No word for "privacy" in Russian?

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Reader and fan Will Thompson wrote to Mark Liberman, who passed his letter on to me, about a recent article by Ellen Barry in The New York Times, discussing a book by the Russian political analyst Nikolai V. Zlobin in which he explains weird/different American cultural norms to Russians.

Will notes that towards the end, the reviewer states:

He [Zlobin] devotes many pages to privacy, a word that does not exist in the Russian language[.]

And Will is suspicious of that claim.

I got the assignment because I have a Russian husband, who has himself published some essays about some of the unexpected cultural differences a Russian encounters in America, and we’ve been dividing our time between Moscow and Amherst for the last 15 years. I’ll start by saying that when I read Barry’s article, my first reactions to the differences Zlobin wrote about that she describes were that they all sound just right. I had to laugh about the “standing in line” differences, because I have sometimes had to remind my generally very polite husband not to breathe down the neck of the person currently at the ticket window when he is next in line, but to back up and give them some space. (And he has had to teach me to be a little more aggressive in line in Russia.)

So our topic is whether the word “privacy” exists in Russian. If you ask “Google translate”, you get eleven choices, and given my own moderate knowledge of Russian, none of them looked equivalent to “privacy” in the sense of valuing your privacy, or wanting to know about Facebook’s privacy policies. And when I asked my husband about it, he agreed that there isn’t any Russian word that’s equivalent because indeed, our particular concept of privacy really isn’t part of Russian culture. So Zlobin is right.

What are Google’s 11? Here they are, with Google’s own ‘back translations’:

1. konfidentsialnost’ – confidentiality, privacy, secrecy

2. chastnaja zhizn’ – private life

3. sekretnost’ — secrecy, privacy, privity (?), secretness

4. neprikosnovennost’ chastnoj zhizni – privacy [‘inviolability of private life’]

5. ujedinennost’ – privacy, solitude

6. ujedinenie — privacy, solitude, seclusion, isolation, retreat, retirement

7. prajvesi – privacy, private immunity [a borrowing from English, still rare, I think; my husband hadn’t heard of it]

8. tajna — secret, mystery, secrecy, confidentiality, privacy, Arcanum

9. lichnoe delo – private matter

10. intimnost’ lichnoj zhizni – privacy [lit. intimacy of personal/private life]

11. intimnaja sfera – privacy [lit. intimate sphere]

Maybe number 7, the borrowed word ‘prajvesi’ is our ‘privacy’, but its newness just confirms the fact that there was no Russian word that really corresponded to our ‘privacy’, presumably because there was no such notion in the culture to be expressed.


  1. Gaston said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

    Dutch traditionally hasn't had a word for privacy either, and has borrowed the American English term. The notion of a private sphere that others and the state are not to intrude upon is very present in Dutch culture though, and I would say it has been for a long time.

    (Admittedly you don't explicitly claim that the absence of a word implies the absence of the concept, only the other way around. Just in case you do feel the logic works both ways …)

  2. John Lawler said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 2:45 pm

    This reminds me of Anna Wierzbicka's book English: Meaning and Culture, especially of Chapters 3, 4, and 5, titled (respectively):

    3. 'The Story of RIGHT and WRONG and Its Cultural Implications' (61-102)
    4. 'Being REASONABLE: A Key Anglo Value and Its Cultural Roots' (103-140)
    5. 'Being FAIR: Another Key Anglo Value and Its Cultural Underpinnings' (141-170)

    [(myl) Agreed. See "No word for 'fair'?", 1/28/2009, for some discussion of her chapter 5, including 85 useful and interesting comments.]

  3. Rob P. said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 2:53 pm

    I recently read an article quoting a person who said of the Danish "hygge", “It means to be cozy. In the English language we don’t have a verb that means to be cozy."

    Except for "to be cozy," I guess.

  4. nowhereroad said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 3:18 pm

    "neprikosnovennost’ chastnoj zhizni" – is that a common used phrase? Because, looking at the translation provided, "inviolability of private life" seems pretty close to what we mean by "privacy" in the context of "privacy policy", "valuing privacy" etc.

  5. Valerij Tomarenko (@En_De_Ru) said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

    One Russian word is missing though, so to make it a dozen:
    12. приватность (privatnost').

    Over 8 mio Google hits, no idea why this word is not on the list, I would rank it among top three. I do think the notion was always there, on the contrary, the Russians often say there are no adequate English expressions for "быт" (byt, private life). But the posting is certainly not about the word, rather the implications…

  6. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 3:59 pm

    "no such notion…" or 10 notions, none of which corresponded exactly to the 11th neologism.

  7. maxim said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 4:19 pm

    I was always very sceptical about this whole " there isn’t any word that’s equivalent to … because indeed, our concept of … isn’t part of Russian culture".

    To me, it sounds rather preposterous; are people really claiming that a language's way of expressing something with one word or with many different words – and different aspects of privacy do have well-known words for them in Russian – is indicative of anything but pure linguistic chance? If words weren't arbitrary, we would only have one language, wouldn't we?

    And – aren't there things very much present in some cultures that still require not one, but many different words to describe in different contexts? To use just one example, the Russian word "пошлость" (poshlost') is famously absent in English as a single word (or so did Nabokov claim), but does it mean that the British don't have a concept of snobbery, averse to all things gaudy?

    So if one wants to argue for one or other thing being absent in a culture, the argument should be cultural, not linguistic, as in: "none of the Russians I spoke to did understand the concept of privacy when I explained it to them, and many of them then happily proceeded to tell me intimate details about themselves and their families, and some even undressed in my presence to drive the point home, claiming it to be quite natural".

  8. Bob Ladd said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 4:31 pm

    Italian has also fairly recently borrowed the English word privacy, with (as Gaston implied for Dutch) its American pronunciation (stressed vowel of diver, not, as in most British use, stressed vowel of river).

  9. Jeff Carney said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 4:37 pm


    Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which more or less postulates the idea you are arguing against. In its more naive versions, it captures the imaginations of undergraduates and others who think they know more about language than they really do, so one sees it in the popular press quite often. In any case, you're right to be skeptical when topics like this come up. It's a regular here at LLog, almost as popular as snowclones.

    [(myl) The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis has many versions and many aspects, some more plausible and convincing than others. This case is an instance of the form "Language L has no word for X, and this tells us something about the culture and psychology of its speakers", and in most cases, arguments of this form turn out to be empirically weak at the first stage, namely the assertion that speakers of L have no ordinary way — whether a single word or a common short phrase — to express X. (See "'No word for X' archive" for a probably-partial list of relevant LL posts.)

    There's a very strong (and logically silly) form of the argument, namely that people speaking a language without a (single word) word for concept X, or even a conventional phrase for concept X, are thereby rendered completely incapable of forming or discussing the concept X.

    Weaker forms include the notion that habitual or obligatory linguistic marking of certain properties of the world makes those properties more salient for speakers of a language that marks them (this is the original form of the hypothesis); the notion that a culture that doesn't know about X, due to never having encountered it, will not have a conventional way to refer to X (this is surely true, but not very interesting, since it's easily remedied by borrowing or neologism as soon as they learn about X); and the notion that the way members of a culture generally think about things has an effect on the development of their language's vocabulary (this is also surely true, though polysemy and the phrasal lexicon make it tricky to make this argument in a solid way).

    Barbara's evaluation here is of the last form, as I understand it, suggesting that it's true that the Russian language lacks a conventional way to express the concept that English-speakers express with the word privacy, and this is because that concept is not current in Russian culture.

    In this case, the arrow of causation goes mainly from culture to language rather than the other way around.]

  10. LDavidH said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 4:57 pm

    When my wife-to-be and I first went to live in Albania (1993, soon after the country opened up to outsiders), we were surprised at the lack of "privacy": people would open each other's letters, everybody knew how much everybody earned and paid for things, and once a neighbour woman came in and tried my wife's deodorant stick, never having seen one before. And there was no word that would translate the English "privacy".

    On the other hand, they were horrified at communal (single-sex) showers at gyms & swimming pools etc in other countries, and were (understandably) wary of talking openly about politicians in power; so the concept definitely existed; it just applied to other things.

  11. tudza said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 5:16 pm

    You sure it doesn't translate as something like, "Out of my face or I'll cut you." or is that just the boys from Georgia?

  12. G said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 5:33 pm

    @Rob P

    Yes, but "to be cozy" is a passive, and that isn't quite the same. "Hygge" as a verb is something you DO. Besides, "coziness" is only one aspect of "hygge." Often it carries a sense of fellowship, sociability, enjoying other's company, cheer. It could potentially be quite raucous. In many cases the best translation would be something like "having a good time" or "enjoying oneself."

    Similarly, you can "hygge" yourself with a good book or a glass of wine, and you'd probably render that as "enjoy" in English, not "be cozy with."

    But more than the verb form, I think it's the noun and adjective forms that are tricky to translate. "Hygge" seems to express an almost physical essence of coziness, pleasantness, well-being or cheer filling a space. And to translate "hyggelig" in a particular instance you need to consider a long list of more-or-less suitable adjectives.

    All this is with reference to Norwegian rather than Danish, by the way (although as far as I'm aware, it should apply to both). As a curiosity, "hygge" is related to English "hug," while one word for "hug" (or, depending on context and dialect, "cuddle") in Norwegian is "kos," related to English "cozy."

    I don't think this means anything except that words (and perhaps to some extent the underlying concepts) don't always match up exactly in their range of meaning and connotations across different languages, and this can make translations tricky or awkward.

  13. Mark Etherton said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

    @ G

    In what way is 'to be cozy' a passive?

    And, more generally, as has been pointed out on Language Log before, English has no word for 'fair play'.

  14. Lazar said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 5:45 pm

    @G: On that last part, it reminds me of how German "See" equals Dutch "meer", and German "Meer" equals Dutch "zee". I wonder if there's a term for this sort of flipped cognate thing.

  15. G said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

    Writing my last post made me think of how "love" can be similarly tough to translate the other way. In verb form, "elske" does fine for romantic love or "I love ice cream!" hyperbole, but is awkward for familial love or Platonic friendship.

    While it wouldn't be entirely unheard of for a son or daughter to say "Jeg elsker deg, Pappa" ("I love you, Dad"), I think most would not be comfortable with it. More typically it would be "Jeg er glad i deg" ("I'm fond of you"), but it doesn't have quite the same oomph.

    It's tempting to infer that the lack of a good way to profess non-romantic love is related to Scandinavians traditionally being emotionally reserved or even repressed. Maybe. It does seem like if it were expected of you to routinely express such sentiments, there would be a non-awkward way to do so.

  16. D-AW said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 6:08 pm

    OED2 "cosy, v." Also cozie, cozy. [f. the adj.]
    †1.1 intr. To be comfortable, snug. Obs. dial.
       1898 Eng. Dial. Dict. While topers cozie in the neuk.
    2. trans. To comfort, reassure;
    3. intr. To cosy up to: to snuggle up to.

  17. Frans said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 6:09 pm


    Similarly, you can "hygge" yourself with a good book or a glass of wine, and you'd probably render that as "enjoy" in English, not "be cozy with."

    Actually you can cozy up with a book.

  18. G said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 6:21 pm

    @Mark Etherton

    No, you're right, of course. I was thinking of "cozy" as a verb, which it obviously is not in this context (and anyway it wouldn't appear in this form if it were). Or more generally, committing LL's favorite peeve: using "passive" not in its strict grammatic sense, but for any sentence where the activity is expressed by something apart from the active verb.

  19. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 10:05 pm

    "Cosy" is also a well-established noun (in the book-reviewing trade, at least). "McCall Smith's contemporary cozies have proved that crimes need not be punishable by death to provide a satisfying read." (L.A Times) (Blurb on Smith's latest Isabel Dalhousie novel.)
    More effort at definition and many specimens here.

  20. D.O. said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 10:45 pm

    Russian constitution guarantees certain privacy rights. Here's how they are expressed in Russian (I dropped borderline aspects concerning right to personal respect, questions of arrest, and protections of home). Words expressing different aspects of privacy are in italic

    Статья 221. Каждый имеет право на свободу и личную неприкосновенность.
    Статья 231. Каждый имеет право на неприкосновенность частной жизни, личную и семейную тайну, защиту своей чести и доброго имени.2. Каждый имеет право на тайну переписки, телефонных переговоров, почтовых, телеграфных и иных сообщений. Ограничение этого права допускается только на основании судебного решения.

    Статья 241. Сбор, хранение, использование и распространение информации о частной жизни лица без его согласия не допускаются

    And here's official English translation
    Article 221. Everyone shall have the right to freedom and personal immunity [This is a strange way to translate личную неприкосновенность, which more or less means freedom from physical intrusion or confinement].

    Article 231. Everyone shall have the right to the inviolability of private life, personal and family secrets, the protection of honour and good name.2. Everyone shall have the right to privacy of correspondence, of telephone conversations, postal, telegraph and other messages. Limitations of this right shall be allowed only by court decision.

    Article 241. The collection, keeping, use and dissemination of information about the private life of a person shall not be allowed without his or her consent.

  21. D.O. said,

    December 15, 2012 @ 10:46 pm

    Some formatting didn't work out. Articles are in 22-24 range.

  22. maxim said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 1:24 am

    @Jeff Cartney

    Thanks, Jeff, I was indeed unfamiliar with the S.-W. hypothesis. However, I hope it doesn't disqualify me for the following objection, based on common sense, for what it's worth:

    "In this case, the arrow of causation goes mainly from culture to language rather than the other way around.]"

    But it is a supposed arrow of causation; the original article thinks that if Russian lacks a word for privacy, it must be because the notion is weak or absent in the culture. In other words, the author thinks there's a sufficiently strong link between presence or absence of a word and the culture to be thinking that, if the word is absent, it is because the culture lacks the notion (it doesn't, but that's not the point). My common sense tells me words can be missing for many reasons, the cultural prominence of the corresponding notion being just one of the possibilities, which would mean there's no reasoning in either direction, wouldn't it? For example, literary Russian lacks a verb or expression for copulation (all we have is unprintable) – there's no equivalent of the English "to make love"; does it mean the Russians lack the notion, and should soon go the way of the giant pandas?

    Actually, I don't think _any_ culture lacks such a basic notion as the notion of private space; it is just a matter of what that private space is about. In any case, absence of words would not be admissible as evidence.

  23. Ž said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 5:07 am

    Hungarian doesn't really have a word for privacy either, not in the English sense.

    We speak of magány, which has connotations of solitude and time alone, coming from the root "maga" (meaning something like "self"), and we might say magán (same root) for the private property (magánterület), or a private matter (magánügy). There's also privát, and bizalmas (which relates to trust). For privacy policies on a website, we speak of adatvédelem (the protection of data). We might also say something is személyes (personal).

    It is more common, though, to have a sign saying "belépni tilos" (entering is forbidden) or "tilos az átjárás" (walking across it is forbidden) than "magánterület" (private property).

    There are words like "titkos" (adj: secret) from titok (the noun). And there's privatizáció (privatisation, an important word in the switch from communism to capitalism)

    But the concept of privacy is still important to Hungarians. It is recognised that a person's home is their own and you can call the police if someone is trespassing on private property that you own or rent. We speak "négy szem közt" (amongst four eyes) for a matter between two individuals that is private.

  24. Tom said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 5:43 am

    This article from the Telegraph recently claimed a few of these:

    Apparently, '[t]he Italians have no word for “leadership”; the Germans have no word for “small talk”; and the Eskimos have no word for “war”.'

    Then, the focus of the article: 'Some concepts are simply alien to some cultures, which is why the British have no word for “Kulturkampf”. The practice of “culture wars” – dividing a nation into warring tribes and then exploiting that division – has been happily absent from our politics.'

    Except, of course, we do have a 'word' for culture wars: 'culture wars'.

  25. WF said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 8:17 am

    There is an idiomatic way to protest one's privacy's being violated: "это личное" ("that's private"). It sounds to me like it captures the concept of privacy pretty well. But it is informal, and there really doesn't seem to be a good noun.

  26. Lane said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 10:58 am

    But it seems to me (as a half-competent Russia speaker) that "chastnyj" as an adjective is pretty close to our concept of "private" in the relevant sense. That there's not an abstract noun might be meaningful, or it might not.

    Should be easy for someone to poke around Facebook and find what they say in Russian. The main privacy policy page, though, says "Policy on use of information" at the top, nothing about the abstract "privacy".

  27. davep said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

    "Cozy" as a verb: nest.

  28. Richard Bell said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

    But what would be really remarkable would be the fact that there really was a word in Russian (or any other language) that had just the same range of meanings and affects that 'privacy' (or any other word) had in English. 'Privacy' involves the notion of protection from legal intrusions of various sorts and the notion of modesty in the—in the privy. Both notions have to do with being left alone, but I from time to time attend private meetings, which obviously include the presence of others. One's sex life is something about which one would usually insist upon being granted a right of privacy, but it is also something which is usually carried out in the presence of at least one other person.
    How remarkable it would be if there were a word in any other language which had just exactly that range of meanings: no more, no less.
    If it seems to you that my description of the meanings of 'privacy' are not entirely accurate, that simply proves that your English idiolect has no word for my word 'privacy.'
    Think of the millions of things English has no single word for. ('Stranded preposition' for one.) We have no word for 'move about on one's feet.'
    'Walk' comes to mind, but 'walk' does not include 'hop,' 'skip,' and 'jump,' for instance; or 'leap,' or 'dance,' or 'trot.' But it does include 'amble,' 'saunter,' 'mosey.' Are there exact Russian equivalents for any of these?
    I'm pretty sure that American and English notions of 'privacy' are not identical. As an American, then, I can say that there is no English word—no British English word—for 'privacy.'

  29. WF said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 1:26 pm

    "Should be easy for someone to poke around Facebook and find what they say in Russian"

    Конфиденциальность ("confidentiality").

  30. raempftl said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 3:12 pm

    @Tom: "Then, the focus of the article: 'Some concepts are simply alien to some cultures, which is why the British have no word for “Kulturkampf”. The practice of “culture wars” – dividing a nation into warring tribes and then exploiting that division – has been happily absent from our politics.'

    Except, of course, we do have a 'word' for culture wars: 'culture wars'."

    Well, and except that this definition is completely bogus. Here the first sentence of the relevant English Wikipedia article:
    The German term Kulturkampf (literally, "culture struggle") refers to German policies in relation to secularity and the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, enacted from 1871 to 1878 by the Prime Minister of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck.

  31. naddy said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 5:28 pm

    I can't think of a one-size-fits-all German translation of "privacy" either. It depends on the context. The LEO online dictionary offers a dozen terms. But this shouldn't come as a surprise—words often don't translate 1:1 between languages.

    And regarding "privacy", it's easy to turn the tables. The issue of Datenschutz (lit. "data protection"), what companies and governments do with the data they collect about you, is very dear to the Germans' heart. English speakers don't have an equally concise term and make do with the wishy-washy word "privacy". Clearly this linguistic deficiency must be the reason for the UK's descent into a surveillance state and the very weak privacy laws in the US.

  32. sam said,

    December 16, 2012 @ 11:26 pm

    Although Chinese has some words that do quite litterally mean 'privacy' it still seems that the concepts do not match up. Recently there was a, some what, famous quote going around, this guy 王石 (Wang Shi) said: "个人感情是非常个人化的事 西方叫Privacy 希望社会有保护个人隐私意识."

    Whether or not you understand Chinese I am sure that you can see the word 'privacy' there in the middle — but what is very interesting — at least to me — is that he not only used the english word 'privacy' but then later used the Chinese word, "隐私" (yin si); but what I really want to point out is that he said, "西方叫Privacy", basically meaning "in the west there's this thing called privacy" so really for him to have to emphasise this what he is trying to say is that let's get some western privacy up in here instead of this Chinese-style privacy….

    For a country who seldom has doors on it's toilets what exactly can 'privacy' be?

  33. rgehgrew said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 3:17 am

    Try repeatedly walking in on your Russian friend while they're taking a poop. I'm sure you'll get a thorough lecture on the meaning of privacy in Russian culture.

  34. cm said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 7:26 am

    The issue of Datenschutz (lit. "data protection"), what companies and governments do with the data they collect about you, is very dear to the Germans' heart. English speakers don't have an equally concise term and make do with the wishy-washy word "privacy". Clearly this linguistic deficiency must be the reason for the UK's descent into a surveillance state

    In fact "data protection" is and has long been the standard term in the UK. The relevant legislation is the Data Protection Act 1998 (which replaced a 1984 law of the same name).

  35. Ted said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 11:23 am

    @Mark Etherton: But English — BrE, at least — does have a word for "fair play": "cricket."

    Re hygge: We have "cozy up to," but that's not the same thing.

    "To be cozy" may not be passive, but, pace Rob P., it's not a verb, either — it's an adjective with a verb meaning "to be in a state such that the adjective that follows is an accurate description."

    As to the original subject of the post, I'm curious about what Russian (and Albanian, Hungarian, etc.) speakers would say when, for example, their small children want to come in while they're using the toilet. In my experience, English speakers invariably respond with some variant on "I need my privacy."

    (The children very quickly adopt the concept, and say something similar whenever they're engaging in behavior that they know the adults would put a stop to.)

  36. boris said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 5:17 pm

    I would say "I'm on the toilet". I could be even more specific. It's not like small children will shy away from talking about bodily functions. If I wanted to stress that it is inappropriate to see someone on the toilet, I'd just say that.

    The constitution is basically explaining what privacy is, as somebody would to people unfamiliar with the concept. This may have more to do with legal precision, but if not, that itself is telling as far as not really having that concept.

  37. Ted said,

    December 17, 2012 @ 6:31 pm

    Right, but why does "I'm on the toilet" imply "You can't come in"? It's not that it's inappropriate to see someone on the toilet; it's that people on the toilet (at least in my experience) don't want to be seen, or at least don't want to be intruded upon.

    Is it just that there's no noun that equates to the interest that would be violated if you ignored a request like "Please don't come in here" or "I'd like to be left alone right now"?

  38. boris said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 9:32 am

    That's a good question. Obviously the concept exists since it's really not ok for people to barge in on you on the toilet in Russia any more than anywhere else, but I can't think of a way to express it. The ones that mean "private life" refer to privacy from intrusion by public parties like the government, corporations, the media, not really other family members. Secrecy is really not appropriate either. The solitude one can be used, but ironically, and certainly not when talking to children.

    I guess I'd be talking about it being shameful, inappropriate, forbidden, but not really private.

  39. naddy said,

    December 18, 2012 @ 5:01 pm


    In fact "data protection" is and has long been the standard term in the UK.

    Interesting. If you look at, say, the and web sites, they don't have a "data protection policy", but a "privacy policy".

  40. cm said,

    December 19, 2012 @ 5:45 am

    Yes, I should probably have said "a" standard term. Privacy is preferred perhaps as more familiar and less bureaucratic-sounding in "plain English" directed at consumers, but when it get to the legal nitty-gritty data protection tends to take over.

  41. Begemot said,

    December 20, 2012 @ 6:46 pm

    I was struggling to explain the concept of "tenure" to my Russian parents, and it just didn't make sense to them. Finally, my dad called it "неприкосновенность"–probably best translated as "immunity", and the first word in item #4 in Barbara's list. This is also the word used to describe diplomatic immunity. Not exactly what tenure is, but I suppose it is close.

    I have encountered the term "прайвеси", a loanword form of "privacy", on RuNet–I think it is fashionable in some circles, though a Russian language purist would not use it.

    As to the concept of privacy in Russian culture, it is not as developed or entrenched as it is in the US, at least not historically. Russian children have to suffer their grades read out to the entire class in grammar school ("Ivanov got a D, Sokolova got a C-"), and teachers sometimes read particularly amusing paragraphs from student essays to the entire class to point out what idiots their students are. You quickly learn that your business is everyone else's business. Just like in LDavidH's Albanian examples, Russians will go through your cupboards without asking, though some would consider this to be ill breeding.

  42. Sven said,

    December 21, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

    I think there is a confusion throughout this discussion between the concept of privacy and the scope of privacy. There are many differences between national cultures in the latter; for example, school grades are considered private in the US, but not in most other countries. But those differences in scope do not imply a difference in the concept.

    To make it obvious how different the notions of scope and concept are, it is common for the scope of privacy to apply differently to different persons in the same culture. I am a government employee in the US, and anyone can look up my salary on the Internet, yet most private-sector employees in the same country consider their salaries to be private. But if this implied that we had different concepts of privacy, that would mean there is no meaningful concept of privacy in the US.

  43. maxim said,

    December 21, 2012 @ 4:10 pm


    I agree: while I am strongly convinced that "privacy" is in fact one of those universal notions that are present everywhere (and presence or absence of one word for it is, in my opinion, irrelevant), there is a great difference in how people apply it.

    For example, many years ago, just having moved to Canada, I was surprised by my Canadian colleagues being rather protective of their career and salary details, while being very open about other things that I would, at the time, consider too private for casual conversation – bodily functions, pregnancies in families, etc. (one, I still remember, actually went as far as casually mentioning the circumstances of his own conception – "I was an accident", as he had put it – when describing to his colleagues the circumstances under which his parents had met some dozens of years previously). I can now qualify that first impression a lot, especially in relation to various local subcultures and age groups, but I still remember my impression from those days.

    But such impressions are not about notions that would correspond to words; they are about applications of notions, so there is, it would seem, no reasoning from that to – or from – the current vocabulary.

  44. Marian said,

    December 29, 2012 @ 6:35 am

    I'm not sure, but "privacy" should originate in a Latinate import through Old French "privité", which has since disappeared from French. As such, not even French has a word for privacy, but they use "vie privée" and value it as much as English speakers.

  45. Alon Lischinsky said,

    January 2, 2013 @ 11:45 am

    @Marian: you are thinking of privity, which is largely obsolete outside legal contexts. privacy is a native Middle English coinage.

    My feeling is that the Romance languages tend to use a cognate to intimacy (e.g., French intimité or Italian intimità) for the concept of privacy. Spanish has coined privacidad, evidently modelled on the English word, but still uses intimidad in such fixed phrases as derecho a la intimidad (obligatory Ngrams link).

  46. Flora said,

    February 24, 2013 @ 4:51 am

    I love well-thought conversations such as these!

    As a hybrid (english/danish), if I may call myself that, I can assure you that there is absolutely no equivalent for the word "hygge" in, I'd say, almost all languages (not including scandinavian languages). Even if there were a word for it, I believe that almost all words have different meanings behind them, even if they're slight. Having gone to a French school almost all my life, and a Norwegian primary school in England, I can assure you that I've had my fair share on coping with the difficulties of having to translate all the time. Imagine an 8 year old struggling to find the word for privacy in French and inevitably failing. I think that one can't truly understand a language until one masters it completely (and by master I mean being beyond fluent). This is why it's so hard to explain the concept of "hygge" to, well, people that simply can't imagine the concept. Which is exactly why we need to bring all of you wonderful people to Denmark and show you exactly what it's all about! I think nothing beats being in the midst of something you're learning about.
    Then again, I'm only sixteen, what do I know!

    For the curious ones out there, here are some examples of "hygge":
    – you're sick, and so is your neighbour. you decide to have tea together over a movie. you don't even have to know him/her well, you just have to be up for it.
    – being around a bonfire with a couple of beers and some friends, just singing (sixteen is the legal age to drink and buy "light" alcohol in Denmark – so it's an appropriate example!)
    – being around a bonfire, with no drinks and friends. "hygge" isn't about alcohol, it just can be, it's about the feeling.
    – going camping
    – going fishing
    – staying in bed all day
    – treating yourself to something
    – having a jam session with your friends
    – most people would probably agree that a good danish christmas is very "hyggelig"
    – baking, cooking
    – "Hygge" can simply just be a nice day, or having a nice day, which is probably why it's one of my favourite words!

    So, have you had a hyggelig dag today? x

  47. John Ankarström said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 5:15 pm

    It's interesting, Swedish doesn't have a native word for privacy either. It is translated as "integritet," a loanword from French (I presume). The closest meaning to "privacy" I could find in SAOB as of 1933 was related related to territorial borders of a country. And the current meaning in SAOL (13th edition) doesn't really correspond to the meaning of "privacy" ("the state of being free from unsanctioned intrusion").

  48. Christian Pietsch said,

    December 10, 2013 @ 5:51 am

    According to this tweet by Anne Jellema, Mukelani Dimba claimed in a Web conference talk that African languages lack a word for privacy.

    I'm not an expert on African languages or Africa, but I find it hard to believe that you can make valid statements that are true for all the languages of Africa.

    On the other hand, I do realise that translating “privacy” to other languages is difficult. Perhaps we should discuss traditional offline privacy separately from online privacy. As online or Internet privacy is a response to new phenomena (digitization, the Internet, data mining, and mass surveillance), different languages seem to have chosen different metaphors for coining suitable neologisms or re-using existing terms. For instance, in German, the direct translation of privacy as “Privatspäre” does not carry over well into the online realm. As other commenters have noted, the direct translation of data protection, “Datenschutz”, works better there.

    I suspect that all societies that are connected to the Internet have come up with expressions for the English “online privacy”, but many of these may not be based on translations of “privacy”. Societies with a weak human rights movement might take longer to establish a term for online privacy because no expression is needed unless the concept is discussed.

  49. Christian Pietsch said,

    December 10, 2013 @ 5:54 am

    PS: Also, Privatsphäre is hard to spell.

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