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The Journal of Positive Psychology recently released an article outlining the 216 ‘untranslatable’ words about well-being, showing us that cross-cultural linguistic differences are wider than we may think.

Dr Tim Lomas, of the University of East London, split the well-being words into themes and discovered that cultures had monosyllabic or disyllabic words for phenomena that English-speakers would need entire sentences to describe. Linguistics applicants should note the relationship between having words to describe phenomena and the cultural significance this indicates.

As some HSPS and Archaeology and Anthropology applicants might be familiar, the idea that words correspond to significance or understanding is a strong theme in Evans-Pritchard’s The Nuer. This famous ethnography argues that the nominal Nuer people do not have a word for time and thus do not understand the concept. Without the word, time does not hold meaning and Nuer life as a result is less constricted by a Western regimen of timed activity.

Psychology students should consider the experiment of Russian people determining different shades of blue, wherein their language distinguished between blues of different hues unlike it does in English, allowing them to visually determine shades better than non-Russian speakers. It is important, also, to note that this doesn’t apply to the idea that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow which is most likely a myth.

Finally, English and Modern Languages applicants should look at the list of words and find a favourite, and try to understand why the Greeks like to volta or the Dutch throw a borrel.

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