Forum: words and meaning

Tim Lomas (University of East London) with the first in an occasional series.

Longing for Sehnsucht?

I have long been interested in how language carves up the flux of our phenomenological world. For instance, I often wonder whether the limits of my linguistic resources define my experiential horizons. If I lack a label for a particular feeling, say, am I doomed to not have that feeling? Or might I experience it in a nebulous, fleeting way; but lacking a name to give it body, it subsides into the onrushing stream of my consciousness, never to be acknowledged, articulated, or remembered?

Questions like these prompted me to create a lexicography of ‘untranslatable’ words, sourced from across the world’s languages. My motivation was partly that these words would offer a fascinating ‘window’ onto other cultures. An ‘untranslatable’ word suggests a culture has been unique in recognising and naming a particular phenomenon, which tells us something important about the culture in question. But my motivation was also selfish: I wanted to expand my own emotional horizons. I imagined each of these words as a key, unlocking new experiences that had previously been veiled to me.

A first iteration of the lexicography was published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, and prompted some debate! Among the curious reactions was whether these words were truly ‘untranslatable,’ and thus tied to specific cultures. For instance, one of the most alluring words was the German term Sehnsucht, which roughly translates as ‘life longings’. Moreover, the word was particularly interesting, since it was one of the very few that had been studied empirically.

In a wonderful paper, Susanne Scheibe and colleagues constructed a 28-item questionnaire to measure Sehnsucht, which they tested on 299 Berliners. Confirmatory factor analysis corroborated the six characteristics that the authors had theorised Sehnsucht as comprising: (a) utopian conceptions of ideal development; (b) a sense of life’s incompleteness and imperfection; (c) conjoint focus on the past, present and future; (d) ambivalent (bittersweet) emotions; (e) life reflection and evaluation; and (f) symbolic richness. Moreover, particularly intriguing were the scale’s complex associations with wellbeing, highlighting the dialectical, covalent nature of Sehnsucht. If experienced frequently and intensely, Sehnsucht predicted lower wellbeing (unless these longings were perceived as controllable), and yet it was also deemed to provide people with direction, helping them to ‘manage life’s incompleteness’.

All of which led me to wonder, is Sehnsucht a uniquely German phenomenon? Or have the Germans, with particular genius, captured a feeling that we all know, if only implicitly. Or, most perplexingly, to return to my ‘key’ metaphor, is this a feeling that is unknown to us unless and until we encounter the word, which then ‘opens’ up these longings within us? And if so, would we even want to encounter Sehnsucht, if given the choice?

- Tim Lomas is a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of East London. This column aims to prompt discussion and debate around words and their meaning. [email protected]

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