Semantic gaps

January 2024

Swedish has a specific word for each of the four grandparents: mormor, morfar, farmor, farfar.

English doesn’t. So when you mention your “grandma” to a Swede, they are left wondering “which grandma?” even if it is not relevant to the story.

The lack of precision bothers them — they feel a semantic gap next to the word “grandma”. There is a gap between the meaning of “grandma” and the meaning they expect1.

Similarly, Spanish doesn’t have singular “they”. So when you say something like “my friend realized they forgot their glasses”, Spanish speakers are left wondering: “what’s your friend’s gender?”. They’ll look for the glasses regardless but the semantic gap bothers them.

Non-native speakers often feel semantic holes — they expect certain meanings to always come together because in their native language they do even when it is not relevant to the conversation at hand.

  1. Semantic gaps as defined here are a more specific type of conceptual gaps. Conceptual gaps occur when a word in one language, like the Portuguese "saudade", doesn't have an exact match in another language.