September: Mamihlapinatapei

This month's word...I don't even know...

I can't even begin to pronounce it, much less define it. It is both listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most succinct word, and is considered one of the hardest to translate. 

I remember listening to an Invisibilia podcast about emotions. One of the stories was about the discovery of an emotion we don't have in American culture. I won't spoil it (certainly worth a listen) but there was and is a real struggle to accurately translate into words something that can only be understood through experience. It's hard enough using the same language, let alone when crossing languages and cultures. 

Which brings us to Mamihlapinatpei, a concept from the Yagan language, which is spoken by an incredibly small tribe in the Tierra del Fuego. And by small, I'm talking less than 1,600 last time I checked, with only one full-blooded speaker of the Yagan language left. 

Mamihlapinatpei is generally translated as...

A look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that neither one wants to start

Some sources call it “a strong, shared glance that connects the two speakers in some way that is beyond words.”

Others, simply "An expressive and meaningful silence"

It doesn't take too much imagination to see how this general idea could manifest in drastically different ways in different societies. 

I was rather fascinated that one site connected it to Kitty Genovese, one of my favorite stories from my freshman sociology class. The factuality of the story has come into question, but the general story is that Kitty was stabbed on the sidewalk in New York well within view of witnesses. Unfortunately, with each witness assuming another would call the cops, no one actually ended up doing in. In some versions, this delay lasted so long that the attacker eventually circled back around and attacked her again, this time killing her. 

Many of the image searches I did for this word featured the first definition, usually superimposed over two shy wannabe lovers. 

It has also been connected with the Volunteer's Dilemma: The choice between making a small sacrifice for the group and passively benefiting from the sacrifices of others. That expressive silence after an unanswered plea for help. That staring at your desk hoping the teacher won't take eye contact as volunteering. 

In general strokes, I see two sides to this word: what happens when it is proactive and when it is reactive. The shy teenagers are too scared to act. Same with the entire group where no one speaks up...reacting to fear. But I can't help but think this word is deep and flexible enough to include the rich, life-giving communication that can happen when we don't let ourselves hide behind words. 

But more on that next week...

Tier Benefits
Recent Posts