Love & Other Emotions Prove to not be Universal Across Languages

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.


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