No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.
— Vladimir Nabokov
I love small words packed with big meanings. Last week was all about long words that don’t say much; this week we have the opposite with toska, whose English approximation just doesn’t do it justice. As for why it’s a great word, Nabokov said it best. In rather uniquely Russian fashion, it’s a single word for a family of emotions, all conceptually similar but varying in intensity. It is perhaps one of the most difficult words to translate into English because our language simply doesn’t do that. Even the words Nabokov chose to illustrate the different levels of toska seem like they’re only scratching the surface of something that runs much deeper, something that English simply isn’t capable of expressing. Other languages seem to understand, though: Portuguese calls it saudade. Welsh has hiraeth, which could be a kind of mid-tier toska. Japanese in particular has a wide variety of words that capture the range of intrinsic spiritual aches that sometimes come with being alive, and do so with tender poignancy. And that’s just to name a few. Plenty of languages have words that plunge headlong into the human psyche (and you’ll be seeing them here in the future!) — but not English. Why is that? Why are we such strangers to our own condition?
English has a reputation as being rather limiting. We have a pretty substantial selection of descriptive words, but those can only get us so far. The nature of English as a language of adopted, borrowed, and flat-out stolen words means that we have very few words that are uniquely ours, that offer perspectives not found in any other language’s interpretation of the world. (Though of course there are exceptions — “serendipity” happens to be notoriously hard to translate.) When it comes to emotional words in particular, our linguistic arsenal is pretty basic. The sheer number of words we have might seem impressive when you consider that — especially for words dealing with emotions — the subtly different implications of each one have the capacity to paint a highly nuanced picture when used effectively, but the overwhelming majority of these words are just variations of the universal happy, sad, angry, and fearful: the lowest common denominator of human emotions. Toska and other words like it operate on a different plane — “sad” just doesn’t cut it. They demonstrate a level of understanding that’s much more intimate, more visceral. They can’t be quantified or easily explained. They make no efforts to simplify; they embrace all the shades of humanity, the good, the bad, and the imperfect.
Does language tint our perception of the world? Is our experience influenced by the words we have available to describe it? Even in the case of words that do have direct translations in other languages, the connotations each language assigns to them are often slightly different, making exact translations impossible. Something will always be lost along the way; all translations are approximations. The truth is, although Nabokov tried his best, there is no way to explain toska in English — it’s just toska. Does that mean it’s something only Russian speakers can truly understand? Are native English speakers victims of a language that shies away from the full depths of human consciousness?
I like to think that’s not the case. No matter what language you speak, or how many words it has, not everything can be captured verbally. The human experience runs deeper than words; some things just have to be felt. Toska may be one of those things. The challenge of writing is taking the unexplainable and explaining it anyway, and while some languages may have a leg up — with more complex emotional words, for example — it’s the thrill of the linguistic chase that makes it so satisfying when we finally get it right. If we had a word for every facet of humanity, there would be nothing left to write. So instead of lamenting the words we don’t have, we should celebrate the incompleteness of language and appreciate the words that have been here for us all along — and the opportunity they give us to explore and unlock all the potential they hold.