The English language is comprised of a vast lexicon. A standard unabridged dictionary contains anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 entries, but some linguists estimate a total of one million words when counting prefixes, suffixes, slang, and words borrowed from other languages that enjoy regular English usage. A wealth of books written in other languages have been translated to English throughout the centuries, meaning that scholars were able to find the right words to convey the complex ideas and emotions those authors originally crafted in their native tongues.
But even with a seven-figure index from which to draw, some foreign words simply don’t have a direct English counterpart. These words are often striking in their beauty, whether it be the sheer phonesthetics of the word or the concept being defined. Oftentimes, visual elements are used to accompany a definition. They say a photo is worth a thousand words, but I’d like to think that an image can transcend words via the ability to convey those core concepts that are lost in translation.
Having the color of a faded, dying leaf
Leaf it to the French to turn the morbid concept of a dead leaf into something of beauty. The quality of color in a dying leaf is certainly unique to a deciduous forest, and there’s something undeniably beautiful—albeit in a melancholy way—in the vivid display of faded leaves on the forest floor in late October. Perhaps the emotion is tied to the bittersweet angst I experience during the fleeting beauty of the Appalachian autumn. It’s as if I want to strain my eyes to make sure I’m really taking in the full beauty of autumn’s splendor. But when the last leaves drift to the forest floor and began fading into oblivion, I’m glad to finally have a poetic word to describe this component of Mother Nature’s ever-changing color palette.
A sublime feeling of solitude and connectedness to nature while being alone in the woods
Those of us who love to play outside have undoubtedly experienced the joy of solitude and oneness with nature at some point while spending time in the woods or along the banks of a mountain stream. And yet there is no direct English word to convey the quintessential human experience of finding commune with nature when alone in a forest. I’ve enjoyed an abundance of solo adventure outings over the years and can recall with clarity specific times I’ve felt a particularly powerful sense of waldeinsamkeit. These experiences, which developed in places like Northern California, South East Asia, Patagonia, and right here in West Viginia, feel as if they are permanently seared into my neurons. But one does not need to go on an epic solo outing to experience waldeinsamkeit—a simple walk through the woods can evoke the experience under the right conditions.
The color of the sky while the sun is setting
Technically, abendrot, which means afterglow, does enjoy a more direct English translation than the other words presented here, but, like many words, its colloquial usage implies more complexity than the simple one-word dictionary definition.
Sunsets come in a wide variety of flavors. From crystal-clear evenings when the sky appears as a flat gradient (which, while inherently beautiful in its purity, is often boring from a photographic standpoint) to polychromatic light shows where the sun illuminates clouds with a blazing array of hues (the jackpot for landscape photography), sunsets provide that daily dose of awe that has kept me out past the dinner bell more times than I can count.
My search to uncover the essence of abendrot settled specifically on the final light of the sunset that ignites the undersides of clouds with red, pink, and orange tones. Given the dynamic nature of our weather systems in the high ridges of the Allegheny Mountains, abendrot is a common theme in my sunset photography. Herrlich, indeed.
Referring to the sky when it foretells of wild weather
Cornish is a Brittonic language of Celtic origin that was revived in the early 1900s after being considered extinct at the end of 18th century. Which is a good thing, because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to call a spooky looking sky oogly. Whether it’s the harrowing darkness of thunderheads before a summer storm or the supernatural appearance of mammatus clouds as a harbinger of extreme weather, an oogly sky is one that makes the hairs of my neck stand at attention.
A word meaning “open-air living” that also epitomizes the Scandinavian philosophy of outdoor life
Friluftsliv has its roots in various aspects of Swedish and Nordic life, but modern use dates back to the romanticized back-to-the-land movement of the 18th century. Like any ancient philosophy, friluftsliv can mean many things to many people. While it may be difficult to define in a single sentence, the core tenets of friluftsliv seem to include a spiritual connection to nature, a feeling of familiarity or a sense of home when outdoors, and a way of living close with the natural cycles of the land—common themes of my experiences living in Appalachia.
Given the striking beauty of Nordic landscapes and the minimalist elements of Scandinavian design, it’s not surprising that friluftsliv developed there as a philosophical way of being. Although the excesses and inefficiencies of American society are often discussed as the polar opposite of Scandinavian society, I’d like to think that we in Appalachia have more in common with the Nords than we think. We live among the oldest mountains and rivers on the North American continent, and the ancient sense of wisdom imparted by our majestic forests provides the perfect tableau in which to practice friluftsliv.
Sunlight filtering through the leaves of trees
There’s nothing quite like the way morning or evening sunlight hits the thin, flat needles of a hemlock tree. I’ve long been enamored with the specific quality of sunlight in a hemlock grove but never had a specific word to describe it. I was overjoyed to learn of the word komorebi recently on a podcast, and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. Keeping an eye out for and noticing light in the leaves brings a renewed level of awareness during all hours of the day whether I’m on a hike, a bike, or just looking out the window. We West Virginians are fortunate to live in the third-most forested state in the country, meaning we’re virtually surrounded by komorebi anytime the sun is shining.
Literally means “moon uncle,” but also refers to the moon specifically while admiring it
Telugu is a Dravidian language and is the official tongue of the southern Indian states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, where it is spoken by an estimated 90 million people. In Telugu, the moon is the brother of Lakshmi, the “mother of the world,” and is therefore considered “everybody’s uncle.” But chandamama is also the colloquial Telugu term for the full moon specifically while one is admiring it. Which, I feel, is fitting because we’ve all got that crazy uncle we love and admire.
I’ve always been fond of the moon regardless of what phase it’s in. I regularly remind myself that the sheer fact that our home planet has a natural satellite, and that we can clearly see it on a near-daily basis with the naked eye, is indeed something to cherish and never take for granted. I’ve spent countless hours engaged in chandamama, whether with a telescope, a telephoto lens, or just my bare eyes, and still feel the same great love and reverence for our uncle moon that I do for my Uncle Tommy.
Brightness from the stars
Catalan is a language spoken in northeastern Spain, the Spanish autonomous region of Catalonia, Andorra, and the Balearic Islands in the south of France. I love the ethereal juxtaposition in the concept of celístia—stars are so mind-numbingly far away that they don’t actually provide enough light to visibly brighten anything here on Earth, yet they provide a quality of brightness that illuminates our night sky and our cosmic sense of mystery (as well as our photographs).
Just like my love for chandamama, I’ve long been intrigued by the display of stars in the sky. I enjoy the sense of sublime insignificance I feel when I ponder the unfathomable scales of the universe. I count myself fortunate to have regular access to a visible Milky Way right from my backyard. Because access to the night sky is increasingly disappearing due to the ever-encroaching phenomenon of light pollution, it’s more important than ever that we advocate for dark skies. Fortunately, astrophotography is a beautiful human invention and serves as a means to enjoy—and share—celístia when we’re unable to look up and see the ever-burning furnaces of the cosmos.
Dylan Jones is publisher of Highland Outdoors and can’t wait for some wintery komorebi in West Virginia’s magical spruce forests.