We’ve all heard the apocryphal stories that Eskimos have dozens of words for different types of snow. While that may not be true (in fact, Inuit languages describe snow and ice very similarly to English), there exists an even more mind-bending aspect of language differences:
Artist Pei-Ying Lin created a composite piece of work, Unspeakableness, that examined the relations between a person’s experience and their linguistic milieu. As part of her work, Lin interviewed non-native English speakers, talking with them about their experience describing emotions in another language – and the emotions from their native tongue that didn’t have clear English translations.
It would be tempting to simply regard these emotional discrepancies as a curious linguistic difference of no real import.
Because really, those emotions from other languages can be translated, just not with a single word; those descriptions above are translated explanations of each emotion – right?
And after all, we feel whatever it is we’re going to feel, and our language is simply a reflection of such sensations – right?
Well – not entirely.
Close, but not quite.
The above translations are as-good-as-it-gets descriptions of what are, in their original language, singly cohesive emotional concepts. In watching videos from Lin’s interviews, it becomes apparent that her multilingual interviewees are struggling to formulate concepts in English, and are consciously only offering something close to their actual linguistic object.
The videos are filled with remarks like, “well, it’s sort of like…,” and “I can’t really describe it exactly, but…,” and “I’m not really sure how to put it in English, but…” – and these aren’t folk who have trouble with English. It becomes apparent that, although they have a clear impression of the emotion, and although they’re fluent in English, they can’t seem to bring those two together. They just can’t quite get the emotion in question to fit in the conceptual framework of English vocabulary.
Take the Chinese emotion xinteng. The best composite translation that Yin came up with from her interviewees is, “The feeling somewhere between sympathy and empathy, to feel the suffering of loved ones.” For those interviewed, this emotion is clearly distinct from both sympathy and empathy.
And yet, reading the above definition, can we really form any clear picture of what that might be other than “sympathy-ish and empathy-ish?”
Could you form a clear idea of that as an emotion clearly distinct from sympathy and empathy?
A two-way street…
The peculiarity of these emotions continues.
With any word, there is a two-way construction of meaning between the word and what the word signifies.
On the one hand, a word clearly draws meaning from what it signifies – “trees” signifies those big woody, leafy plants all around us. A parent might point to one and say, “tree,” and a young child will think “ah! ‘tree’ is the big green thing!”
Yet the construction of meaning flows the other way too. The word “tree” informs and influences the meaning we construct around us. Consider an example: from a relatively young age, most English-learning children will have learned the words “bush” and “tree,” and be able to distinguish the two. The distinction between ‘bush’ and ‘tree’ is thus one we all tend to grow up being pretty clear on.
And yet – bushes and trees look, feel, and smell pretty darn similar. And sound and taste similar too, come to think of it. It would be pretty reasonable to have a single concept, “branchy-leafy-plant,” that consists of bushes and trees. You’d have big branchy-leafy-plants, small branchy-leafy-plants, oak branchy-leafy-plants, mulberry branchy-leafy-plants, and so on.
But that’s not how we see the world. Walking through the world, even if only half-consciously, we’re ticking off ‘bush’ and ‘tree’ as we pass any branchy-leafy-plant. We consider those two different types of things, and make different assumptions and associate different meanings to them – because we have different words for them.
…in which words create experience.
You can probably see where this is leading.
Emotional concepts have a unique place in the pantheon of language, because they are ideas we attach to our inner – and amorphous – sensations of feeling. Our emotional words are the concepts we use to recognize and create distinctions within the sensational experience of being a person.
The words we have at our disposal literally shape how we think about our lives.
The floating, fluid, fuzzy sensations we actually feel in our bodies – the warm and tickled tummies, the cold and sweaty hands, the hot and prickly faces – those can be anything. They’re always all over the place. But the emotional concepts we attach to them – excitement, nervousness, shame – those are defined by our languages.
In exploring emotional concepts across different cultures and languages, we explore the different ways to think about, talk about, and experience personhood – and in learning new emotions, we quite literally learn new ways to feel.
Did any of the foreign-language emotions in the infographic particularly resonate with you?
Do you think our emotional words really create our experiences at all, or only describe them?
Share your thoughts and ideas, and join the discussion!
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