In English, the word "pretty" has a storied past. The origins of the word (as an adjective, anyway) go back over 1000 years to Old English when a version of "pretty" meant "crafty" or deceitfully cunning. (The word might also be connected to an old spelling of "precious.") Over the centuries, "pretty" evolved, morphed, and branched out to mean "clever," "funny," "handsome," "sporty," and eventually settled on a diminutive version of feminine beauty that most modern American women feel ambivalently about, whether it be because they feel they failed growing up to ascend to such a palatable, dainty form of beauty or because they felt that was all they were worth.
We've been investigating every nuance of the word "pretty" this month on Byrdie, and after much contemplation, we were eventually inspired to consider: "Pretty," with all its delicate connotations, history, and semantic baggage is still but a product of the English language alone. Thus, we had to wonder what the equivalent of "pretty" is in other languages around the world and how people felt about it. After all, there are over 6000 languages spoken on our fair planet, and within each one exists an entire universe of emotions and associations.
How, for example, do speakers of Mandarin or Hebrew or French think of their version of "pretty," and is the word as loaded as it is in English? To find out, we spoke to a dozen bilingual women to get their take. Read on to find the translation of "pretty" in 12 different languages.
How to say "pretty" in 12 different languages
Mandarin: piao liang
Turkish: güzel, hos, sevimli
As I was gathering these translations, it became clear that just like English, in many other languages around the world, there is a notable difference between calling someone "pretty" and calling them "beautiful." "In German, you have hübsch, which also means pretty, and schön, which has a meaning closer to beautiful," one of my sources, a multilingual journalist named Olga, explains. "In Dutch, you say mooi, but you also have the word schoon, which means beautiful but also clean." There's a similar case in Polish, in which the word ładna means "pretty," while śliczna has "a similar meaning but stronger and cuter," Olga says.
Same goes for French, which makes a distinction between jolie and belle, with jolie meaning something closer to "lovely" or "pretty," while "belle" means beautiful. Clearly, English-speaking cultures are not the only ones that feel a need to specify different grades or categories of physical beauty. (Though not every language does this. In Italian, for example, which I speak, you might hear someone call you bella, which means "beautiful," or carina, which means "cute," but in a culture that values beauty and expression as much as Italians do, a "lesser" form of feminine beauty, at least linguistically, doesn't really exist.)
A nuanced difference between many of these languages and English when it comes to "pretty," however, is that there exists a male equivalent. Earlier this week on Byrdie, we published a roundtable discussion where four women gathered together to chat about their experiences with the concept of "pretty"—during that talk, we determined that there really is no adjective in English that connotes the sort of diminutive, infantile, palatable beauty for men that "pretty" does for women. But in other languages, specifically ones with grammatical gender where changing an adjective's suffix (say, from an "a" to an "o") lets you use it to describe someone of a different gender, "pretty" becomes more flexible.
Hebrew yafa is the feminine version of "pretty," but it can also be used in masculine form, my Hebrew speaking source, a human rights worker in Israel named Jessie, tells me. (Yafa is also a woman's name—"Most likely elderly North African women will be named Yafa," Jessie says.) Stick a -y in place of the -a at the end of the Polish śliczna and it becomes masculine. Same goes for Italian and Spanish in which the feminine and masculine words bella and bello and bonita and bonito respectively are used in equal measure.
Something analogous happens in Arabic—at least some dialects of it. As my Arabic translator, a writer named Abby, explains, "The most common way to say 'pretty' in the Arabic dialect of Lebanon and Syria, helweh, literally translates as 'sweet,' as in 'sweet tasting'. The male form of the word, helou, is also used for men, and the word can also be used in a more general sense to say something is nice or pleasing—an idea, for instance, can also be helweh, and if you ask someone how the party was last night, they would also likely say helweh.
(The words for idea and party are both feminine.)"
This linguistic gender flexibility isn't always the case, though. In Russian, the word cimpatichnaya, which would translate to "pretty/cute/adorable" doesn't quite work for men. "I don't think you'd really use it in a masculine form, but it's possible (I've heard it, but it sounds a bit awkward)," Irina tells me. And you'd seldom hear the French joli used for a man (beau is more common).
All of that being said, some of the most fascinating insights I received from my sources had to do with the images that come to mind when they hear the translation of "pretty" in their language. My Mandarin speaker Valerie explains that in her language, the most common way of saying "pretty" literally translates to "bleached bright," which makes a strong statement about Mandarin speakers' beauty standards.
But the most emotional connection any of my translators had to their translation of the word "pretty" came from my Hindi speaker, Vartika. Sundar is the Hindi word for "pretty," and Vartika says that when she hears the word, she can't help by envision all the intense, rigid Indian beauty standards that come with it. "In my country, when we say someone is pretty, it actually has a patriarchal connotation," she tells me. "Mostly in India, only women who have big sharp eyes with a wheatish to fair complexion are considered pretty." Vartika references a pop star named Priya Prakash who's currently blowing up newsfeeds all over India, having just been named the "National Crush of India" in the wake of a smash-hit music video.
"However," Vartika says, "just one day after this happened [the National Crush title, that is], memes were made of her where her old pictures and more recent pictures were put together to show how dark she used to look and how fair she is in the video. So that means 'she's actually not pretty.'" For Vartika, the look of light skin, big eyes, a beautiful smile, and glossy hair is so coveted in her country that she can't hear the word "pretty" without that image coming to mind.
Evidently, when it comes to beauty, feminine beauty in particular, there are few languages (and maybe none at all) that haven't been infused with a culture's attitudes, expectations, and standards. "Pretty" in Mandarin Chinese might have undertones of "bleached-bright," while in Turkish its meaning is closer to sugary sweet, while in English the word has memories of "precious"—but in every case, the lines between language, emotion, and beauty itself are blurrier than you might think.