October 17, 2013 | Review Period

Murky Beauty

Other languages seem less fussy than English about degrees of aesthetic appeal.

As I continue to review Portuguese, Spanish, German, French, and Italian for my New York City Marathon volunteering duties next month, I keep thinking that some languages seem oddly undiscriminating about how aesthetically pleasing things really are.

The Marathon Signs Are Up in Central Park!

The Marathon Signs Are Up in Central Park!

In English, “beautiful” and “pretty” seem pretty far apart to me. Beauty has set many a soul on fire, whereas from my point of view “pretty” means pleasant to look at.

I am redoing a German Pimsleur lesson right now in which “beautiful church” has just been translated as schöne Kirche. I would also translate “pretty church” that way. Schöne seems to cover a much broader aesthetic range in German than either “beautiful” or “pretty” covers in English.

If any Germans happen to travel through this page and feel inclined to comment, I would be interested to know your thoughts on this point.

The same issue arises for me in Italian. Bello seems to run the range from “pretty” to “beautiful,” and I find that confusing. Is the building I am reading about beautiful or is it just pretty?

I need to know! Exactly how much should I be admiring it in my imagination? 

This murkiness applies to Italian temperature, too. When I am asked to translate “It is warm” into Italian, I go for Fa caldo. That is apparently right. 

When I am asked to translate “It is hot” into Italian, I go for Fa caldo as well. That is apparently also right.

How can that be? How can pretty equal beautiful, and how can warm equal hot?

Reality is messy.

Comments (3)

Charles • Posted on Fri, October 18, 2013 - 12:25 am EST

I don’t know much Italian or German, but I am confident they can express the difference.  At least from my experience, the problem is that so much language instruction uses minimal vocabulary. Its only at the level when you no longer need the instructional material that the synonyms appear to multiply exponentially.  I’d suggest something like Cambridge University Press’ “Using” series.  “Using Italian Synonyms” might be able to answer your questions. 

Using the Amazon feature of being able to look inside (and even search) a book, I found that on page 70 it lists the various synonyms of caldo.  Some of them are:

ardente—blazing, red-hot
cocente—burning, scorching,

trnka • Posted on Fri, October 18, 2013 - 9:43 am EST

How about hübsch for pretty at least in some contexts in German?

I hope some native German speaker comes along and comments, because you raised a very interesting point about schön!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, October 18, 2013 - 9:57 am EST

Yes, “hübsch” can work sometimes. I’m not clear on all the permitted applications, though. Confession: as I think about it, I believe it is possible I have avoided that word in speech because umlauted u’s are extra work for me. :)

Charles, thank you for that resource tip. Let me clarify what I mean. My point isn’t that Italian and German lack words to express subtle variations on those ideas; it is rather that basic words such as “schön” and “bello” and “caldo” seem, well, STRETCHIER, than corresponding words I can think of in English.

For example, even if you were a beginning English speaker, you would not be taught “It is hot” when what you mean is “It is warm.” Those words are taught differently even in beginning English classes/lessons.

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