27 Albanian Words For Mustache

Silence is a beauty. Words, they only complicate the task.
Collective Soul, Where The River Flows

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), Austrian philosopher

The Unknown

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.
Donald Rumsfeld, American poet and philosopher

I started musing about the limits to language.

There are my personal limits of course, my failures to communicate, but there are also the limits of what we can never express with words. Or maybe we can, somehow, once in awhile, illuminate the edge of that unspoken universe like inspired poets. I’m interested in that.

Struggling for the right word

I wanted to find a word for that struggle to find the right word, to give shape to the inarticulate feelings that lurk in my body. (I resist pinning these known and unknown unknowns too definitely to my heart or my guts or my head, although the inarticulate may center in any of those places.)

Struggling to find the right word that the inarticulate says Yes! to, or the collision between two or three that can hint at what one digs for, or even just the shadow of the word finally chosen that in its sheltering lets one think something’s there… that is a lot of what writing is about for me, at its best and worst.

Sivartha01Then I started to think about the possibility of new worlds of insight in between our normal habitual categories of thought, language and attention. Are there words that give that Eureka feeling of pointing to things often dimly recognized but so far unspoken or give substance to a new angle on reality? I’d like to find some words like that…

I’m influenced by Krishnamurti’s description of the over-all problem:

“That is existence, that is life is it not? – a constant challenge and response. The challenge is always new and the response is always old.”

Yet part of what I’m trying to get at is what Matt Webb and Es Roudiani query in their notes on a “concept-easy” language: “What is the feeling of having an idea which can be imagined perfectly clearly, but is too complicated to articulate?”

The above opening quotes, and the post title as well, are tangential to what I’m wrestling with here but linked too.

Albanian mustaches

Take the subject of Albanian mustaches, which must be something of an obsession in that poor European country.

[I remember for many years in Vancouver, BC, occasionally passing an outpost of the Albanian Communist Party, a dilapidated storefront celebrating with large Maoist style posters a glowering, mustache-less Enver Hoxha, the dictator who sealed off Albania for 41 years with electric barbed wire fences. Perhaps mustaches, and facial hair in general, were a safe topic of conversation back in the homeland.]

There is the madh, the bushy mustache. There is the varur, the droopy mustache, and the glemb, the mustache with tapered tips. One cannot forget the dirs ur, of course, the adolescent’s skimpy mustache.

Perhaps other languages have words and perceptions and ways of looking that English does not? This is similar to the story of Eskimos and their many words for snow.

(This story, by the way, is not in high repute in linguistic circles, where the current wisdom is that although Eskimos may know a great deal about snow, their root words for it are not noticeably more than English. One source, as a satire, mentions quinyaya, snow mixed with the shit of a lead dog, and gristla, deep-fried snow.)

Take the case of the Aymara, an indigenous people who live in the Andes of South America. Their language has a concept of time opposite to every other known culture. Instead of “facing the future,” they face the past. The future is behind them. Speakers may indicate next year by pointing behind them over their left shoulder.

One cannot forget mamihlapinatapai, from the Yaghan language, a dying tongue from the southernmost tip of South America, a word considered to be almost untranslatable into English.  The closest we can come is “a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that both desire but which neither one wants to start”, or, “ending up mutually at a loss as to what to do about each other.”

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

Sivartha02The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics, of course, says that a particular language’s nature influences the habitual thought of its speakers. Although controversial, this is an intriguing notion and in itself points to somewhere in the spaces between what we take for granted. It echoes Wittgenstein’s claim, although he wasn’t distinguishing between languages.

There are words in English of course, newly coined or re-discovered, that can lead us to new, unknown, insightful, or at least interesting concepts. Not just new jargon, or slang, or neologisms , entertaining as they may be.

Take, for instance, from a discussion of the merits of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea of “distributed cognition.” This means:

“The concept of distributed cognition arises from the observation that real-life cognition is rarely, if ever, a process bounded by the skull. … Research in distributed cognition therefore seeks to rethink the basic unit of cognition, expanding it beyond the brain to encompass the whole body, useful physical artifacts and technologies, and ultimately, groups of people.” The author uses the example of a team of people navigating a large ship.


“Wabi-sabi” is a term that has crept into English from Japanese. The “wabi” part of the term is about the kind of perfect beauty that is caused by just the right kind of imperfection. Like the lined face of one dear to you. Not a normal North American way of looking at things…

SivarthaThere is the word “qawm” which comes from Afghanistan. There are ethnic and tribal and local rivalries in Afghanistan. Often political strife observed from the outside is attributed to conflicts of ethnicity or tribalism. But more accurately, this useful anthropological term qawm better depicts the situation.

“According to context and situation, qawm may involve a varying number of individuals, close kinsmen, a village, an ethnic group, a religious sect or a linguistic group. It is therefore a highly ambiguous and flexible concept allowing for strategic manipulations of identity.”

It’s about Us and Them and how that is defined (and by whom) and how it shifts.

There’s the phenomenon and perception of “pareidolia” , which is about the significance humans take from vague or ambiguous stimuli… like the Virgin Mary’s appearance on a toasted cheese sandwich. This is a large subject.

There is the related term “apophenia”, coined in 1958, and interestingly a term linked to both psychosis and creativity. Its originator, Klaus Conrad, defined it as the “unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness.”

There should be a term for the unmotivated denying of possible connections along with the specific experience of abnormal meaninglessness.


In the end, I come back to the mystery. I find myself agreeing with this quote from A.H. Almaas:

sunset“Concepts, words, and mystery:

We need to see that fact in a very deep and fundamental way. You need to see that when you look at the table you do not know what you are looking at. What you know is a word, the concept of the table. You do not know what you are looking at. And the moment you really see through the word, you see that the reality that you are seeing around you is a mystery; that we live in complete, pure mystery; that the world around us that is old, drab, and normal is actually a wonder, a mystery. It is a mystery that defies our minds, that defies our best efforts.”

But on writing, I have to give the last words to T.S. Eliot, from East Coker, part V:

Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.


(Note on image sources…

The black and white images are from this site, a tribute to the somewhat eccentric Dr. Alesha Sivartha, who among other things created his own language to explore better ways to communicate. You can read more on Dr. Sivartha here .

The sunset photo is from http://mindeseye.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/ .)

Explore posts in the same categories: Awareness, Culture, Science, Writing

14 Comments on “27 Albanian Words For Mustache”

  1. >>a raid on the inarticulate
    With shabby equipment always deteriorating
    In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
    Undisciplined squads of emotion.<<

    But what beauty–what unspeakable joy–there is to be had in the raiding. I quote Bob Dylan to my students: Sometimes the best we can do is surround the truth. I’m working on a series of poems right now along these lines, exploring the various words for ‘shame’ in ancient Greek: aidos and aischune. What a gift, this post. Thank you so much. Life’s been frayed and funneled and you brought me back to the complicated beauty I love.


  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Mary,

    Thanks for your comments… I love that line about raiding the inarticulate, too, and the elation of very occasionally bringing something back.

    You must have great classes, quoting Bob Dylan and exploring those Greek concepts!


  3. Wonderful post, Fencer. Words seem to open new wor(l)ds, and one can not help thinking that the loss of linguistic diversity on this home planet of ours has far-reaching consequences, if I am understanding the Sapir-Worf thesis.

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Anne,

    Thanks… that is a cause for sadness, all the languages that have been lost, are being lost, all the different ways of being in the world. Just here in British Columbia, so many native people’s languages are in danger.


  5. They say there are twenty six words for rain in Vancouver, although when I try to count them, I’ve not been able to come up with quite that many.

    The word that explains an elusive meaning, an undefinable something, an intangible sense hangs in the air, less visible than an already evaporated morning mist. That search is like trying to define the music of silence, the silence that John Cage sought to capture and make known between two distant and suspended notes.

  6. fencer Says:

    Hi lookingforbeauty,

    Thanks for dropping by… and your comments.

    A fellow BC’er! We should be experts about rain by now. Spring is coming though!


  7. Don Ross Says:

    Very unusual and thought provoking use of Dr Sivartha’s artwork from my website. He would have enjoyed it.

  8. fencer Says:

    Hi Don,

    Thanks for stopping by… and your comments.

    Dr. Sivartha was an amazing figure, as shown on your website. Surely, an optimist about the human condition!


  9. suburbanlife Says:

    “…. and every attempt
    is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
    Because one has only leant the better of words
    For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
    One is no longer disposed to say it……”

    The above rings so true of my experience with words, and yet they are so seductive to grapple with.
    Wonderful post. I shall have to reread, at leisure. Thanks. G

  10. fencer Says:

    Hi suburbanlife,

    Thanks for coming by…

    Renewing the struggle with words every time I write is the challenge.


  11. I was sent a notice for the Atelier Gallery in Vancouver and the Vancouver artist, Camrose Ducote wrote this about her work.

    “I view my work as the result of an organic process, pursuing some ultimate truth which always seems to be elusive and just beyond my grasp…..
    The work shows that structure eventually decays and what is left is a visceral quality, alluding to the idea that all is in transition…..a seeping out from…..a splitting up between…..a breaking away from…..all serving to remind one of the nature of life in its cycle of birth, decay, death and metamorphosis.”

    It’s very much the way I think although my paintings are entirely different from hers.

    I find it strange that the thought process she expressed echoed something that you were trying to express (I think) and it has such similar tentativeness for creatively thinking people whether they be writers, artists, musicians, scientists or perhaps a mathematician searching for some hitherto ungraspable, undefinable concept that he is trying to pin down, describe, or illustrate.
    K at artiseternal.wordpress.com

  12. fencer Says:

    Hi lookingforbeauty,

    I paint a bit too, although very much the tyro… I haven’t got to the same stage there, as I seem to be with words sometimes.

    All is change… very Buddhist way of looking, it seems, what you’re saying.

    Thanks for the comments, and the reference to your other site on art!


  13. RaiulBaztepo Says:

    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language ;)
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

  14. […] For example, in Persian, there is a term for “a camel that won’t give milk until her nostrils have been tickled”. This word simply wouldn’t and hasn’t developed where I grew up in Canada, because it isn’t encountered frequently enough. Similarly, bowing is such a precise science for the Japanese, that they’ve created an array of words for the practice. Other cultures have come up with entire mini-languages, like the Inuit with over 30 words for snow and the Albanians with 27 different words for moustache. […]

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