The Language Of Emotions

What difference does it make whether we can name our feelings or not?
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The Language Of Emotions

No matter what kinds of emotional regulation techniques you’ve carried with you into adulthood, those tendencies probably took root at a very young age. Later, the development of your language abilities allowed you to move from screaming for attention to simply naming what you needed. As small children begin to learn basic emotion words like “happy,” “sad,” and “mad,” they begin to understand that feelings exist on a wide spectrum and merit different responses.

By the time we mature into adults, we’re usually working with a much more robust vocabulary set. And whether it’s a direct consequence of this terminology or not, we also have a much more nuanced understanding of our emotional terrain. Having more emotion words to work with is like having a super deluxe set of crayons with limited-edition colors — you’ll probably wind up with a lot more subtlety and complexity in your masterpiece.

But if we accept the premise that language has an important role to play in how we process our emotions, that raises a number of other questions. Does a richer vocabulary create a richer emotional experience, or does it lead to a more complicated explanation of the same basic feelings? Do we all experience the same feelings, or does language have a role to play in that too? And why is it that we sometimes feel the need to borrow words from other languages to express emotions that our native tongues can’t adequately describe?

Are Emotions Actually That Complicated?

It’s kind of a weird question to ask: what are emotions, really?
There are two main ways of approaching this. One is that emotions are a form of judgment we pass on whether our goals are satisfied. The other is that emotions are physiological changes in your body (i.e. heart rate, hormone levels) that are associated with your thoughts.

Throughout history, various philosophers and psychologists have mostly agreed that there are only a handful of emotions we experience. A modern-day and well-known iteration of this is Paul Ekman’s six “basic emotions,” which include happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, fear and surprise.

Today, researchers are beginning to allow for a more varied range of emotions (Ekman now acknowledges as many as 27). There’s also at least one leading theory in the field that departs from the notion that emotions are an objective, biological phenomenon. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s “constructed emotion” argument posits that emotions are how our brains make sense of various states of physiological arousal based on our culture, expectations and the language we use to describe them.

Essentially, the physiological symptoms of an emotion are an objective fact, but the meaning is not. The meaning is something we assign, often based on our cultural conditioning. This is backed up by the fact that brain scans of people who claim to be experiencing the same emotions don’t always look the same.

It’s A Culture Thing

Beyond identifying core emotions, Ekman discovered that the “display rules” for how emotions are expressed vary between cultures. That means we probably all feel the same core emotions on the inside, but we express them in different ways depending on our cultural environment.

An example of this is how individualist cultures (like those in Western societies) value high-arousal emotions and self-expression, and collectivist cultures (like those in Eastern societies) tend to value low-arousal emotions and interdependence. This explains why the concept of “happiness” can look very different depending on where you are. In America, “happy” is synonymous with “upbeat.” In China, “happy” is more of a peaceful, even-keeled state of contentment.

Certain cultures also foster much higher rates of “emotional dialecticism” (the ability to feel mixed emotions at the same time) and “emotional differentiation” (the ability to distinguish and name these different emotions). These traits are found much more often in places including Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Russia, India and Japan than in Canada, the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom.

It can be tempting to extrapolate from this that language shapes the way you perceive reality. There’s a name for this theory in the linguistics community: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It’s not very widely supported these days, but this concept hasn’t been entirely abandoned.

Some linguists support a more nuanced version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This is known as the Boas-Jakobson principle, and it posits that language is constrained not so much about what languages are able to say, but by what information is grammatically necessary. For example, grammatical gender is a built-in feature of some languages, which means that inanimate objects must be gendered in some languages and not in others.

This doesn’t mean that the non-gendered languages are incapable of conveying gender in this way, just that they don’t have to. Studies seem to indicate that this does subtly affect the worldview of the speakers, even if it doesn’t radically alter it. A famous example of this is an experiment that found Spanish speakers tend to describe objects like bridges (masculine el puente) with masculine adjectives like strong and sturdy, while German speakers (feminine die Brücke) used feminine adjectives like beautiful and elegant. This means that the “gender” of the nouns affects how people interpret the objects that the nouns refer to.

What does all this have to do with emotions? Well, a high-arousal physiological state is something all humans are biologically capable of, just like bridges can objectively exist in every society. However, it’s not a given that every language has words to convey the same kinds of emotions.

The French, for example, don’t really have a way to say “I’m excited” — at least not in the way an American would mean it — because the French don’t relate to this sort of over-the-top exuberance and don’t comprehend this as a genuine emotion (it might come across as disingenuous). If you said “Je suis excité,” you would be conveying a, er, different kind of arousal. This cartoon-like emotion doesn’t register within French culture, and so the language has no real need to describe it.

The Japanese concept of amae also wouldn’t really register in most English-speaking societies because it refers to a feeling of closeness between two people when one of them asks the other for a favor. Rather than feeling burdened, annoyed, or reluctant to be the one asking for a favor, people generally see favors as a sign of intimacy and trust in Japanese culture.

Even a concept like “grief” can be codified differently depending on the language and culture. The Persian word ænduh refers to both “grief” and “regret.” In the Sirkhi dialect of Dargwa, dard refers to both “grief” and “anxiety.” So in one language, grief is linked to regret, and in the other, to anxiety.

And anger? In Indo-European languages, “anger” is more closely linked to “anxiety,” whereas in Austroasiatic languages like Vietnamese and Khmer, it’s more closely linked to “grief” and “regret.” Nakh-Daghestanian languages associate anger with “envy,” and Austronesian languages like Tagalog and Maori associate anger with “hate,” “bad” and “proud.” Emotions in any language can be complex, but these links can show how different cultures relate to each emotion.

The Big, Wide Lexicon Of Emotion Words

It stands to reason that some languages are better at describing certain kinds of feelings better than others. You inherently get this if you’ve ever used a foreign word like schadenfreude rather than stumble through a clumsy description of this same feeling in English.

And you know what? Science says we’re better for it when we expand our emotional vocabulary. Those who score highly on emotional granularity can recover from stress more quickly and are less likely to use alcohol as a coping mechanism. One researcher even found that teaching children more nuanced emotion words led to improved grades and better classroom behavior.

Here are a few untranslatable emotional concepts you might want to add to your vocabulary.

Dadirri (Ngan’gikurunggurr and Ngen’giwumirri Australian Aboriginal languages) — A spiritual state of deep listening and quiet reflectiveness.

Gigil (Tagalog) — When you adore someone so much you just want to squeeze them.

Gjensynsglede (Norwegian) — The joy of meeting up with someone you haven’t seen in a long time.

Hyggelig (Danish) — A comfy, cozy, intimate feeling.

Mbuki-mvuki (Bantu) — To shed your clothes so you can dance more freely.

Saudade (Portuguese) — A state of deep, melancholic longing for something that may never return, or for something that may have never happened.

Schadenfreude (German) — Taking pleasure in another’s misfortune.

Shinrin-yoku (Japanese) — A state of relaxation that one gets from spending time in the forest.

Sisu (Finnish) — An unwavering sense of purpose, grit, and resilience.

Tarab (Arabic) — A state of ecstasy or rapture inspired by music.

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