There's a Word for Truly Understanding Your Friend - OZY | A Modern Media Company

There's a Word for Truly Understanding Your Friend

There's a Word for Truly Understanding Your Friend

By Libby Coleman


Ahhhh, please, someone get me!

By Libby Coleman

Part of an occasional series on unusual words we wish we had in English. Read others here.

It’s a big world. With lots of people in that big world. Maybe you had sandbox friends who became elementary school friends. And if you’re lucky, you hit your 20s and they are now kinda, sorta forever friends. But what if you move to a new place and everyone is thousands of miles away and no one … gets you?

Well, then there’s one thing you want to hear more than anything else.

Nimekusoma: I get you

You can also translate it as “I’ve read you,” as if your friend were some really cool book. Nimekusoma is a Swahili word that breaks down like this: “Ni” means “I,” “me” means “have” or “has,” “ku” means “you” and “soma” translates as “read” or “study.” It’s the kind of thing you’d hear flying back and forth in chitchat between kids: Got you!!! It’s something you’d say to a colleague but not to a boss, a friend but not a parent, says Beatrice Mkenda, a Swahili lecturer at the University of Iowa. Instead of talking at or about each other, nimekusoma implies an understanding of another person, loosely meaning “I know you like a book.” Aaaahhhhhh. 

Other times, kusoma, meaning “to read” or “to study,” is used metaphorically to mean other ways of knowing and characterizing someone, Mokaya Bosire at the University of Oregon says. “East African urban areas are factories of slang,” Bosire adds — and they’re also innovative and code-switching. Younger people also make use of Sheng, an argot that mixes Swahili, a language spoken by 2 million native speakers, according to a conservative estimate, and many more nonnative ones, and English.  

Nimekusoma is far from the only foreign word that demonstrates a level of intimacy and easy understanding not always present in our daily English vocabulary. Yuánfèn (Yoo·an·fen) means a relationship by fate or destiny, and strùscio translates to “that magical looking-for-a-date moment.” Lítost, a Czech word, is a word in the realm of sadness that lets speakers express serious empathy for the plight or pain of others. But you might argue that Swahili is a particular gold mine here. The language is full of these gems, says Mkenda. “The grammar structure makes it possible — what might be six words in English is one in Swahili.”

Let’s be real, though. Empathizing with others seems now to be an exercise more commonly exhibited at the theaters and in museums than in person. Which is why, in this age of red feeds and blue feeds and information bubbles, those of us who speak English could really use such a simple word like this. Plus, my friends who share articles without reading them might benefit from “I’ve read you” — literally. Do you get me?

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