MotherTongues: Wear Words, Celebrate Cultures

about words, languages, cultures, travel

Fingerspitzengefühl – do you have it? January 19, 2018


Fingerspitzengefühl is one of those compound German words where the term means more than the two words separately. Fingerspitzen, finger tips, and gefühl, feeling, literally translate into “the fingertips feeling”. But this word has nothing to do with what you feel at the ends of your fingers.

Instead, it communicates the intuitive flair or instinct that some people just seem to possess. Fingerspitzengefühl describes a situational awareness, a sensitivity to the feeling of others. Some people are just born with the ability to respond appropriately and tactfully, while others (like me!) just end up putting their foot in their mouth. What I would give to have such a sure instinct in a tricky social situation!

Do you know how to do things the right way the first time without instruction? Can you always find the right word at the right moment? Do you understand the finer details of a situation? Now you know that you have fingerspitzengefühl. Find out how to pronounce this word here and impress everyone!

(See the MotherTongues World Words app in the Apple App Store for more untranslatable words.)



Words for book lovers November 10, 2017

Filed under: Untranslatable words — Michelle @ 9:00 am
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Lately, I haven’t gotten around to reading a lot of books. But I keep buying them. Which has led to me having many tsundokus around the house. The one next to my bed is perilously close to falling over. Tsundoku literally means book pile. Do you have some in your house?

If you are a book lover, you will enjoy these untranslatable words. (Some are from this site.)

Tsundoku – Japanese noun. Books left unread in piles around the house.

Vade mecum – Latin noun. A favorite book always carried around.

Mac khach – Vietnamese noun. A person in love with literature.

Librocubicularist – English noun. A person who reads in bed.

I don’t know why we don’t use the word librocubicularist anymore. Maybe because we didn’t read enough in bed to expand our vocabularies? It is time to bring it back – both the word and the action of reading in bed. Let me go read in bed so that I can get rid of the tsundokus!




Joie de vivre October 13, 2017

Filed under: Languages,Untranslatable words — Michelle @ 9:00 am
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This photo of a MotherTongues joie de vivre pillow in my sister’s house in South Africa, makes me happy. We all know this French phrase, but do we all know what it is to feel alive with the joy of living? My hope for you is that you will get to know this feeling. I feel it when I travel, when I watch my children grow up, and when I walk in nature.


Hoppípolla October 6, 2017

Filed under: Languages,Untranslatable words — Michelle @ 9:00 am
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Ubuntu – I am what I am, because we are September 29, 2017

Filed under: Languages,Ubuntu in the news,Untranslatable words — Michelle @ 9:00 am
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I’ve written about Ubuntu before, many, many, many times. It is such a powerful word, that describes an important piece of African culture so beautifully. So when a customer sent me this photo, of her tattoo in the exact same font as the MotherTongues t-shirt, I just had to share it! Please send me your photos: I’d love to see where MotherTongues t-shirts (or tattoos) have traveled!


Love and Relationships September 22, 2017


It may not be Valentine’s Day, but who doesn’t like words describing love and relationships? Love is magical, it doesn’t matter what language you are describing it in. Some of these words are from a wonderful book by Erin McKean: “That’s Amore! The Language of Love for Lovers of Language”. Check it out to find more such words describing love in all its magical ways.

Kilig – Tagalog (Indonesia). The butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling you get when you are in love.

œillade – French. The way that lovers glance at each other.

Mamihlapinatapai – Yagán (Tierra del Fuego area of Argentinia). The moment when two pairs of eyes meet in recognition.

Puszipajtás – Hungarian. Someone you know well enough to kiss in the street. (Here in the USA, we definitely don’t kiss anyone in the street!)

Cwtch – Welsh. A warm cuddle showing love and acceptance.

Koi no yokan – Japanese. Knowing that the person you just met, is destined to be a future partner.

Acaronar – Catalán (Andorra, Spain, Italy, France). Drawing someone closer tenderly.

Akoma Ntoaso – Twi (Ghana). This is a symbol of unity and restored relationships, symbolizing joined hearts.

Hartendief – Dutch (Netherlands). Said with love to someone who stole your heart. Literally, this means “thief of my heart”.

Yuanfen – Chinese. A relationship fated by destiny. The binding force that sustains the relationship.

Anam ċara – Gaelic. The soul mate that offers you honesty and belonging.

Alamnaka – Ulwa (Nicaragua). To meet a kindred soul. To find a relationship unlike any other you’ve had.

Forelskelt – Norwegian, Danish. The euphoria you feel when first feeling in love.

May you experience these words about love!



Helping Words September 15, 2017


If the words we use to describe helping each other are different in diverse cultural (and language) contexts, does that mean that we help each other differently? Or are we just describing our way of helping differently?

Here are some helping words that I’ve come across, used on different continents:

Ubuntu – Zulu and Xhosa, South Africa. Ubuntu describes the idea of community in Africa: if you are a better person, that makes me a better person because we are all connected. “I am, because of who we are.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu described ubuntu as “…part of the gift that Africa will give the world. It embraces hospitality, caring about others, being willing to go the extra mile for the sake of another. We believe that a person is a person through other persons, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours.” The Ubuntu t-shirt is also the bestselling MotherTongues t-shirt.

Maestranza – Spanish. In Season 1 of Chef’s Table (a Netflix original), Francis Mallman describes maestranza as the people who are around you, helping. I can’t easily find more information about maestranza online: is it a word from Argentina, or a Spanish word used widely? Please comment if you know more!

Pamoja, Pamoja – Swahili, Tanzania. This saying, literally meaning “together, together”, is used to describe togetherness as one. When we stand together, we are strong.

Minga – Quecha, a family of South American languages. A minga is called when the community needs to build a school, repair a road, or needs some other community infrastructure. This gathering is hopeful and happy, with families and neighbors coming together to do something that benefits the whole community. Every person and every community will need the help of others at some point. This South American word, which also exists as a concept in other words and cultures, teaches us how to work together joyfully for the common good of the community.

Yuimaru – Japanese. Meaning “the connecting circle”, yuimaru describes the web of life. It is used to talk about the practice of sharing and helping each other out, the spirit of cooperation, taking care of each other.

Sitike – Apache: Texas, New Mexico, Arizona. The group of (unrelated) people who will step up and help you in your time of crisis. We all need such a group!

Maybe it doesn’t matter that we use different words to describe how we help each other. Maybe it is just important to go out and help.


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