps in relation to these elements, necessitating the borrowing of loanwords.
In terms of the cartographic metaphor above, a semantic gap denotes a region of
experience that has not been circumscribed by a given language (in our case, English). This
may be because it is an experience with which English speakers on the whole are unfamiliar,
e.g., because they lacked opportunities to experience or notice the phenomenon in question.
An example might be sensations of “subtle energies,” as discussed above, denoted by terms
like qi and chakra. Indeed, one might even say that, for most English-speakers excepting
those who have consciously appraised themselves of such phenomena these experiences do
not even effectively exist. This exemplifies the point above that language does not only map
worlds (W1, 2, and 3), but may even create or constitute dimensions of these worlds (i.e.,
populating these worlds with new phenomena, such as engendering experiences of subtle
energies in W1). (That said, this possibility needs to be further substantiated through
research, and is raised somewhat speculatively here, notwithstanding existing scholarship on
this theme, such as on colour perception, as outlined above.) In other cases, English-speakers
may well be familiar with the region of experience in question, but English has carved this up
differently to other languages, and has perhaps even configured the space itself differently.
An example is the aforementioned issue of colour perception, where there may be cultural
differences in the very notion of what constitutes colour (Lucy, 1997). A related instance of a
semantic gap is when another language has mapped an experience with greater specificity
and granularity than English. For example, linguists have remarked that the word “love” is
“polysemous in the extreme” (Berscheid, 2010, p.6), spanning diverse feelings and
relationships. By contrast, other languages have developed a more nuanced lexicon to depict
types of love with Greek being particularly prolific in this regard (Lee, 1977; Lomas,
2018a) thereby generating words which are untranslatable (since “love” cannot capture
their nuances and differences).
Such examples reinforce the contention, raised above, that untranslatable words have
great relevance to psychology. By providing insights into the way other cultures understand
and experience life, they can counter the Western-centricity of mainstream psychology, and
open space for greater consideration of cultural difference and diversity. Indeed, to an extent,
such cross-cultural engagement has already been underway for decades within pockets of
psychology, even if scholars did not frame their work as being focused on untranslatable
words per se. For instance, researchers interested in cross-cultural differences in colour
perception will have found themselves analysing colour-related terms that do not have an
exact equivalent in English. Other examples include the burgeoning field of cross-cultural
psychiatry, which includes analyses of disorders and associated terminology that appear
specific to certain cultures (Kirmayer, 1991). A greater number of such endeavours would
considerably enhance psychology. Depending on one’s perspective, there would then either
be a greater and deeper range of culturally-specific ethnopsychologies, if one were more
inclined towards relativism a process Adair (1999) calls the “indigenization of psychology”
(p.403) or a more comprehensive overarching psychology that was capable of
accommodating cultural nuances, if one tended towards stances such as Berry, Poortinga,
Segall, and Dasen’s (2011) concept of “moderate universalism.”
Borrowing Untranslatable Words
One of the most significant ways the field could engage with untranslatable words and
indeed already has done so is by incorporating, adapting, or in some fashion “borrowing
these. (This generally means borrowing lexemes, rather than grammatical structures. While
the latter may be more impactful from a LRH stance, they are less amenable to transporting
into other cultural contexts.) From this perspective, untranslatable words are not only
informative vis-à-vis the culture that created them. Additionally, they may have some wider,
more universal relevance, whereby the phenomena they signify are to an extent accessible to
people in other cultures.
That said, this process of borrowing can be problematic. When a word is borrowed, it
may well not retain the meaning(s) it has in its original language. As discussed above, since
de Saussure (1916) it’s generally been accepted by structuralist and poststructuralist theorists
that words are embedded within networks of other terms which help endow it with meaning.
Thus, it is hard to understand a word in isolation, without knowing how it relates systemically
to other terms, or how it is deployed in context. As such, some scholars argue that unless a
person is enmeshed within the culture that produced a word, they would be unable to
understand or experience the phenomenon it refers to. For instance, Taylor (1985) argues that
there is no way out of the “hermeneutic circle,” in which concepts can only be understood
with reference to others in that language. As he put it, “We can often experience what it is
like to be on the outside [of the circle] when we encounter the feeling, action, and
experiential meaning language of another civilization. Here there is no translation, no way of
explaining in other, more accessible concepts” (p.23-24). However, Wierzbicka (1999)
contends that we can indeed approximate a feel for what untranslatable words refer to. It is
true that people not emic to a culture may not appreciate the full nuanced richness of a term
compared to people who are “inside” the culture. As she clarifies, “verbal explanations of
such concepts cannot replace experiential familiarity with them and with their functioning in
the local stream of life’” (p.8). Yet “it is not true that no verbal explanations illuminating to
outsiders are possible at all.Even without understanding how a word is connected and used
in its original language, something of its essence may yet be appreciated.
In terms of the viability of psychology engaging with untranslatable words, a useful
case study is provided by the burgeoning interest in the concept and practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a calque, or “loan translation,” of the Pāli term sati, a central term within
Buddhism (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). Mindfulness is an interesting example, since it highlights the
complexities, but also the benefits, of engaging with untranslatable words. Regarding the
complexities, firstly, as per the notion of fluidity above, sati does not simply have one
meaning, but a range of meanings which moreover have shifted across time and context. Its
earliest forms of usage had connotations of remembrance and recollection (Gethin, 2011). It
was then harnessed by the Buddha circa 500 BCE to depict a beneficial mental state
involving present-moment awareness, as elucidated in the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta, the seminal
instructional text in the Pāli Canon on the cultivation of sati (Bodhi, 2011). Over the
centuries, as Buddhism was transmitted to other linguacultures, various cognates and loan
translations were developed. This occurred in English in the late 19th Century, when Buddhist
texts began to become more widely available. The term “mindfulness” was coined by T. W.
Rhys Davids at the turn of the 20th century after experimenting with other renderings and
has subsequently been embraced by clinicians and scholars who have sought to harness the
practice of sati (e.g., as articulated in the Pāli Canon). Principal in this regard is Kabat-Zinn
(1982), who created a pioneering Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction intervention in the late
seventies, which was successful in treating chronic pain. This intervention and subsequent
adaptations, like Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, designed to prevent relapse to
depression (Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2002) has been highly efficacious in ameliorating
mental health issues (Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004).
This is therefore a fruitful instance of psychology engaging with an untranslatable
word. Here we have a mental state operationalised by Kabat-Zinn (2003) as “the awareness
that arises through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally
to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (p.145) that had not previously been
identified in English (hence the lack of an exact English equivalent, notwithstanding Rhys
Davids’ decision to render it as “mindfulness”). This is not to claim that English speakers had
hitherto been entirely unfamiliar with this state. After all, “trait” theories of mindfulness posit
that all people may experience mental states that approximate to mindfulness, even if they are
unaware of the concept per se (Brown, Weinstein, & Creswell, 2012). However, the state had
not been explicitly identified in English, nor practices developed to help people cultivate it
(as they had been in Buddhism). Now though, there are thousands of empirical psychology
studies focusing on mindfulness, and the concept has become ubiquitous in Western culture
more broadly (Van Gordon, Shonin, Griffiths, & Singh, 2015). Evidently, psychology has
found great value in engaging with sati, which has not only enriched its understanding of
mental functioning, but also led to practical interventions of therapeutic value.
That said, critics have queried the extent to which the concept has been altered in the
act of borrowing. For a start, some question its rendering as mindfulness, suggesting that
this label is too cognitive and cerebral, and misses the affective qualities embedded in sati,
like compassion (Shapiro, Carlson, Astin, & Freedman, 2006). Indeed, Eastern languages do
not necessarily have a rigid distinction between thought and emotion (as there is in English).
For instance, the Sanskrit term citta is often explained as signifying heart and mind together.
As such, it has been argued that “heart-mindfulness” might be a better calque of sati. Besides
the issue of its rendering, in its original Buddhist context, sati was embedded within a rich
nexus of ideas and practices that together comprise the dharma, a complex term with
connotations of truth, laws, and teachings, which is used to denote the Buddhist path as a
whole (Stcherbatsky, 2003). In transplanting sati into another lexicon and cultural context,
this network is not necessarily retained. (Readers interested in this point may appreciate
Cassaniti’s (2015) analysis of Buddhism as understood and practised in a Thai community.)
Recall the point that language does not simply map worlds, but can even create or constitute
dimensions of these worlds (e.g., engendering new W1 experiences). In that spirit, one could
argue that, in its original Buddhist context, the experience signified by sati was situated in a
world-space that doesn’t even exist for contemporary English speakers, or at least one that is
shaped and constellated differently to the world-space disclosed by English.
That said, as emphasised above, the Western adoption of sati has nevertheless led to
important practical insights. Moreover, its operationalisation in psychology is arguably not
discordant with its original meanings. For instance, Kabat-Zinn’s (2003) definition above
does align, to an extent, with Buddhist descriptions of mindfulness. It still may be the case
that, as Williams and Kabat-Zinn (2011) have noted, “the rush to define mindfulness within
Western psychology may wind up denaturing it in fundamental ways,” with “the potential for
something priceless to be lost” (p.4). For instance, in its original Buddhist context, sati was
imbued with an inherent moral sensibility relating to it being embedded within the wider
framework of the dharma that is not necessarily retained in the term mindfulness, nor in
contemporary conceptualisations and practices of it (Van Gordon, Shonin, Lomas, &
Griffiths, 2016). However, even if mindfulness does not retain all the meanings sati had in its
original Buddhist context, it can still be of value, as indicated above. Moreover, as sati
becomes adopted and adapted by Westerners, it starts to develop its own associations of
meaning. For instance, in Western psychology, mindfulness has become associated with
cognitive models of attention (Chiesa, Calati, & Serretti, 2011) and affective models of
relaxation (Tang et al., 2009). Moreover, these considerations of meaning-in-context do not
undercut the value of engaging with constructs like sati. Rather, they reinforce the point that
psychology still has much yet to learn from the culture from which sati was borrowed.
Thus, overall, mindfulness shows the potential, and the pitfalls, for psychology
engaging with untranslatable words. One can dispute the extent to which the contemporary
understanding of mindfulness aligns with sati as conceived in its original Buddhist context.
Nevertheless, within its own parameters, Western psychology has been enriched by its
engagement with sati, including in developing its nomological network, and augmenting its
corpus of therapeutic interventions. Indeed, one could even argue that Westerners introduced
to the concept and practice of mindfulness have had their worlds expanded. Possibly the term
“mindfulness” allowed them to recognise a mental state with which they were already
familiar, but hitherto lacked a label for. Or, possibly, the term introduced them to a new area
of W1 experience they hadn’t previously encountered; in that sense, the term may have
created or constituted a new dimension of their inner world. Either way, it is hard to argue
that Western psychology’s engagement with sati has not been fruitful on many levels. As
such, this paper concludes by emphasising that the field should engage further with
untranslatable words, and offers some suggestions for how this might unfold.
This paper has argued that academic psychology which could largely be appraised as a
Western ethnopsychology that regards itself as universal would benefit from a greater
degree of cross-cultural awareness and understanding. Doing so could be seen as either
generating a greater range of culturally-specific ethnopsychologies (if one were inclined
towards relativism), or a more comprehensive, overarching psychology that can nevertheless
accommodate cultural nuances (if one were inclined towards universalism). More
specifically, it has been argued that psychology would benefit and indeed has benefitted
from exploring the implications of the LRH. And one way of doing so is through the study of
untranslatable words. Reasons for encouraging this engagement are manifold. For a start,
such words provide a “window” onto other cultures’ experiences and understanding of life.
Then, beyond that is the intriguing possibility of Western psychology learning from and even
“borrowing” these terms, as explored above in relation to sati. Such engagement could take
numerous forms.
First, researchers could conduct exploratory enquiries into relevant terms. Something
of that sort is seen with efforts by Lomas (2016) to create a lexicography of untranslatable
words pertaining to wellbeing. That project began by searching through academic and grey
literature (e.g., websites and blogs) for relevant words, a process which generated over 200
relevant terms. These were analysed using a variation of Grounded Theory, which allows
theory to “emerge” inductively from the data (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Subsequently, a
website was created ( to crowd-source suggestions from
people worldwide. The resulting lexicography which remains a work-in-progress now
includes nearly 1,000 terms, and has generated analyses of various domains of experience,
including spirituality (Lomas, 2018a), love (Lomas, 2018b), ambivalent emotions (Lomas,
2018c), and positive emotions (Lomas, 2017).
This kind of broad-brush review could be augmented by more detailed qualitative
analyses of specific words and linguacultures. This could include in-depth interviews with
bilingual speakers, aimed at identifying and exploring relevant words in the interviewee’s
native language(s). Interviews could discuss these words in depth, including their etymology,
cultural significance, and use in context. Such analyses could be augmented by ethnographic
and anthropological studies of particular cultures, which would provide insights into the
larger contexts of meaning-making in which the untranslatable terms are situated. Of course,
this need not mean Western academics “objectively” studying these contexts from a supposed
position of outside expertise. Scholars and other informed individuals from these cultures
could be invited to collaborate in these enquiries in a spirit of “co-production” (Maclean &
Cullen, 2009).
In addition to such qualitative endeavours, quantitative analyses of constructs would
be valuable, particularly using factor-analysis (e.g., to examine their internal structure). This
type of exploration is exemplified by Scheibe, Freund, and Baltes (2007), who constructed a
28-item scale to assess the notion of Sehnsucht, an ostensibly untranslatable German term
that is explained roughly as a predilection for longing. Their research in German, and on a
German population suggested it comprised six dimensions: (a) utopian conceptions of an
ideal path of life development; (b) a sense of life’s incompleteness and imperfection; (c) a
conjoint focus on the past, present, and future; (d) ambivalent, bittersweet emotions; (e) deep
reflections on life; and (f) a mental world imbued with symbolic richness. It would be
instructive to explore the extent to which non-German people share similar tendencies
towards this state, perhaps by developing versions of the questionnaire in other languages
(although, of course, translating scales introduces its own complexities). Comparable
analyses, including the development of other such scales, could be undertaken with other
words. Such analyses could enable assessment of how such words sit in relation to existing
psychological concepts.
Finally, there is the potential for applied forms of research, including the development
of interventions to help people engage with untranslatable words (and the phenomena these
signify). For instance, as noted above, sati is the basis for therapeutic programmes to help
participants experience and develop mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). Similar endeavours
could be undertaken with other such words, although these efforts will of course be subject to
the same challenges and complexities as discussed in relation to sati. Overall then, the field
has much to learn and gain from engaging with untranslatable words, and more generally in
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... The six categories initially identified are still present, and moreover have been enriched by the additional words, with analyses published on each: positive feelings (Lomas, 2017a), ambivalent feelings (Lomas, 2017b), love (Lomas, 2018b), prosociality (Lomas, 2021b), character (Lomas, 2019b), and spirituality (Lomas, 2019a), plus a theoretical paper on the project itself (Lomas, 2018a). However, six new categories have also been identified. ...
... Although various cultures may have distinct perspectives and traditions of aesthetics, the view here is that together these differences may augment each other in providing a more detailed overall vision of art. Consider a cartographic analogy, which is a useful way of understanding the significance of language, one function of which is to "map" the worlds we encounter (Lomas, 2018a). With their various perspectives and lexica pertaining to beauty and aesthetics, it is as if different cultures have their own "map" of this region of experience. ...
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Art and aesthetics have long been understood as central to human well-being and flourishing. However, the academic study of these phenomena has been critiqued for its Western-centricity and general lack of cross-cultural engagement. As such, this article aims to broaden our appreciation of the contours of aesthetics by engaging with relevant “untranslatable” words (i.e., without an exact equivalent in English), thereby enriching our conceptual map of this arena. Over 300 relevant terms from 24 languages were located and analyzed using grounded theory. Four main metathemes were identified, each with several themes: stimuli (spanning the sensory modalities of sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, and the mind), qualities (harmony, naturalness, simplicity, prettiness, and shock), dynamics (appreciation, understanding, and inspiration), and modes (modalities, movements, and techniques). The article therefore adds to our understanding of this vital arena of human well-being and flourishing, though, as ever, further work is needed.
... Critical through or sopholiterate, in the mental mountain imaginaries, encircling spiritual, ethical and morality variables; e.g., ontology of the soul. This approach seeks to radicalize geoecology and landscape ecology of mountains with linguistic artifacts conveying ideas without direct translation (Castree, 2017;Lomas, 2018). Therefore, readers are compelled into using whole sentences in lieu of a simple term, to integrate ideas to execute transgression in mountain cognition (e.g., Prieto, 2011) toward sustainable and regenerative development. ...
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La utilización de los estudios de montaña requiere de narrativas integradoras para la geoalfabetización sobre paisajes socioecológicos productivos y motiva más investigaciones transdisciplinares en el campo de la montología. Concebimos este artículo como la confluencia de la experiencia individual y el razonamiento colectivo hacia la formación de grupos de investigación sinérgicos que se ocupan de la ciencia de montaña convergente, para hacer avanzar la montología a un nuevo nivel, mediante el cual el pensamiento innovador sobre la ciencia de la sustentabilidad y el desarrollo regenerativo incorpora propuestas alternativas para el mantenimiento, la mejora, o regeneración de las condiciones de vida de los paisajes de montaña. Buscamos utilizar este marco contemporáneo de sustentabilidad y restauración ecológica como el ímpetu para comprender mejor las relaciones de la naturaleza y la cultura, desde una perspectiva transdisciplinar, en montañas habitadas que operan en cuatro dimensiones (largo, ancho, alto y tiempo). El artículo está orientado a potenciar la transversalidad de temáticas en torno a las montañas como sistemas socioecológicos productivos, en una nueva disciplina académica institucionalizada y convergente. Concluimos con un llamado a un desarrollo regenerativo, sustentable y consiliente en las montañas del mundo.
... Similarly, Gkartzios et al. (2020) point to the diversity of terms used in Greece and Japan that broadly align with the anglophonic 'rural'. The danger, they argue, is not so much whether rural, like other academic and geographic terms is 'untranslatable' (Lomas, 2018), but the way the uncritical use of anglophonic terms effaces nuance, affecting the quality of debates (Gkartzios et al., 2020). ...
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This paper explores two questions facing the use of the concept of the ‘good farmer’ in rural studies: what are the most appropriate methods to understand good farming; and what is the relevance of the concept in non-western countries? The paper explores these issues in the context of pig farmers' biosecurity decisions and daily disease management practices in the New Territories of Hong Kong. Specifically, we argue that to broaden the relevance of the good farming concept, we need to devise specific methodologies to capture the relational practices among farmers, non-human life forms and substances that construct the ‘good farmer’ meaning in different cultural contexts. Firstly, we consider the language of ‘good farming’, its possible translations, potential meanings and alternative phrases used amongst Chinese-speaking farmers. Secondly, we develop a farmer-oriented methodology to analyse how these locally specific translations of good farming are constructed and used in relation to the management of animal disease. Drawing on 12 farmers' mapping and their interview discussion, we develop a narrated mapping methodology in which the creation of farm maps acts as a device to illustrate and talk about biosecurity and good farming. This visual method triangulates the graphical data with subsequent interview data of farmers' maps. From this we show how the idea of the ‘diligent farmer’ has much stronger resonance in Hong Kong than good farming. Farm maps identify specific symbols of diligence, highlighting values of productivism, environmentalism and social relationships. The mapping methodology also reveals the performative work involved in becoming a diligent farmer. In conclusion, the paper considers the broader methodological implications for the concept of good farming, suggesting that cultural linguistic differences need to be recognised in the concept, and arguing for further methodological advancement.
... This linguistic point can be understood using a cartographic metaphor. One function of language is to map our experiential world (Lomas, 2018). In that respect, some words cover more "ground" than others, and encompass related words within. ...
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Recent decades have seen a surge of scientific interest in happiness. However, its theoretical conceptualization is a work in progress. Much of the literature focuses on two main forms: hedonic (encompassing life satisfaction and positive affect) and eudaimonic (encompassing phenomena such as character development and meaning in life). However, this binary has been critiqued as being incomplete, in part because it reflects a Western-centric perspective that overlooks forms emphasized in non-Western cultures. As a result, scholars have begun to highlight other forms besides hedonia and eudaimonia. This article surveys the literature to identify 16 potential forms in total, classified according to whether they primarily pertain to feelings (hedonic, contented, mature, chaironic, and vital), thought (evaluative, meaningful, intellective, aesthetic, and absorbed) or action (eudaimonic, masterful, accomplished, harmonic, nirvanic, and relational). This article thus offers a more expansive, albeit still just provisional, taxonomy of this vital and still-evolving topic.
... Tremendous contributions have been made by WEIRD-centric psychology toward understanding and promoting human flourishing. However, the WEIRD-centricity that characterizes mainstream psychology presents an opportunity to develop strategies aimed at building a more inclusive and representative psychological science (Lomas, 2018). Without such transformation, meta-analytic evidence, theory development, and policymaking decisions are more likely to be informed by WEIRD psychosocial functioning and biased toward people living in WEIRD societies. ...
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More than a decade has passed since major concerns emerged about the WEIRD-centric focus of mainstream psychological science. Since then, many calls have been made for the discipline of psychology (and other disciplines within the social sciences) to become more broadly representative of the human species. However, recent evidence suggests that progress toward improving the inclusivity and generalizability of psychological science has been slow, and that the dominance of WEIRD psychology has persisted. To build a more comprehensive psychological science that truly represents the global population, we need strategies that can facilitate more rapid expansion of empirical evidence in psychology beyond WEIRD biases. In this paper, we draw on several examples (i.e., non-duality and dialectical interaction, Wu-Wei, Zhong Yong) to illustrate how principles of Asian psychology could contribute to reshaping mainstream psychology. We discuss some strategies for advancing a global psychological science, along with some complementary practical suggestions that could enrich the WEIRD-centric landscape of current psychological science.
... Indeed, with the new words, the thematic structure in the original paper has been updated. The six categories initially identified are still present, and moreover have been enriched by the additional words, with analyses published on each: positive feelings (Lomas, 2017a), ambivalent feelings (Lomas, 2017b), love (Lomas, 2018b), prosociality (Lomas, 2021a), character (Lomas, 2019c), and spirituality (Lomas, 2019a), plus a theoretical paper on the project itself (Lomas, 2018a). However, six new categories have also been identified, as summarized in a more recent overview (Lomas, 2021b). ...
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Vitality has been underappreciated and underexplored by academia at large. This oversight is potentially explained by the Western-centric nature of most fields, with vitality having been comparatively neglected in the West relative to elsewhere. One explanation for this lacuna is that vitality is not easily pigeonholed within the ontological categories dominant in the West, such as mind and body. This paper therefore aims to learn from cultures that have cultivated a greater understanding of vitality, doing so by engaging with relevant 'untranslatable' words (i.e., those without exact equivalent in English), thus enriching our conceptual map of this topic. Over 200 relevant terms were located and analyzed using an adapted form of grounded theory. Three themes were identified, each with four subthemes: spirit (life force, channels, soul, and transcendence); energy (fortitude, channeling, willpower, and recharging); and heart (desire, passion, affection, and satisfaction). The paper thus refines our understanding of this important topic and provides a foundation for future research.
... This point is illustrated by Lomas's (2020) evolving lexicography of 'untranslatable' wordslexemes in other languages which lack exact equivalent in our ownrelating to happiness. Such words are significant for many reasons, not least in highlighting aspects of experience which our own culture has overlooked, but which another has identified and labelled (Lomas, 2018). ...
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Happiness is an increasingly prominent topic of interest across academia. However, relatively little attention has been paid to how it is created, especially not in a multidimensional sense. By ‘created’ we do not mean its influencing factors, for which there is extensive research, but how it actually forms in the person. The work that has been done in this arena tends to focus on physiological dynamics, which are certainly part of the puzzle. But they are not the whole picture, with psychological, phenomenological, and socio cultural processes also playing their part. As a result, this paper offers a multidimensional overview of scholarship on the ‘architecture’ of happiness, providing a stimulus for further work into this important topic.
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Scholarly understanding of happiness continues to advance with every passing year, with new ideas and insights constantly emerging. Some constructs, like life evaluation, have been established for decades, generating extensive research. Cantril’s “ladder” item on life evaluation, for example – the question in the Gallup World Poll upon which this report is based – was created in 1965.1 By contrast, other well-being related topics are only beginning to receive due recognition and attention, including balance and harmony.
This chapter provides the current knowledge of the scientific literature on the development of emotional competencies, from infancy to adolescence. It aims to trace the child's journey through this acquisition process, which is as complex as any other form of academic learning. The chapter discusses the role and influence of language skills in the development of emotional competence. The scientific approach to the study of emotions was born thanks to the work of Charles Darwin, the famous naturalist who, in his book entitled The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals , defended an evolutionary perspective on the origin of emotions. Studies show that, as early as 16 months, children stare longer at a happy face when hearing the corresponding language label and improve their performance for the emotion of anger by 28 months.
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A prominent criticism of positive psychology is that is has been shaped by its Western context, and yet that this 'situatedness' often remains unacknowledged. Consequently, this paper offers an archaeological analysis of conceptualisations of happiness in the West. More specifically, the paper explores the emergence of significant ideas relating to the good life through the innovative device of studying artworks, on the premise that being featured in art is an effective signifier of when a given idea rose to prominence. Taking a time span of 1,000 years, one artwork per century has been selected to illustrate the emergence of a particular stream of thought during that centennial period. The paper elucidates the roots of currents ideas around happiness in fields like positive psychology, and in the West more generally. It is hoped this type of 'consciousness-raising' activity may help such fields acknowledge and overcome any limitations arising from their cultural situatedness.
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The notion of spirituality is increasingly prominent in academic and cultural discourse alike. However, it remains a nebulous concept, capable of diverse interpretations, particularly cross-culturally. In the interest of exploring this diversity, yet also with the aim of identifying common themes, an enquiry was conducted into conceptualizations of spirituality across cultures. Specifically, the enquiry focused on so-called untranslatable words, i.e., which lack an exact equivalent in another language (in this case, English). Through a quasi-systematic search, together with conceptual snowballing, over 200 relevant terms were located. A grounded theory analysis identified three key dimensions: the sacred, contemplative practice, and self-transcendence. Based on these, a conceptualization of spirituality was formulated that may be valid cross-culturally, namely: engagement with the sacred, usually through contemplative practice, with the ultimate aim of self-transcendence.
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Linguists have often remarked upon the polysemous nature of love, whereby the term encompasses a wide diversity of emotional relationships. Several typologies have been constructed to account for this diversity. However, these tend to be restricted in scope, and fail to fully represent the range of experiences signified by the term ‘love’ in discourse. In the interest of generating an expanded typology of love, encompassing its varied forms, an enquiry was conducted into relevant concepts found across the world's cultures, focusing on so-called untranslatable words. Through a quasi-systematic search of published and internet sources, 609 relevant words were identified. These were organised through a version of grounded theory into 14 categories, representing 14 different forms or ‘flavours’ of love. The result is an expanded theoretical treatment of love, allowing us to better appreciate the nuances of this most cherished and yet polysemous of concepts.
This book presents an innovative new approach to the study of wellbeing, intersecting psychology, linguistics, and cross-cultural scholarship. It begins by introducing a cartographic theory of language, proposing that words enable us to map our world, and thus to understand and navigate our lives. However, different cultures map the world in different ways, generating so-called untranslatable words (i.e., which lack an equivalent in another language – in this case, English). Their significance is that they point to aspects of life that have hitherto been overlooked or undervalued in English-speaking cultures. By exploring such words, we can therefore refine our maps, developing a more nuanced appreciation of the world. This book deploys this process with respect to wellbeing specifically, bringing its hidden dimensions to light. Moreover, it argues that this process may not only enhance our understanding of wellbeing, but also our experience of it, empowering us to identify phenomena that had previously been only dimly perceived, and even to discover new dimensions of existence we had not realised were there. These possibilities are brought to life through a tour of 400 or so words, sourced from nearly 80 languages. These terms are analysed thematically, arranged into three overarching meta-categories – feelings, relationships, and personal development – which together constitute a comprehensive new theory of wellbeing. The book concludes by outlining an ambitious research agenda that will fully allow the promise of these untranslatable words, and the theory outlined here, to be realised.
This book is the first work to address the question of what kinds of words get borrowed in a systematic and comparative perspective. It studies lexical borrowing behavior on the basis of a world-wide sample of 40 languages, both major languages and minor languages, and both languages with heavy borrowing and languages with little lexical influence from other languages. The book is the result of a five-year project bringing together a unique group of specialists of many different languages and areas. The introductory chapters provide a general up-to-date introduction to language contact at the word level, as well as a presentation of the project's methodology. All the chapters are based on samples of 1000-2000 words, elicited by a uniform meaning list of 1460 meanings. The combined database, comprising over 70,000 words, is published online at the same time as the book is published. For each word, information about loanword status is given in the database, and the 40 case studies in the book describe the social and historical contact situations in detail.The final chapter draws general conclusions about what kinds of words tend to get borrowed, what kinds of word meanings are particularly resistant to borrowing, and what kinds of social contact situations lead to what kinds of borrowing situations. © 2009 by Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, 10785 Berlin, Germany. All rights reserved.
How embracing untranslatable terms for well-being -- from the Finnish sisu to the Yiddish mensch -- can enrich our emotional understanding and experience. Western psychology is rooted in the philosophies and epistemologies of Western culture. But what of concepts and insights from outside this frame of reference? Certain terms not easily translatable into English -- for example, nirvāṇa (from Sanskrit), or agápē (from Classical Greek), or turangawaewae (from Māori) -- are rich with meaning but largely unavailable to English-speaking students and seekers of wellbeing. In this book, Tim Lomas argues that engaging with "untranslatable" terms related to well-being can enrich not only our understanding but also our experience. We can use these words, Lomas suggests, to understand and express feelings and experiences that were previously inexpressible. Lomas examines 400 words from 80 languages, arranges them thematically, and develops a theoretical framework that highlights the varied dimensions of well-being and traces the connections between them. He identifies three basic dimensions of well-being -- feelings, relationships, and personal development -- and then explores each in turn through untranslatable words. Ânanda, for example, usually translated as bliss, can have spiritual associations in Buddhist and Hindu contexts; kefi in Greek expresses an intense emotional state -- often made more intense by alcohol. The Japanese concept of koi no yokan means a premonition or presentiment of love, capturing the elusive and vertiginous feeling of being about to fall for someone, imbued with melancholy and uncertainty; the Yiddish term mensch has been borrowed from its Judaic and religious connotations to describe an all-around good human being; and Finnish offers sisu -- inner determination in the face of adversity. Expanding the lexicon of well-being in this way showcases the richness of cultural diversity while reminding us powerfully of our common humanity. Lomas's website,, allows interested readers to contribute their own words and interpretations.