Much is being made these days about the so-called “untranslatable” word hygge that appears to be radiating across the North Sea from Denmark and into the consciousness of the anglo-centric world. From “mindfulness”, “being”, “centeredness” to “cozy joy” and “family life, and friendship”, a variety of commentators have attempted to express the meaning of this Scandinavian concept.
Mention of it even made its way onto Simon Mayo show on BBC Radio 2 today. Hipsters and trend setters will say its filling some sort of gap in our psyche that the English language somehow cannot express , though a recent article in the Guardian came close to hitting the mark with the comment that “Hygge may be quintessentially Danish, but there is something utterly British about the nostalgic longing for the simple accoutrements of an earlier time”.
Perhaps the reason for the sudden recognition of all things hygge is simply a realisation that we are peering at an old friend. Like when you spot someone across a crowded street in a strange city and think you know them, only to realise that against the odds they are actually your cousin, I believe the embracing of the concept of hygge is just such a remembrance of things lost in the rabbit holes of time, but perhaps not so far lost as to still be recognisable.
The thing is, this is not the first time that this word had made this exact journey. Today its carried by the internet and the media but fifteen hundred years ago it was carried from Jutland on rowed longships by invaders who also brought a new language to these islands. Not Norse Vikings, but their cousins from Jutland and northern Germany, the “Anglo Saxons”. The English, who largely departed the lands that would become Denmark to settle in the parts of Britain that would come to be called England.
To get to the point, hygge existed in the Old English language. I posted recently about how Valhalla may not be as alien a concept as we might think and to me, hygge is similar. Here is a quote from an Old English poem about the Battle of Malden:
“Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað.”
There it is. Hige is hygge. It should go without saying that Danish and English are sister languages. They grew from the same root so we shouldn’t be surprised when the same words exist in both. Somewhere on the journey to modern English, hige left us. Now it seems to be coming back. That its return should be an easy one is perhaps just because it’s easy to slot back in with an old friend.
To give some (possibly relevant) context, the excerpt of the poem above are the words of a warrior standing near the beach in what is modern day Essex, facing a bunch of bloodthirsty Vikings raiders. The relationships between ourselves and our continental cousins have not always been cordial. Ironically for this piece, the Vikings were probably Danes. The Norsemen had already killed the locals' leader, the thane Byrhtnoth, and outnumbered the Essex men by quite a degree. As the Vikings advance on them, these are the words of men steeling themselves for a fight where their chances of survival - never mind victory - are, at best, uncertain. Modern translations of the poem tend to translate “Hige sceal þe heardra” as “Minds must be the harder”. Personally, I feel that to modern readers, the word in the second half of the line, “heart” maybe comes closer to the meaning of the original. My own translation is:
“Our spirits must be harder, hearts keener,
mood greater, as our strength fades”
But it's still not that satisfactory. I find myself translating heart, mind, and spirit as ultimately the same thing.
Maybe, after all, it is untranslatable. Hygge is simple Hygge. There is no need for translation.