Emotion Words (02-10-20)

A large team lead by Jackson determined that languages vary in how they link emotions; their findings may be useful to people conducting research in different parts of the world, for example.  The group studied 24 terms for emotions in thousands of spoken languages, and report that “Many human languages have words for emotions such as ‘anger’ and ‘fear,’ yet it is not clear whether these emotions have similar meanings across languages, or why their meanings might vary. We estimate emotion semantics across a sample of 2474 spoken languages using ‘colexification’—a phenomenon in which languages name semantically related concepts with the same word.  Analyses show significant variation in networks of emotion concept colexification, which is predicted by the geographic proximity of language families. We also find evidence of universal structure in emotion colexification networks, with all families differentiating emotions primarily on the basis of hedonic valence [positive or negative] and physiological activation.  Our findings contribute to debates about universality and diversity in how humans understand and experience emotion.” So, in short, the Jackson team looked at how concepts such as happiness or love are related in different languages.  They determined that in Persian the same word is used to convey grief and regret, for example, and that it some dialects spoken in Russia the same word expresses both grief and anxiety.  In some languages spoken in Russia anger was linked to envy but in some Austronesian ones it was tied to terms such as hate, and bad, and proud.  These findings indicate that emotional universals may not be as prevalent as cross-cultural researchers would find useful, although there clearly are some consistencies regarding emotions across groups.

Joshua Jackson, Joseph Watts, Teague Henry, Johann-Mattis List, Robert Forkel, Peter Mucha, Simon Greenhill, Russell Gray, and Kristen Lindquist.  2019. “Emotion Semantics Show Both Cultural Variation and Universal Structure.”  Science, vol. 366, no. 6472, pp. 1517-1522, DOI:  10.1126/science.aaw8160