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What "Belonging" Means Around the Globe

Belonging in translation: A linguistic journey.

Key points

  • The concept of "belonging" varies across cultures, and its translation in different languages varies.
  • Even as interpretations of belonging differ across languages, the underlying human need is universal.
  • Addressing issues of belonging demands consideration of culture and language.
  • When we consider what it means to belong, context is important.

"Belonging." A simple word bearing complex and multifaceted meanings. At a foundational level, it can mean to possess or own something (i.e., this book belongs to me) or, arguably, as an extension of this—a member of a group or a club (i.e., I belong to the Tiger’s football club). I say “arguably” because this latter extension is usually intended to identify the "other" type of belonging, but it is not always the case. Just because you are a member of a group or club, a student at a school, or a staff member in an organisation, it does not necessarily mean you will feel a sense of belonging in that environment.

Therefore, the "other" definition of belonging, identified as a fundamental human need and critical to our well-being, is the perception that we are part of something. This means that we feel accepted, respected, and comfortable. We feel valued, safe, and secure within that social environment, and as a consequence, we might then come to affiliate or identify with that environment.

The concept of belonging is now featured on billboards and weaved into the marketing phrases, vision and mission statements, and taglines of many corporations. Some infer the possessive type of belonging (e.g., "the world belongs to you"), while others are more conscientious of the psychological drivers.

But what do we understand when we read the word belonging? Or rather, what does belonging mean to you? Your response to this might vary depending on who you are, where you are from, and your own life experiences and perceptions. But given that most of the research on belonging emerges from the U.S. and Australia, one major oversight of belonging research might boil down to simple cultural nuances around what belonging actually means.

By considering linguistic considerations of belonging and its cultural nuances, we can gain a little more insight into how we might approach understanding belonging or seeing belonging from the perspective of others. For example:

  • In Spanish, the term pertenecer transcends a mere translation of "belonging." It can encapsulate an emotional bond, indicating a deep-seated attachment to a group or community, thereby underscoring the significance of emotional connectivity in Spanish-speaking cultures. However, in the example, like all the examples listed, context is important.
  • While all utilising Cyrillic and Latin scripts with variations in spelling, the term pripadati in Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian languages alludes to a more materialistic interpretation of "belonging", but not necessarily a literal translation. This emphasises the significance these distinct cultures place on physical, tangible connections, thus informing their unique understanding of belonging, indicating the broader definition of belonging is something that can be experienced beyond people alone.
  • In Slovak, the term patriť is used to convey the concept of "belonging", alluding to the idea of having a place in something larger than oneself.
  • In Swahili culture, the term jamii, translating to "community", embodies the concept of "belonging". It promotes inclusivity, visibility, and the importance of every voice being heard. This understanding aligns deeply with the African philosophy of Ubuntu, encapsulated in the phrase, "I am because we are," indicating that, in Swahili, belonging is about being seen and heard.
  • In the Irish language, the concept of "belonging" is expressed through the term muintearas, which symbolises participation within a community, and giuirléidi and earrai, which denote personal belongings. This dichotomy emphasizes the deeply intertwined nature of personal identity and community in the fabric of Irish culture.
  • In the Bengali language, the term "belonging" is nuanced, its interpretation often dependent on context, thereby reflecting the fluidity of belonging within Bengali society. Notably, in Bangla, there is no direct equivalent for "belonging", suggesting unique cultural perspectives or priorities. Instead, the language focuses more on familial and group affiliations, as evidenced by the terms পরিবারের একজন (one of the family), ঘরের মানুষ (household person) and দলের সদস্য (group member).
  • In Japanese, the term '归属感' is used to represent "belonging", signifying not just a sense of affiliation but also connoting "a place that you can return to."
  • In Turkish, the term aidiyet is often used to represent "belonging". While ait olmak—literally translating to "being tied to somewhere, someone, or a group"—can sometimes be used in the same context, aidiyet carries an emotional and cognitive connotation akin to the English usage of belonging.
  • In Malay, the term milik directly translates to "ownership". This suggests that within the cultural context of Malay-speaking societies, the concept of "community" might be emphasised more strongly than the abstract sense of "belongingness".
  • In Haitian Creole, while apatenans is a direct translation for "belonging", phrases like fè pati—which means "take part in" or "be a part of"—and santi alèz, signifying "feeling comfortable", often resonate more profoundly, capturing the emotional essence of belonging.
  • In Australian Aboriginal cultures, which are highly diverse, with more than 250 distinct language groups, the term "country" could be argued to broadly encapsulates the essence of belonging. However, interpretations can vary across different communities. Regardless, for many, "country" symbolises a multifaceted relationship with the ecosystem, ancestry, kinship, spiritual entities, and a deeply rich and historical, yet continuing culture and connection to the land.

These diverse interpretations of belonging create an opportunity to consider what it means to belong for others and the importance of cultural and linguistic considerations to our viewpoint. If a culture perceives belonging materially, interventions could involve shared, tangible experiences. If a culture values visibility and audibility, our efforts could focus on inclusivity and valuing every voice.

Despite our linguistic and cultural differences, our universal need for connection binds us. It is this shared experience that builds our global jamii—our community.


I am profoundly grateful to the global Twitter community for providing the diverse range of linguistic perspectives on the concept of belonging. Your insights have contributed greatly to this exploration of language as a consideration in shaping our understanding of, and responses to, feelings of belonging. Thanks also to Kate Burridge, a professor at Monash University for being willing to be a critical friend, as well as language input from Andrew Cox, Aida Hurem, David Sánchez Teruel, Claudia Pettifor, and Gokmen Arslan.

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