From Mother Tongue - English & How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson:



…on the other hand, other languages have facilities we lack. Both French and German can distinguish between knowledge that results from recognition (respectively connaitre and kennen) and knowledge that results from understanding (savoir and wissen). Portuguese has words that differentiate between an interior angle and an exterior one. All the Romance languages can distinguish between something that leaks into and something that leaks out of. The Italians even have a word for the mark left on a table by a moist glass (culacino) while the Gaelic speakers of Scotland, not to be outdone, have a word for the itchiness that overcomes the upper lip just before taking a sip of whiskey. (Wouldn't they just?) It's sgriob. And we have nothing in English to match the Danish hygge (meaning "instantly satisfying and cozy"), the French sangfroid, the Russian glasnost, or the Spanish macho, so we must borrow the term from them or do without the sentiment.


At the same time, some languages have words that we may be pleased to do without. The existence in German of a word like schadenfreude (taking delight in the misfortune of others) perhaps tells us as much about Teutonic sensitivity as it does about their neologistic versatility. Much the same could be said about the curious and monumentally unpronounceable Highland Scottish word sgiomlaireachd, which means "the habit of dropping in at mealtimes. " That surely conveys a world of information about the hazards of Highland life-not to mention the hazards of Highland orthography.


Of course, every language has areas in which it needs, for practical purposes, to be more expressive than others. The Eskimos, as is well known, have fifty words for types of snow-though curiously no word for just plain snow. To them there is crunchy snow, soft snow, fresh snow, and old snow, but no word that just means snow. The Italians, as we might expect, have over 500 names for different types of macaroni. Some of these, when translated, begin to sound distinctly unappetizing, like strozzapreti, which means "strangled priests. " Vermicelli means "little worms" and even spaghetti means "little strings." When you learn that muscatel in Italian means "wine with flies in it," you may conclude that the Italians are gastronomically out to lunch, so to speak, but really their names for foodstuffs are no more disgusting than our hot dogs or those old English favorites, toad-in-the-hole, spotted dick, and faggots in gravy.


The residents of the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea have a hundred words for yams, while the Maoris of New Zealand have thirty-five words for dung (don't ask me why).


Meanwhile, the Arabs are said (a little unbelievably, perhaps) to have 6,000 words for camels and camel equipment. The aborigines of Tasmania have a word for every type of tree, but no word that just means "tree," while the Araucanian Indians of Chile rather more poignantly have a variety of words to distinguish between different degrees of hunger. Even among speakers of the same language, regional and national differences abound. A Londoner has a less comprehensive view of extremes of weather than someone from the Middle West of America. What a Briton calls a blizzard would, in Illinois or Nebraska, be a flurry, and a British heat wave is often a thing of merriment to much of the rest of the world. (I still treasure a London newspaper with the banner headline: BRITAIN SIZZLES IN THE SEVENTIES!)


A second commonly cited factor in setting English apart from other languages is its flexibility. This is particularly true of word ordering, where English speakers can roam with considerable freedom between passive and active senses. Not only can we say "I kicked the dog," but also "The dog was kicked by me" - a construction that would be impossible in many other languages. Similarly, where the Germans can say just "ich singe" and the French must manage with "je chante," we can say "I sing," "I do sing," or "I am singing."