Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt

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"Claude Lalumière: The Word for Yearning", Locus 1/8/2011:

I’ve had some people tell me things about my own writing, and after they’d told me I thought, ‘Oh, you’re right!’ Once I was taking a walk with another writer who had read most of what I’d written, and she said, ‘You know, the biggest emotion in all of your writing, no matter what you do, is yearning.’ She was right. Here’s an interesting thing: there’s no word for yearning in French. You have to use a whole sentence to describe the feeling, and even then you don’t get the whole range. Often, thinking about my characters in a story, I ask myself, ‘What do they want most of all?’ (Though it goes beyond want.) Germanic concepts like awe and yearning are central to my writing, in fact – all these words for a rich inner life!

So what does yearning really mean? Looking at the glosses from various dictionaries suggests that there's a connotational elephant there that the various lexicographers are grasping from different directions:

Century Dictionary: "a strong feeling of tenderness, pity, or longing desire"
Merriam-Webster Online: "a tender or urgent longing"
American Heritage Dictionary: "A persistent, often wistful or melancholy desire"
Collins English Dictionary: "an intense or overpowering longing, desire, or need; craving"
Oxford English Dictionary: "intense longing or desire after, for, of, to, or to do something";
Wordnet: "prolonged unfulfilled desire or need"

The collocates from http://www.wordandphrase.info/ give some additional perspective:

ADJ spiritual, deep, romantic, deepest, strange, intense, religious, nostalgic, terrible, simple
NOUN freedom, heart, peace, desire, need, love, expression, soul, passion, ranch
VERB express, fill, reflect, satisfy, respond, belong, sense, fulfill, experience, yearn

(If you wonder, as I did, why "ranch" is listed as a nominal collocate of yearn, it's because the underlying text collection has 13 mentions of the Yearning for Zion Ranch,  which was in the news for a while in 2008.)

It does appears to be true that there's no one-word synonym in French: depending on context, I think you could translate yearning as a noun with some modified form of désir, aspiration, nostalgie, convoitise, envie, etc., and similarly for the verbal form and the modifier.  And you could certainly explain the meaning of yearning to a non-Anglophone speaker of French by translating some of the glosses above, and giving some suitable examples in context, like Emma Lazarus on the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free", or Walt Whitman's "This moment, yearning and thoughtful":

This moment yearning and thoughtful, sitting alone,
It seems to me there are other men in other lands, yearning and thoughtful;
It seems to me I can look over and behold them, in Germany, Italy, France, Spain—or far, far away, in China, or in Russia or India—talking other dialects;
And it seems to me if I could know those men, I should become attached to them, as I do to men in my own lands;
O I know we should be brethren and lovers,
I know I should be happy with them.

Whitman was very fond of yearning, using forms of the word 64 times in his poems, according to the LION index.

For someone who knows German, you might come closer to the meaning of yearning by quoting Goethe:

Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt
Weiß, was ich leide!
Allein und abgetrennt
Von aller Freude,
Seh ich ans Firmament
Nach jener Seite.

Ach! der mich liebt und kennt,
Ist in der Weite.
Es schwindelt mir, es brennt
Mein Eingeweide.
Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt
Weiß, was ich leide!

There's probably a poem in French that would work as well. I thought of Verlaine, but his variety of melancholy seems generally to be burnt out and yearnless:

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l'automne
Blessent mon cœur
D'une langueur
Monotone.

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l'heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure;

Et je m'en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m'emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

So is yearning really a "Germanic concept"?  I expect that thoughtful readers can tell us about yearning in works from Italy, France, Spain, China, Russia, India, and beyond.

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47 Comments »

  1. John Thayer Jensen said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 8:13 pm

    The Yapese words 'wureeng' (the 'ee' is a long vowel – don't have IPA handy but 'vowels as in Italian' :-)) and 'taawureeng' mean almost exactly what Sehnsucht means. From a story about another person telling a story:

    "Ma ku ba taawureeng ea rea yaat neam. Boech ea girdiiq ea bea yoer…"

    "That story [yaat] is also very [taawureeng]. Some people [girdiiq] weep [yoer]…"

    More Yapese information if desired, but the word itself covers homesickness, longing for something one cannot name – people are sometimes 'taawureeng' and can't give any real reason. They are not depressed – they are just … 'taawureeng!'

    jj

  2. Markonsea said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 8:38 pm

    Wish I had a German/French dictionary handy; but Google Translate flounders helplessly when you ask it for the French for Heimweh, Fernweh or Sehnsucht!

  3. rootlesscosmo said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 8:43 pm

    Someone who knows Brazilian Portuguese told me that when they first heard the Welsh word "hiraeth" explained, it seemed to them very close in meaning to "saudade:" both names for a kind of yearning, particularly as defined in the AHD.

  4. Janice Byer said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 8:45 pm

    How about the French noun "aspiration" and verb "aspire"?

  5. ella said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 8:48 pm

    it would depend entirely on the context, but for French I instantly thought of 'avoir hâte'. Doesn't mean quite the same thing, but then what 'untranslatable' word can't often be translated by multiple different expressions in the target language. I'm only a second language speaker of French tho, so my intuition may be off.

  6. Jake said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 9:10 pm

    I agree with the comment about saudade. The interesting thing about saudade is that it is not directed towards anything in particular. Just a feeling. The wikipedia page is helpful http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saudade

  7. Ray Girvan said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 9:36 pm

    German has the related Ruinenlust, which is the yearning for the past evoked by ruins.

  8. Jeff DeMarco said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 10:08 pm

    I must quote Gilbert here! (From "Patience")

    BUNTHORNE: "Did you ever yearn?"
    PATIENCE: "I yearn my living, sir."

  9. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 10:10 pm

    I've never thought of Spanish's anhelar (and noun anhelo) as anything but and the RAE confirms it pretty clearly:

    anhelar (del lat. anhelāre) (1) tener ansia o deseo vehemente de conseguir algo (2) expeler, echar de sí con el aliento; (3) respirar con dificultad.
    anhelar (from Latin anhelāre) (1) to have a vehement angst or desire of getting something. (3) expel, release from one's self with one's breath; (3) breath with difficulty

    And of particular note cf. the definition for "angst" (not the best translation) and vehement from the DRAE:

    vehemente – having impetuous force; ardent and full of passion
    ansia – (1) anguish/woe and breathlessness that causes restlessness or violent agitation in the body. (2) angst or affliction of the spirit

    I don't speak French, but a glance at a FR/ES dictionary gave briguer for anhelar, but looking that back up in a FR/EN doesn't seem to give anything worthwhile.

    [(myl) Various French-English dictionaries give "to crave; to set one's sights on" and "aspire to". The Dictionnaire de l'Académie française, 8e édition for briguer gives

    Employer la brigue. [...] Il s'emploie aussi transitivement et signifie Tâcher d'obtenir quelque chose par brigue. [...] Il signifie aussi simplement Solliciter, rechercher avec ardeur, avec empressement.

    Brigue, in turn, means "Manœuvre secrète et détournée pour engager quelques personnes dans ses intérêts, et, par leur aide, obtenir quelque faveur ou quelque place [...] Il se dit aussi pour Cabale, faction, parti.". So it's not very close to yearn… ]

  10. John Thayer Jensen said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

    The interesting thing about Yapese 'taawureeng' – and, if I understand it correctly, about German 'Sehnsucht' – is that they need not – and, for Yapese, at least, typically do not – have an object. English 'yearn' usually does. If someone said to me that he 'yearned,' I would want to know what he yearns for.

    jj

    [(myl) There's an obsolete intransitive sense of yearn that the OED glosses as "To give a sound suggestive of strong desire; to express yearning or strong desire"; thus Keats in "The Eve of St. Agnes":

    55      Full of this whim was thoughtful Madeline:
    56      The music, yearning like a God in pain,
    57      She scarcely heard

    Among the OED's other citations:

    1677    N. Cox Gentleman's Recreation (ed. 2) i. 18   When Beagles bark and cry at their Prey, we say, they Yearn.
    1856    J. Payn Bond & Free in Househ. Words 3 May 368/2   While the organ was yearning its last, and the great throng was pushing to the doors.

    The OED also gives a more general intransitive sense, glossed as "To be deeply moved; to be moved with compassion; to have tender feelings; to mourn, grieve".]

  11. John Thayer Jensen said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 10:56 pm

    PS – and yet, 'taawureeng' implies something you 'yearn for' – but with the idea that you don't even know what it is. You can transitivise it – you can 'taawureeng naag' something. But it's not a usual usage.

    I should make clear that I am not a native speaker, but I lived in Yap in an almost exclusively Yapese-speaking environment for eight years continuously, at other times for short periods, and did linguistic research on the language for 20 years. I no longer work in linguistics, however, haven't for 25 years.

    jj

  12. Xmun said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 11:24 pm

    My Concise Oxford French Dictionary gives the example "élans du coeur" with the translation "aspirations, impulses, yearnings of the heart".

  13. Xmun said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 11:47 pm

    By the way, has anyone in living memory actually read Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre? Of course Mignons Lieder are found in many anthologies, but that's not quite the same thing.

    [(myl) Presumably someone associated with the 1975 movie Falsche Bewegung, said to be "eine moderne Adaption des klassischen Romans Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre", actually read the novel being adapted.]

  14. Harold said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 1:00 am

    The thing is that Goethe preceded Verlaine by a long way and, as a key figure in 19th-century Romanticism, certainly influenced him. Of course moods of elegaic melancholy had characterized the 18th c.( and were not rare in the 16th & 17 c.s), but longing did really flower in the 19th.

    Svetlana Boym in "The Future of Nostalgia" contends that concept of "nostalgia" or homesickness (if that is a part of longing) was an invention of 19thcentury medicine that spread into general use.

    Of course longing occurs abundantly in religious literature — with St. Augustine – as longing for the heavenly kingdom, not to mention the poetry of the Bible: "As pants the hart for cooling streams. When heated in the chase, So longs my soul, O God, for Thee".

    According to Erwin Panovsky, “with only slight exaggeration one might say that [it was Virgil who] ‘discovered’ the evening” and its melancholy moods." Virgilian melancholy abounds in Dante and Petrarch.

    Dante's virtuous pagans in limbo feel it, as do the souls in Purgatory:

    Era già l'ora che volge il disio / ai navicanti e 'ntenerisce il core/ lo dì c'han detto ai dolci amici addio; / e che lo novo peregrin d'amore / punge, se ode squilla di lontano / che paia il giorno pianger che si more. ("It was now the hour that turns back the longing of seafarers and melts their hearts, the day they have bidden dear friends farewell, and pierces the new traveler with love if he hears in the distance the bell that seems to mourn the dying day.")

    Another kind of longing was that of the 13th century Jaufre Rudel, who longed in Old Provencal for his distant love: Un'amor londanha m'auci, / e'l dous dezirs propdas m'esta /e quan m'albir qu'eu me'n an la /en forma d'un bon pellegri, /mey voler son sai; anc issi / de ma mort qu'estiers no sera. ("A faraway love kills me / and the sweet longing stands by me/ and when I plan on going there / as a pious pilgrim, / my will remains here; I don't escape / my death, which won't be otherwise.")

    I'll eat my hat if Chinese poetry isn't full of longing, not to mention Japanese.

  15. Circe said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 1:56 am

    I can think of at least three words in Hindi that would be used when the meaning of "yearning" is intended: In IAST transliteration, they are: "tṛṣṇā", "vitṛṣṇā", and "tarasanā". Although, in a suitable context, all three of them can take the place of "yearning", the first ( and, to an extent, the last) is also used to denote "thirst". Also, I have never seen the the second (though it clearly a derivative of the first) used for "thirst".

  16. Eirik Hektoen said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 6:09 am

    The question of whether yearning is a "Germanic concept" made me wonder what the Norwegian translation would be; "lengte" (cf. Eng. "long", v.) comes close, but doesn't have the sense of overpowering tenderness and pity in the dictionary glosses.

    The etymology in etymonline.com reveals that "yearn" is related to the Norwegian adverb "gjerne" (cf. Ger. "gern"), which, on the other hand, I'd have trouble translating to English. It means something like "gladly" or "with desire", but, again, some emotional nuance seems to get lost in the translation.

  17. mollymooly said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 8:36 am

    There is an episode of "Die Zweite Heimat" in which the Chilean Juan, who speaks 10 languages, admires the word 'Sehnsucht'. He might go so far as to suggest there is no word for it in the other 9 languages, but I can't swear to that.

  18. KevinM said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 10:08 am

    nostalgie? I'm far from fluent, but that's always how nostalgie de la boue is always translated.

  19. KevinM said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 10:08 am

    sorry, already noted – I missed it.

  20. Giacomo Ponzetto said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 10:57 am

    In Italian I would perceive a split of the meanings of yearn and yearning.

    For the intense, overwhelming desire, and particularly for the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, there are the verb anelare and the noun anelito, just as in Spanish and from the same Latin.

    For the tender, wistful, melancholy longing, there are the verb struggere, whose reflexive form struggersi feels reasonably equivalent to the intransitive usage of yearn; the noun struggimento, and the adjective struggente.

    Having said this, Sehnsucht is left untranslated when discussing German romanticism in Italian, and it is included in the Treccani dictionary.

    I might add that all the words above are fairly literary, and only struggente is in reasonably common usage. In the lemmatized CoLFIS corpus of written Italian the counts are: struggente 14, anelare 3, anelito 3, struggere 2, struggimento 2.

  21. Bob Ladd said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

    Simone Signoret was obviously onto something when she entitled her autobiography "La nostalgie n'est plus ce qu'elle était".

  22. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 12:08 pm

    I've been living in German-speaking countries for close to 20 years now, but on balance I can't say I'm here for the Sehnsucht. And if I did, I'd think longing or yearning are just as good.

    The Irish poet Austin Clarke wrote (part of the time) in English and his "last honey by the water / that no hive can find" is surely a pretty good expression of Sehnsucht. Or Patrick Kavanagh's "fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges / and look! a barge comes bringing from Athy / and other far-flung towns mythologies", or "a road, a mile of kingdom, I am king / of banks and stones and every blooming thing". Or Eliot's "I have gone at dusk through narrow streets / And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes / Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?"

    Well I suppose the resonance of those lines for me is partly to do with the specific places and weather I associate with them. But I'm afraid even this cursory selection of school-curriculum poets evokes Sehnsucht effortlessly without the word.

    Maybe the Germans only have a word for it because they lack appreciation of the oblique approach. I'll have a kilo and a half of DIN-standard Sehnsucht please, Mr. Goethe! And so Goethe dutifully serves up a sack of the stuff with about as much subtlety as my daughter shouting weh! weh! bumm! when she has fallen over and given herself a bump.

  23. Bill Walderman said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

    My French dictionary (Collins Robert) gives "languir après" for "yearn for" on the English-French side, and "languish/pine/long for" as the translation for "languir après" on the French-English side.

    That would seem to allow Francophones to experience just about the same emotion that we Anglophones feel when we yearn, or maybe an even more intense one.

  24. Harold said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

    In formulating his theories of Cantometrics, Alan Lomax theorized that songs containing longing were characteristic of cultures that went in for separation of the sexes — along with a lot of social stratification. He indicated a geographic band stretching from Spain to Japan, which would include, especially, the Arab lands and those having a court culture, like India and China.

    Perhaps Sehnsucht is really a different and localized variation, with Romantic connotations of its own. Another such would be "wabi-sabi" — a sense of the perishability of mundane things. Then there is "divine discontent", which goes back to Plato–the concept if not the phrase.

    I thought "struggersi" carried a connotation of inner torment — not quite the same as "yearning", but I bow to the superior knowledge of a native speaker. On the other hand, "desio" as used by Dante seems to have a different feeling than the English "desire" (or the Italian "desiderio" – for that matter, which is more like a neutral "wish"), at least to me. The Tuscan dictionary is a great resource. I completely forgot "bramare" — more like longing than mundane desire. Bramare is rather poetic, no? But so is Sehnsucht.

  25. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

    Let's not forget that angst exists in English only because the translators of Kierkegaard couldn't find a good equivalent.

    I am surprised that, given the French fondness for English-based words ending in -ing, yearning has not yet become a French word.

    On the other hand, I'm not sure that there is a clear line in English between longing and yearning. For what it's worth, when I translated Cole Porter's Night and Day into Spanish, I rendered longing as anhelo and yearning as ansia.

  26. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 4:57 pm

    Is the etymon of Sehnsucht Sehne (tendon)? If so, what's the connection?

    I always thought (without having looked it up) that it was Sehen-Sucht (a longing to see someone or something), but Brockhaus derives it from MHG sich senen. (Das Herz ist mir bedrückt und sehnlich / Gedenke ich der alten Zeit…)

  27. Giacomo Ponzetto said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 6:15 pm

    @Harold: I'm a native speaker of Italian but not of English! I agree that struggersi has an implication of inner torment. But then, the intransitive definition in the OED is:
    a. intr. To be deeply moved; to be moved with compassion; to have tender feelings; †to mourn, grieve.
    I though that "wistful or melancholy desire" was par for the course, too.

    Bramare denotes a strong but covetous desire; even more so the noun, bramosia. Let alone the other noun brama ("una lupa, che di tutte brame Sembiava carca ne la sua magrezza"). I'd put them closer to craving than yearning.

    By the dictionary, desio is merely a poetic way of saying desiderio. Admittedly, I don't think you cannot translate make a wish with desio instead of desiderio. But then I'm afraid you cannot really say or write desio at all in contemporary Italian prose, whereas you can use all the other words we've mentioned, high-brow as they may be.

    I'm from rather far north of Tuscany myself, but for an enjoyable if dated read I can safely recommend Tommaseo's venerable Nuovo dizionario de' sinonimi della lingua italiana, which was new in 1859 and is now a free download from Google Books.

  28. Ken Brown said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 6:25 pm

    @Harold – as well as that psalm, also psalm 137: "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion… how shall we sing the LORD's songs in a strange land… if I forget thee O Jerusalem…" Homesickness turned up to 11.

  29. Circe said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 8:19 pm

    Harold:

    In formulating his theories of Cantometrics, Alan Lomax theorized that songs containing longing were characteristic of cultures that went in for separation of the sexes –

    Were there any cultures at all that did not go in for the separation of the sexes for significant chunks of their history?

  30. Circe said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 8:40 pm

    An example from Sanskrit is Kalidasa's Meghdootam (lit. Could Messenger), the story of a demi-god who is exiled from the court of Kubera, and finally convinces a cloud to carry his messages of longing to his beloved at home. Here is quotation from a freely available translation by H H Wilson:

    Long on the mass of mead reviving dew,
    The heavenly exile fixed his eager view,
    And still the melancholy tear suppressed,
    Though bitterest sorrow wrung his heaving breast,
    For e'en the happy husband as he folds
    His cherished partner in his arms beholds
    This gathering darkness with a troubled heart
    What must they feel whom fate and distance part
    Such were the Yaksha's thoughts but fancy found
    Some solace in the glooms that deepened round.

    The "gathering darkness" refers to the gathering of the clouds. To this day, monsoons, and the first month of rain (Shravan) are often associated with separation of lovers and "yearning" in Indian poetry.

  31. Chris Brew said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 12:08 am

    Well, sehnen means to long, and -sucht turns up a lot in compounds like Drogensucht (drug addiction), Sexsucht (sex addiction), Esssucht (compulsive eating) and Eifersucht (jealousy, where Eifer means eagerness) and, magnificently Tobsucht (rage) and Habsucht (having-sucht = greed). So Sehnsucht has wonderful overtones. To my rather out-of-practice ear it is something like "longing sickness" or "longing addiction". But yearning has more strain in it, and until now I always mentally translated Sehnsucht as melancholy.

    Wikipedia.de describes -sucht (in German) as the everyday language term for various medical and psychological disease pictures (Sucht ist der umgangssprachliche Begriff für verschiedene medizinisch-psychologische Krankheitsbilder.)

  32. Chris Brew said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 12:25 am

    should add. But I never actually thought of melancholy as actually being the translation, since Sehnsucht has such clear semi-compositional faultlines in it. No tendons involved, I suspect, and I think my initial feeling that -sucht is related to seek is a hopeful back-formation from Drogensucht and all the other words related to addictions. Apparently it is more related to "sick". Say the dictionaries…

    For completeness, Zuchthaus is the German word for a particularly severe type of prison. Zuchten means "to sigh". This has nothing to do with Sehnsucht, but I am afraid that the similarity with Sucht still affects the the contours of mental-emotional connection in my German mental lexicon.

  33. Chris Brew said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 12:25 am

    should add. But I never actually thought of melancholy as actually being the translation, since Sehnsucht has such clear semi-compositional faultlines in it. No tendons involved, I suspect, and I think my initial feeling that -sucht is related to seek is a hopeful back-formation from Drogensucht and all the other words related to addictions. Apparently it is more related to "sick". Say the dictionaries…

    For completeness, Zuchthaus is the German word for a particularly severe type of prison. Zuchten means "to sigh". This has nothing to do with Sehnsucht, but I am afraid that the similarity with Sucht still affects the the contours of mental-emotional connection in my German mental lexicon.

  34. Zeppelin said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 4:58 am

    Chris Brew:

    "Zuchten – to sigh" is Dutch, not German :)

    The "Zucht" in Zuchthaus is in fact a nominalised form of "züchten", modern German "to breed, raise, rear", which used to also mean "to discipline, make act properly", hence its use for domestic animal rearing.

    It can also be found in the very German phrase "Zucht und Ordnung", meaning "discipline and order".
    (That meaning has been disambiguated in modern German, where "to discipline" is "züchtigen" as opposed to "züchten".)

    And for what it's worth, as a native speaker I would approximate Sehnsucht as "longing". To me, Sehnsucht is what you feel when you greatly miss someone or something, rather than a generalised feeling of melancholy as evoked by Ben Hemmens' poems. I'd describe those as evoking, well, Melancholie.

  35. Rolig said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 5:55 am

    Russian has the excellent word toska, which is a fixture of Russian Romantic poetry (Pushkin, Lermontov, Baratynsky) and covers a range of emotional suffering. Nabokov, in his commentary to his translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, explains it as follows: "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 or something specific, nostalgia, lovesickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom, skuka."

  36. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 6:29 am

    Then there's Schwindsucht for consumption (tuberculosis) – consumed by one's own gradual shrinkage/dwindling/disappearance.

  37. Timo Buchholz said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 7:55 am

    I don't really think Sehnsucht goes without an object in German most of the time, or even in any way regularly. I used the COSMAS II corpus application of the Institut für Deutsche Sprache that has a massive database of contemporary German, and doing an coocurrence analysis, of 16.145 instances of Sehnsucht from a newspaper corpus, 14.381 had the preposition 'nach' immediately following it. That preposition is used to specify the object of Sehnsucht ("Sehnsucht nach Meer", Sehnsucht nach dir", "Sehnsucht nach Ferien", etc.). A lot of the remaining instances look like headings in newspaper articles, where Sehnsucht can be immediately followed by its object ("Sehnsucht Rhein", etc.).

    Besides, what is it with this kind of emotion that different cultures seem to want to have it basically trademarked? Japanese has natsukashii (an adjective denoting nostalgia, longing, or yearning), and it's one of those words that you can often read to express a feeling 'uniquely' Japanese…

  38. SimonMH said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 10:54 am

    Du Fu – The Winding River (2)

    朝回日日典春衣
    每日江頭盡醉歸
    酒債尋常行處有
    人生七十古來稀
    穿花蛺蝶深深見
    點水蜻蜓款款飛
    傳語風光共流轉
    暫時相賞莫相違

    Inadequately translated:

    Returning every day from court, I pawn
    spring clothes. The river sees my drunken mien;
    my boozing debts mount up all over town.
    Men do not often live three score and ten.
    The butterflies go deep into the flowers;
    the dragonflies on wing among the drops.
    The passing time is always rushing hours;
    no time to know you: separation stops.

  39. Mina said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 11:46 am

    I agree with Matthew Stuckwisch about the equivalent in Spanish. Although as a Spanish speaker I must say "yearning" sounds/feels stronger than "anhelar", or at least it is used to describe the same feeling but in a stronger way.

  40. Luis Henrique said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 11:54 am

    Yes, what rootlesscosmo said seem to be true. Reading the post reminded me of the word "saudade" (I´m Brazilian). But I always have the impression that the meaning of this word for each culture is never a perfect match. Here we are used to say that "saudade" only exists in Portuguese. I can feel saudade of my hometown, of someone, of old times. But there are so many subtle feelings associated to it. Same goes with yearn, from what I read. What an amazing mystery (if yearn could be a match to saudade :)

  41. SilenceIsGolden said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 6:20 pm

    @ Chris Brew: The "Sucht" part in all those words, including "Sehnsucht," should be read as "a strong, damaging desire" for something.
    This desire in any of the pathological senses (like "Drogensucht" = "drug addiction") is easy to see. The damaging part of the desire in "Sehnsucht" might be taken that it's such an overwhelming longing for somebody or something or someplace that it renders you unfit to exist where and how you are right now.

  42. Thomas said,

    January 12, 2012 @ 3:18 am

    While the Goethe quote is an example of Sehnsucht functioning as "yearning", I don't think it's a very good general translation. I'd think the various -weh words would be better; think "homesick" glossed as "yearning for one's home" — the latter, is obviously Heimweh.

    As for French, the "yearning to be free" sense I'd translate as "avoir faim de X" or "avoir soif de X".

    But honestly, it's just silly to try to translate a highfalutin word; by their very nature, they're used in highfalutin phrases, which are what you really need to translate. And that's where things are either easy or hard. For WORDS, I find the baser, vernacular words harder, particularly because they're likely to be used in isolation.

    Think: goofy. Or phrase-ending "quoi". Or the connotations of "verstehst du".

  43. marie-lucie said,

    January 12, 2012 @ 9:27 pm

    French (non-)equivalents:

    - avoir hâte de : Perhaps the writer has learned this as an equivalent of "look forward to". It means literally "to be in a hurry to", referring to an action or event that is expected to take place (eg meet a long-lost friend), and there is no connotation of emotional pain, quite the opposite.

    - briguer: This word is used in the context of coveting a position or an influential person's favour. It does not have the deep emotional connotation of 'yearning', even if the Subject of briguer is a person devoured by ambition, like some presidential candidates.

    - nostalgie: To me, this word (a noun) only refers to longing for the unrecoverable past, not for some potential future event. I understand nostalgie de la boue (yearning for something more earthy than conventional, sanitized emotions) but I would not use this expression.

    - languir: As children often spending the summer with our grandparents in Southern France while our father sometimes stayed away, we were often asked "Tu ne languis pas de ton papa?" 'Don't you long for your Dad?' I never heard this expression farther North. To me, languir après is non-standard, perhaps regional, but it could also be more modern. Some people also use se languir rather than just languir. In any case, I think that this verb comes closest to the meaning of English 'yearn', but non-native speakers should be very careful with it.

    - avoir soif de: This can be used in the context of yearning for abstractions such as freedom, love, spirituality, etc, not for possible actions or events. Avoir faim de can be used for yearning for more earthy happenings.

    - lancinant: This adjective has not been suggested, but 'yearning' as a noun could sometimes be translated as désir lancinant, where lancinant refers to a dull aching pain.

  44. Harold said,

    January 14, 2012 @ 9:45 pm

    http://riowang.blogspot.com/2009/07/heavenly-and-earthly-love.html (scroll down)
    Excerpt: In the Persian tradition [the image of the moth or butterfly fluttering about a candle] … represents the love of the highest order, aspiring to God and longing for the union with Him. As it was already observed by Hammer-Purgstall, the adventurous Austrian diplomat and orientalist, a first researcher of Persian literature, whose translation of Hafez [c.1300] inspired Goethe’s East-Western Divan: “The butterfly is, for the Eastern understanding, not, as it is for the Western, a symbol of instability and fluttering mind but rather a symbol of the most faithful love, which is oblivious of itself and sacrifices itself.” (Geschichte der schönen Redekünste Persiens). This latter interpretation was also borrowed by Goethe in his poem Selige Sehnsucht.

  45. Keith said,

    January 17, 2012 @ 4:51 pm

    @ Eirik Hektoen,

    I think of "gjerne + verb"as being "love to + verb". E.g.

    Hvat vil de ha att drikke?
    Jeg vil gjerne ha en öl!

    What would you like to drink?
    I'd love a beer

    K.

  46. [links] Link salad reports in from Omaha | jlake.com said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

    [...] Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt — Claude Lalumière makes it into Language Log. [...]

  47. Three Ways of Remembering | Love in the Spaces said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 9:44 pm

    [...] word to add to the mix.  Perhaps it does, in the uncharacteristically to-the-point sehnsucht, which seems to replace saudade's dollop of hope with an anvil of existential recognition [...]

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