Our emotions and the language we speak: is there a connection?


Our speech is directly related to thinking. Even the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky argued that the highest forms of psychological communication inherent in man are possible only due to the fact that we, humans, with the help of thinking, reflect reality in general.

Growing up in a certain linguistic environment, we think in our native language, from its vocabulary we select names for objects, phenomena and feelings, we learn the meaning of words from parents and “fellow tribesmen” within the framework of our culture. This means that although we are all human, we may have different ideas, for example, about emotions.

“At least call it a rose, at least not …”

How do we, representatives of different cultures, think about basic emotions: fear, anger, or, say, sadness? Very differently, says Dr. Joseph Watts, a researcher at the University of Otago and a participant in an international project to study the intercultural diversity of the concepts of emotion. The research team of the project includes psychologists from the University of North Carolina (USA) and linguists from the Max Planck Institute for Natural Sciences (Germany).

Scientists examined words from 2,474 languages ​​belonging to 20 major language families. Using a computational approach, they identified patterns of “colexifications,” a phenomenon in which languages ​​use the same word to express semantically related concepts. In other words, scientists were interested in words that mean more than one concept. For example, in Persian, the same word form “ænduh” is used to express grief and regret.

What is grief adjacent to?

By creating huge networks of colexifications, scientists were able to correlate concepts and their naming words in many languages ​​of the world and found significant differences in how emotions are reflected in different languages. For example, in the Nakh-Dagestan languages ​​”grief” goes hand in hand with “fear” and “anxiety”. And in the Thai Kadai languages ​​spoken in Southeast Asia, the concept of “grief” is close to “regret.” This casts doubt on the general assumptions about the universal nature of the semantics of emotions.

Nevertheless, the change in the semantics of emotions has its own structure. It turned out that linguistic families located in close geographic proximity have more similar “views” on emotions than those more distant from each other. The likely reason is that a common background and historical contact between these groups led to a common understanding of emotion.

The researchers also found that for all of humanity, there are universal elements of emotional experience that can stem from shared biological processes, which means that how people think about emotions is shaped not only by culture and evolution, but also by biology.

The scale of the project, new technological solutions and approaches allow a broader look at the opening opportunities in this scientific direction. Dr. Watts and his team are planning to further explore cross-cultural differences in the definition and naming of mental states.

Unnamed feelings

Linguistic and cultural differences sometimes go so far that in the vocabulary of our interlocutor there may be a term for a feeling that we are not even used to isolating as something separate.

For example, in Swedish, “resfeber” means both the anxiety and anticipation we experience before traveling. And the Scots have singled out the special term “tartle” for the panic that we experience when, introducing a person to others, we cannot remember his name. A familiar feeling, isn’t it?

To experience the shame that we feel for another, the British, and after them we, began to use the phrase “Spanish shame” (in Spanish there is a phrase to describe indirect embarrassment – “vergüenza ajena”). By the way, in Finnish there is also a name for such an experience – “myötähäpeä”.

Understanding these differences is important not only for scientists. At work or when traveling, many of us have to communicate with people from other cultures who speak different languages. Understanding the difference in thinking, traditions, rules of behavior and even conceptual perception of emotions can be useful, and in some situations, decisive.

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