Do Emotions Have the Same Meaning Around the World?
Translating emotions across languages and cultures.
Posted Jan 09, 2020
Do people around the world experience emotions in diverse ways?
Or does joy, by any other name, still taste as sweet, and fear still sting as bitter?
As with many things that concern our emotions, the culture-versus-biology debate has enjoyed a prominent place in scientific and philosophical explorations. There are those who propose that certain primary emotions have left an evolutionary signature in humankind’s neurobiological structures. Others claim that far from being universal, emotions are cultural constructs whose meanings we learn from social inferences. And then there are the staunch multilinguals, who assert that joy and fear feel very different depending on the context in which they do their joy-ing and fear-ing.
When unpacking the complexity of human emotional experiences, clues can be found in our languages. In a recent study published in Science, an international team of researchers examined 24 emotion words from almost a third of the world’s languages (2,474 languages and 20 language groups). By combining vast linguistic databases with quantitative methods, the researchers created networks of colexifications—cases where the same word within a language is used to express multiple concepts (e.g., "funny" in English can mean both humorous and strange).
Previous studies have found that speakers tend to perceive colexified concepts as semantically similar. For example, languages that tended to colexify the concepts of sea and water together considered them to be more similar in meaning than sun and water. Thus, exploring semantic associations of emotion words through colexification patterns can offer insights into how people map meaning to emotions in their languages.
Cultural variation in the meaning of emotions
The results of this latest research highlight both biological and cultural processes that influence the way we think about and experience emotions. The cross-cultural variation in the meaning of emotions suggests that people around the world may experience emotions differently. For example, while the concept of love was more related to happy in Indo-European languages, it was more related to pity in Austronesian languages. And while the concept of anxiety was more related to fear in Tai-Kadai languages, it was more often paired with grief in Austroasiatic languages.
The colexification patterns of emotions depended on the geographic proximity of the languages. Those language families that were closer to each other tended to group emotion concepts more similarly than those languages that were far apart. According to the researchers, this may be due to increased opportunities for contact between speakers of those languages—through trade, migration, or shared ancestry—which, in time, influenced the way they conceptualized their emotions.
Universal structure in the meaning of emotions
The study also found universals in the way people mapped meaning to emotions across languages. For example, in almost all languages, positively valenced (pleasant) emotions belonged to different colexification communities than negatively valenced (unpleasant) emotions, and there was a similar separation between emotions that were high or low in physiological activation. In other words, “all humans appear to feel and express feelings of positivity versus negativity and feelings of arousal versus calm,” says lead author Joshua Conrad Jackson, since valence and arousal highlight biological systems that help maintain homeostasis.
Findings of common humanity in any realm of our existence are always inspiring. But what can we make of the differences? What can we learn from the divergent ways that humans around the world, as Jackson says, “turn these feelings into fully realized emotions”?
To begin with, cross-cultural variability of emotion semantics should not be too surprising, given the rich nuances that we deal with daily in our own languages.
Take love, for example.
“Love may be a largely positive emotion in Western cultures, but it’s used more negatively in Pacific Island languages,” notes Jackson. “Yet, even Indo-European speakers can recognize that love can represent more negative emotions, such as pity or infatuation.”
Just as the words in our own languages may not always capture the depth of our emotional experiences, translation dictionaries may not always paint a full portrait of emotions across linguistic borders. While scientists continue to unpack the mystery and magnificence of human emotions, finding points of commonality and variance along the way, “we should celebrate the human ability to experience such rich and complex mental representations,” Jackson says.
Jackson, J. C., Watts, J., Henry, T. R., List, J. M., Forkel, R., Mucha, P. J., ... & Lindquist, K. A. (2019). Emotion semantics show both cultural variation and universal structure. Science, 366(6472), 1517-1522.
Youn, H., Sutton, L., Smith, E., Moore, C., Wilkins, J. F., Maddieson, I., ... & Bhattacharya, T. (2016). On the universal structure of human lexical semantics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(7), 1766-1771.
Ekman, P. (1992). An argument for basic emotions. Cognition & Emotion, 6(3-4), 169-200.
Barrett, L. F. (2017). The theory of constructed emotion: an active inference account of interoception and categorization. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 12(1), 1-23.