The Meanings Behind Words for Emotions Aren’t Universal, Study Finds

Certain emotions may be universal. But the way humans describe their feelings, it seems, is not

Emotions in language
It's hard enough to talk about our feelings. Now, try doing it across languages. Alex Holyoake/Unsplash

In May 1993, Trinidadian-German Eurodance artist Haddaway posed a crucial query to the world: “What is love?

Haddaway asked his question in English, but he received a range of responses—in part, perhaps, because there were so many other languages listeners could use to answer.

By analyzing words from nearly 2,500 languages, researchers have found that terms describing emotions—like anger and happiness—can have very different meanings depending on the cultures and geographies where they originate. The study, published this week in the journal Science, reveals that while some common themes exist across the linguistics family tree, seemingly equivalent ideas have evolved away from each other, shaped in part by the different ways in which people around the world express their feelings.

“We walk around assuming that everyone else’s experience is the same as ours because we name it with the same word, and this suggests that that might not be the case,” study author Kristen Lindquist, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells Amina Khan of the Los Angeles Times.

To identify universal themes across languages—or lack thereof—Lindquist and her colleagues compiled a database of 100,000 words from 2,474 spoken languages spanning 20 major language families. The researchers then sorted these words into thousands of conceptual categories, including 24 centered on common emotions like love, angst and pride.

Many words—both emotional and non-emotional—fell into multiple categories, a common quirk of terminology called colexification, wherein one word can cover more than one concept. (Consider, for instance, the English “draw,” which can mean “pull” or “depict with lines,” or the Chinese 天 (tiān), which can mean “sky” or “day.”)

By mapping out colexification in emotional terms, the team was able to identify feelings speakers of a given language considered similar. Right off the bat, some broad—and somewhat unsurprising—themes emerged. In general, concepts clustered by how pleasant or passive they were. Words with cheery meanings, for instance, almost never had a dual meaning that was pessimistic, while terms that denoted high levels of activity rarely carried second definitions denoting low energy.

But when the team zoomed in further, clear differences emerged. “Surprise,” for instance, is often linked with “fear” in Austronesian languages like Hawaiian, but clusters more closely with “want” and “hope” in the Tai-Kadai languages spoken in southeast Asia, reports Nicola Davis for the Guardian.

There were also different shades of anger, which is frequently associated with “anxiety” in Indo-European languages, including English, but strays more toward “grief” or “regret” in Austroasiatic languages like Vietnamese, according to Khan.

What emerged, the researchers argue, was a conspicuous lack of emotional universality across cultures.

“People may universally have the experience of having their heart beat faster when threatened,” study author Joshua Conrad Jackson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells Davis. “However, there is variability in the way that we make meaning of that experience, the behaviors that we associate with the experience, and the way that we verbally communicate the experience to other people as an emotion.”

Much of this variability stems from languages’ history and cultural context, which are rarely conveyed by cut-and-dried translation dictionaries, says Angeles Carreres, an expert in translation from Cambridge University who wasn’t involved in the study, in an interview with Davis.

That’s reason, perhaps, to not let these tools be the end-all-be-all when learning a foreign language, as well as a humbling note of caution against using English as a default language when analyzing emotional concepts, points out Anna Wierzbicka, a linguist at Australian National University who was not involved in the research, in an interview with Khan.

Perhaps these differences are most apparent of all when considering the many words with meanings so specific that they exist in only the language in which they evolved, Asifa Majid, a cognitive scientist at the University of York in England who authored a related commentary on the paper, tells Khan. These words are untranslatable: the linguistically bespoke.

Consider, in rapid succession, the German backpfeifengesicht—a face badly in need of a fist—and the Hindi jijivisha, or the strong, eternal desire to live and to continue living, according to Mental Floss. Now that’s quite the emotional rollercoaster.

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