Humans have a breadth of emotions and are on a constant search to express them through language, though sometimes we find that words in one language don’t have a translatable counterpart in another. Norwegians say forelsket, which describes the feeling and experiences at the very beginning of falling in love, while the indigenous Baining people of Papua New Guinea say awumbuk to describe a social hangover that leaves people unmotivated and lacking energy for days after the departure of overnight guests. Author Joshua Conrad Jackson states, “Translation dictionaries, for example, suggest that the English word love can be equated with the Turkish word sevgi and the Hungarian word szerelem. But does this mean that the concept of “love” is the same in English, Turkish, and Hungarian?” While there are different words for specific emotions in various languages, one may ask—do people experience emotions differently depending on the languages they speak? A new study suggests so.
The study, Emotion semantics show both cultural variation and universal structure, was published in Science, and studied emotion semantics across a sample of 2474 spoken languages from 20 different language families using “colexifications”—instances where a single word has multiple meanings.
There is a growing recognition that emotions can vary greatly in their meanings across languages and culture, and that emotional concepts such as “anger” and “sadness” do not derive from actual brain structures, but from humans making socially-learned inferences about the meaning of the word and the actual bodily feeling associated with the word.
The researchers found significant differences in how emotions were conceptualized across languages and culture—three times more variation than in terms describing color. Emotion concepts had different patterns of association in different language families. For example, “anxiety” was closely related to “fear” among Tai-Kadai languages, but was more related to “grief” and “regret” amongst Austroasiatic languages. By contrast, “anger” was related to “envy” among Nakh-Daghestanian languages, but was more related to “hate,” “bad,” and “proud” among Austronesian languages. Researchers interpreted these findings to mean that emotion words vary in meaning across languages, even if they are often equated in translation dictionaries. Interestingly, some Austronesian languages paired the concept of love, a typically positive emotion, with pity, a typically negative one.
On the other hand, researchers also found underlying similarities. Language families tend to differentiate emotions based on how pleasant and exciting they are, so for instance words expressing fear were unlikely to be grouped together with those that express joy.
“This is an important study,” says William Croft, a professor of linguistics at the University of New Mexico, who wasn’t involved in the work to Scientific American. “It's probably the first time an analysis of the meanings of words has been done at this scale.” One of the novel things about this project is that the findings show both universal and culture-specific patterns, Crofts adds. He points out, however, that because some of these families cover a large number of languages across a wide geographical area, it will be important to further examine the underlying cultural factors.