Are Certain Greek Words Untranslatable?

Myths, clichés and truths about Europe’s most ancient language


It is said that every language contains untranslatable words. In German, for example, “waldeinsamkeit” describes the feeling of being alone in the woods, while a Japanese word, “age-otori”, expresses that negative feeling caused by looking worse following a haircut. In Latvian, “kaapshljmurslis” means being crammed in public transportation.

“Communication needs determine the multiple meanings of words and titles. The Eskimos, for example, it is believed, have created over fifteen words related to snow,” explained Christoforos Haralambakis, a linguist and professor at Athens University, who compiled the User Dictionary for the Modern Greek Language for the Academy of Athens.

Why do Greeks insist that certain Greek words such as meraki, filotimo, and leventia (definitions listed below) cannot be translated?

Could they possibly be linked to traits exclusive to Greek people? Professor Haralambakis spoke to us about the history of the Greek language, the fusion it has experienced, persisting urban legends, as well as the insistence of some for the need to “protect” the language from an invasion of the English language.

Why  Greek is considered  such a significant language?

The Greek language is Europe’s most ancient. It has existed for at least 4,000 years as an oral tradition and 3,500 years in writing. With the exception of two Chinese dialects, it is the only ancient language with an uninterrupted existence in other words, it hasn’t  died. Other even more ancient languages existed prior to Greek, such as Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian, but they all died. Ours is the only one that remains alive, in another form, of course.

Is it a “pure-blooded” language as certain individuals claim? Does parthenogenesis – creation without cross-pollination – exist in languages?

No. Homer, himself, as we may observe in his epic writings, noted that groups of people, cultures and languages are not pure, but, instead, combinations resulting from contact and exchange. And this is a magical thing. Anybody who believes that the Greek language came about through parthenogenesis and has nothing to do with fusions, and so on, is academically baseless in his or her claim. A pre-Greek substrate initially existed. The Indo-Europeans, the first inhabitants of the regions we nowadays know as Europe, created a few words that have remained unchanged, such as certain names of places.

We actually don’t know what Athens means! Then our language went on to draw from all civilizations during its development – the Persians during the Persian Wars, the Egyptians, Semites, Latins, Italians, and Turks, during the 400 years of Ottoman rule. Until 1950, approximately, the Greek language borrowed from French. The influx of English words began from 1950 onwards. However, the Greek words defining terms associated with science and culture, such as theatre, theory, and music, prevailed because the terms were originally created by the ancient Greeks.

Do you agree with the view that our language needs to be protected from foreign languages?

No. A language is a living organism and one does not have the right to kill words. Any academics who have ever tried to ostracize words ended up being ridiculed and, naturally, failed to achieve their aims.

Language is often likened to women and we say: “Language is weak; we need to offer it protection.” But women say they don’t want to be protected. You may want to protect the language, but it is like a raging river. You will end up being swept away. Language does not need protection. Nor do women. Also, from a stylistic perspective, imported words enrich language. Not liking a word because it is different is the same thing as not accepting immigrants. Diversity and multi-colorfulness highlight beauty. Don’t be afraid of foreign words. If one happens to be very repulsive, it will ultimately be rejected by the language itself. If useful, it will be maintained.

Do untranslatable Greek words exist?

I condemn anybody who claims that words such as meraki, filotimo, and palikari (definitions listed below) cannot be translated. In doing so, they are endowing Greeks with exclusive traits. The view of linguists is that no word can remain untranslatable. We are obliged to define such trickier words through the use of paraphrases. Our language is truly admirable. But let’s leave this for others to say, as this provides greater worth to the belief. This is why I always feel annoyed by so-called proud Greeks. When somebody claims that the term filotimo cannot be translated in any other language, this implies that only we, and nobody else, possess such a quality. This is a dangerous thing to claim. The egotistical claim that we were the ones who offered civilization to the world annoys me unimaginably. If we take into account the achievements of the Chinese, Arabs, Mesopotamian civilizations, or the Egyptians, it becomes perfectly clear that we are not the only ones in this world. Yes, we have accomplished brilliant things, but let’s not claim we are the chosen ones and that all others are useless. How can you collaborate with others when you claim that they were still eating nuts at the time we were constructing the Parthenon? The present is what matters most. One cannot rest on the laurels of the ancient Greek civilization.

DID YOU KNOW THAT…

The words thalassa (sea), ilios (sun), gi (earth), and ouranos (sky) are among the oldest of the Greek language and have existed for at least 4,000 years. On the contrary, the word trahanio (eatery serving trahana, or frumenty), lasted about two months. Taking cue from the word kafenio (traditional café), an individual in the Peloponnese served only trahana at his eatery and coined the place a trahanio. The venture attracted few customers, went out of business after two months, and the word vanished along with it.

Languages are living organisms and die, like human beings. Linguists mourn the loss of a language every 15 days. They expect Quechua, a language spoken on the Falkland Islands by five individuals aged between 87 and 93 to have vanished in the next few years.

The names of many foods cannot be translated. Four words describing scrambled eggs exist in the Greek language – kagianas, sfouggato, piperada, and strapatsada.  They more or less mean the same thing, but each word describes a slight variation in recipe.

DON’T DRINK IT “XEROSFYRI”!

Following, is a short and descriptive guide listing Greek words that cannot be translated in a single word.

Palikari A young or brave and proud man. During the Greek War of Independence, (1821-29), a palikari was a member of a fighting group, led by a captain, a thief or sinner, or a member of a gang of thieves.

Meraklis – An individual possessing the ability to thoroughly enjoy; one drawn by aesthetically tasteful things or delicious food, or who goes about doing things with love and zeal. 

Levendis – A masculine, tall, and upright man with a proud stature. One who is brave, direct, honest, and generous.

XerosfyriConsumption of alcohol without accompanying food.

Re – Expression of familiarity or anger and frustration. It is derived from the word moros, meaning imbecile. An imbecile can emotionally touch, leading to pity, and, ultimately, affection.

Filotimo – A heightened feeling of dignity, honor and responsibility. In ancient Greek, the word meant ambition. Someone  who possessed filotimo was bent on achieving honor and glory, which was not viewed positively. 

Mangas – One who presents oneself as strong, brave or smart and usually behaves in a deceptive, provocative way. The term can also define someone who is capable and brave. During the interwar period, the word defined a marginalized, working class, urban male, characterized by flamboyant dress, movement and language, who was also particularly sensitive to matters concerning honor.

Meraki – Devotion, zeal and eagerness; strong willingness to carry out an activity.

Kaimos – Deep sadness, intense sorrow, longing, yearning, grievance.


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