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Dr Tim Lomas awarded Leverhulme funding to further lexicography project

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Dr Lomas says studying 'untranslatable words' could be key to embracing multi-cultural diversity

University of East London (UEL) psychology lecturer Dr Tim Lomas has received funding from the British Academy to further the work of his lexicography project.

Dr Lomas has scoured the world and its many languages to compile a list of more than 100 terms related to happiness and wellbeing which can’t be easily translated into English. His new research will build on this work by eliciting video-blogs about ‘untranslatable’ words from speakers of the approximately 300 languages spoken in London. There will also be in-depth interviews with select speakers.

Dr Lomas said, “Although London’s multicultural nature is often celebrated, this ideal has come under challenge, especially post-Brexit. Consequently, there is need for a greater appreciation of the nature and value of cultural diversity in London. An innovative means to achieving this is through studying untranslatable words, which reveal phenomena that have been overlooked in English but identified by other languages.”

The British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grants support primary research in the humanities and social sciences. The awards are worth up to £10,000 and can be used up to 24 months to cover the cost of expenses arising from a research project.

Dr Lomas said the blogs and interviews will be analysed thematically, providing a conceptual ‘map’ of the data, and the results will be disseminated through various channels including a one-day conference.

Dr Lomas said, “The research will enhance our understanding of linguistic and cultural diversity in London, as seen through the prism of wellbeing.”

Dr Lomas thinks that untranslatable words from other languages can not only tell us a lot about other cultures, but also shine a light on what might be missing from our own.

He said, “It’s the fact that a word doesn’t appear to have an ‘exact match’ in English that makes it so potentially intriguing and, in common parlance, renders it ‘untranslatable’. Such words pique our interest, and for good reason. They appear to indicate the existence of phenomena that have been overlooked or undervalued by English-speaking cultures.

“I am driven by the hope that these words will enrich our understanding of wellbeing – revealing lacunas, and uncovering valuable new psychological constructs and processes.”

Director of research for the College of Applied Health & Communities, John Turner, said the award is well deserved.

He said, “Tim is one of the School of Psychology's most prolific authors and a member of the School's dynamic positive psychology team. This award is thoroughly deserved recognition of and support for Tim's outstanding work exploring untranslatable words that relate to positive states of experience and being. The funded project will help him expand this knowledge further and create even more impact.”

Tim was supported in his application for the grant by the University’s Research and Development Support (ReDS) team and Grantcraft, following a preselection process. Prospective applications were reviewed by Directors of Research, ReDS and Grantcraft, with the strongest going forward for development.  This approach has begun to yield results with success for four out of five submissions made to last June’s deadline.