Monday, October 4, 2010


If you're reading this then you almost certainly know that I'm a huge language geek. Philosophy of language, syntax, infant language cognition, translation...I'm fascinated by all of it.

Particularly interesting (and vexing for translators) are the words that convey non-universal, culture-specific connotations and thus cannot be found in many languages. The joy of language study, at least for me, lies in discovering, grappling with, studying, understanding, using and being influenced by these terms and concepts.

A Korean word I've been unable to satisfactorily translate in the past is 소심하다 (sosimhada, to be sosim). Two dictionary translations I've found are "timid" and "cautious," but as Korean speakers know, these English terms do not capture the nuances of sosimhada.

When examining Korean words, it can sometimes be instructive to study the corresponding hanja (Sino-Korean character-based words), if available. In the case of sosim, there is a related Chinese term: 小心 (xiaoxin). Yet in this particular case, the definitions have diverged—小心 means "careful," whereas sosim means, well, sosim.

If I were forced to come up with an English translation, I think it would be "small-hearted," which actually is more similar to the individual hanja than the Chinese combination xiaoxin is. (The German kopfscheu, which translates literally to head-shy, might be a decent approximation.)

There really isn't much of a point to this post, except for the fact that sosim is a delightfully specific and nuanced word. So, dear non-Korean speakers, for the next time you need a term to describe someone who is small-hearted, overly sensitive, doubtful and timid, you now have a new word in your private linguistic arsenal.

"Language shapes the way we think and determines what we can think about."
- Benjamin Lee Whorf, American linguist