There´s a Lack of Positive Words in the German Language

A couple of times in the past, I´ve written about how immersing yourself in Positive Psychology is somewhat hard when you´re German – because it seems to be a slightly “Un-German” topic. Today, I´d like to explore this topic from a slightly different angle – that of language. Oscar Wilde supposedly said “Life is too short to learn German.” And he may have been right. It´s pretty complicated and therefore awfully hard to learn as a foreign tongue. Yet, it is the language of Goethe, Schiller, and Rammstein – that´s something to explore.

Speaking of the metal band Rammstein: there´s this thing about German pronunciation that makes just about everything sound like a declaration of war – even if you say something like “I love you”. There´s a funny video about this on Youtube. The guys overdo it a little, but then, this may just be what it feels like to a non-German ear:

But I digress. What I really want to talk about: I feel there´s a lack of positive words in the German language. Positive Psychology was (sort of…) invented in the U.S. – and most research papers and books are written in English. When I came to Penn, obviously I had to study the subject in English, too. But now that I´m back in Germany, I try to “sell” the topic over here, which has to be done in German of course. And that´s where the problems begin.

There´s this myth that the Inuit have an unusually high number of words to describe snow. We have “50 Shades of Grey”, they supposedly have 50 shades of snow. Actually, this is not true. But the idea behind the myth seems highly intriguing to me. In short it says: when something is valued very highly in a specific culture this tends to influence the use of language. Specifically, people pay more attention to the subject because of its importance, thereby learning to make more subtle distinctions, that ultimately are reflected in the amount of different words that can be used to talk about the subject.

To a certain degree, this idea mirrors one of Wittgenstein´s most famous dictums:

The limits of my language means the limits of my world.

When I do not have a word for something, that makes it hard to think about that subject, because it cannot be “grasped”. And it makes it even harder to speak about “that something” to other people. That idea is (probably) embodied in another Wittgenstein quote: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Which brings us back to my problem of “selling” Positive Psychology in German:

Where there are no words, you can´t “spread the word”.

When I first tried to talk and write about Positive Psychology in German, oftentimes I felt a lack of the “right” words. For example, the German language has the same word (ergo: a lack of distinction…) for the subjects of “Happiness” and “Luck”. Both are signified by the noun “Glück”. So whenever I talk about happiness and positive emotions in the context Positive Psychology, I have to use an awful lot of extra words to get across the intended meaning.

But it´s not only a lack of distinction. Sometimes, I even feel there are no words. For instance, the brilliant Jonathan Haidt gave a lecture on the subject of “awe” in one of our MAPP classes. This moved me very much and I wanted to talk about my experience with friends back in Germany. The problem is: obviously, there is no adequate translation for “awe”. If you type “awe” into a translation machine, you’ll get the German equivalents of “veneration” or “reverence”, “rapture” or “entrancement”. All the suggestions entail a very religious or, at least, old-fashioned connotation. They are not part of a modern, non-religious German “language game”. Therefore, talking about “awe” in German in a scientific (or just everyday) context seems awfully hard.

This bears some interesting implications. Whenever I fill in a questionnaire on happiness or life satisfaction (e.g., here on Marty Seligman´s website), there´s an interesting phenomenon when I look at the results. These will be displayed in the context of different normed groups. E.g., your scores will be compared to other people of your age, your educational background, but also your ZIP code (when provided). Now here´s the thing: Comparing my results to other people from my ZIP code (ergo: other Germans) will always put me in a higher percentile. This means: based on the same raw scores, the algorithm will display that I´m quite happy when comparing myself to other men in general, or other Ph.Ds, but that I´m extremely(!) happy when comparing myself to other Germans.

Now, there´s a couple of different explanations for this phenomenon. The easiest one would be: on average, the German respondents in that data base are not all that happy – and that´s why I score (relatively) higher vis-à-vis that group. But it may also be a phenomenon of language. What if Germans were just as happy on average as, let´s say, U.S. citizens, but were reluctant to use positive self-descriptions in an extreme specification – just because it´s not part of our “happiness language game”? Maybe, via studying Positive Psychology in English in the U.S., I became a little less German, thereby being able to mitigate the dissonance of describing my life in a very positive light?

I guess Positive Psychology has to integrate cultural perspectives more and more in order to be equally “useful” for all the people on this planet. Recently, the Scientific American published a piece by the name of “Not Everyone Wants to Be Happy” citing different studies that were able to show that the concept and meaning of happiness can vary significantly between different cultures (notably, between more Western and more Eastern cultures) – but has also evolved over time. Very though-provoking.

Which brings me to the final question for today:

Could Germany be a better place if somebody invented new positive words?

“The German” per se (as a stereotype”) is depicted as a sober-minded person. We´re perceived as being diligent, orderly, industrious, and a lot of other helpful attributes. But we´re also depicted as being rather anxious, risk-averse, and just not that open-minded (think “German Angst”). This is not just an academic discussion. The German economy has been doing comparably well over the last couple of years – but how long will this last? We´re really not that good at building and financially supporting start-ups. Forbes regularly updates a large list of all those startups that are valued at more than one billion $ in terms of private equity funding. Only one of those is based in Germany.

What if all this were (at least to some extent) a consequence of a lack of the right positive words? Would we become more optimistic, less risk-averse, and more open-minded if we were able to enhance our language, if we were able to broaden the (far) positive side of our verbal aptitude? I think it´d be worth a try. In 1999, a German publisher of dictionaries (together with ice-tea brand Lipton) hosted a contest for the invention of a new word. We have a German word for the state of being “full” (= not hungry any more) – but there´s no positively framed expression for being “not thirsty any more”. As far as I know, the winning word has not made it into our regular language use, but I guess it was worth the effort.

So why shouldn’t we – for starters – find a more awesome translation for “awe”? I´m eager to hear your suggestions…

10 thoughts on “There´s a Lack of Positive Words in the German Language

  1. Good food for thought! Language might definitely be a factor. But I assume that culture weighs in more heavily. Eg. there is no equivalent to “the pursuit of happiness” in the German constitution.


  2. Exactly the same lack o words in Dutch. I like to use the Dutch word for Verwunderung.
    Does a German Gesellschaft Unsere Sprache exist? It might be able to help..


    • We have things like “Goethe-Gesellschaft”. “Verwunderung” has a slightly negative connotation in German in modts contexts.


  3. Thank you so much Nico for this post. You just wrote down what I felt and thought for years. I am studying positive psychology as well, specifically in relation to media. I am originally from Germany but studied and now work in the US for quite a while. Trying to talk to my german friends about my research, the concepts of awe, elevation, connectedness and spirituality, not only gives me startled looks on their faces, or polite “ahhh’s and interesting’s” but it also effects me in return. That is, when I try to translate the “happiness language” into german, I don’t “feel” the excitement I feel when I talk about this research here in the US. I even feel almost ridiculous that I study this “indescribable” stuff. I completely agree, words are not only an expression of our culture but they very much describe and impact who we are. Thus, words are not only syllabi that are cognitive and descriptor for “things” but they very much carry with them a certain feel and connotation. Your example of “happiness” and “luck” is a good one, but even if we (the germans) have an equivalent word to the american one, for example, “mindfulness” and “Achtsamkeit/Bewusstheit”, still those words cary with it, mostly a negative connotation. So do most positive emotions, I feel. And that is, as you said, very much related to the german culture which is very much a culture (as you said) that is safety oriented, rational, and highly “cognitive” rather then “heart” oriented. When I talk about spirituality and media to students at a german university, I am immediately labeled as “crazy hippy americanized professor”. In the US I receive questions: “Oh, that is interesting what you study, so what do you mean by spirituality and media”?. Language and culture are largely intertwined. Following Barbara Frederickson’s (2009) work, positive emotions broaden and build. With the lack of words capturing positive emotions in the german language it is not surprising to see the german culture being stable and safe (as of now), rather then vibrant and spirited. Speaking in a language of taste here: Germany tastes like apples (solid, crisp, reliable, perfectly shaped, medium sweet, medium juicy) and the US tastes like an orange (juicy, passionate, orange (passionate color but also saintly), soft, you gotta peel it to get to the good stuff, warm). I do like both very much, but only oranges can naturally be partitioned into segments that together make up the whole “goodness”. It is the lack of language segments for the positive experiences of our lives that Germany lacks, that make it so hard to translate what we do here in the US in “happiness research” to people over there.


  4. Very interesting article. I do agree with Wittgenstein that our language sets some certain boundaries for our world. We see our world in accordance with our concepts. For example, in Romanian, the idea of cause is always connected with a negative content. ”Because of you” (”din cauza ta”) means that you have done something wrong. For positive content we must use another expression, ”thanks of you” (”datorită ție”). So, the grammar structure of Romanian language speaks a lot about Romanian volksgeist.


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