Does language influence our emotions?
Updated: Jan 11
At the end of every year and the start of every new one, it’s typical to find roundups and lists of all sorts online. One of the more unusual ones I’ve come across this year is courtesy of a National Geographic article.
In the feature, author Jen Rose Smith explores words used to capture emotions – especially complex or highly specific ones - in languages around the world. Smith interviews a number of people who study or celebrate this linguistic phenomenon, including psychologist Tim Lomas, who’s created an online, ever-expanding compendium of happiness-related words.
The article is a lovely read, letting us discover specific emotional experiences that particular cultures feel are important enough to capture in one word. But for linguistics fans and skeptical laypersons alike, it also carries a dark undercurrent.
The idea that the words we use shape the way we see the world is a concept commonly referred to in the linguistics world as linguistic relativity or Whorfianism, for Dr. Benjamin Lee Whorf, an early 20th century linguist.
Not all linguists agree with Whorfianism, and it’s about more than a simple debate. Anti-Whorfians argue that the theory has not only been disproven, but that it can also do harm by separating humans into different groups, rather than reminding us that emotional experiences big and small are universal.
After all, while we may not all be able to sum up the thrill and fear of finally chasing a dream in a single word like the German zielschmerz , most of us, regardless of our culture or the language we speak, have probably felt it. And the popularity of the hygge aesthetic and mindset clearly shows that even languages that can’t sum up that unique feeling of coziness in one word can still appreciate and experience it.
To be fair, the National Geographic article does lightly touch on this issue. But it swiftly moves away again.
At one point, Smith interviews Whorfian-influenced Kirsten Lindquist, a neuroscientist and director of the Carolina Affective Science Lab. Lindquist argues that one-word classifications for emotions do indeed shape the way people experience the world. She points out that it might even be helpful for non-native speakers to become familiar with some of these terms in order to better express and define their own feelings.
Whatever you feel about Whorfianism, the importance of expressing our emotions is one that’s easy to agree with. There are numerous benefits to being able to articulate our feelings.
Among other things, well-honed emotional communication can be an enormous advantage when talking to healthcare professionals like doctors and therapists.
Learning some “untranslatable” words may help you think differently about how to define or express your emotions, but it’s far from the only strategy, and probably not the most effective for most of us.
For instance, if you have trouble articulating your feelings, psychologist and emotional intelligence expert Dr. David Caruso suggests paying attention to physical sensations. Describing these can lead you to find words and ideas about how you feel on an emotional level. Others recommend journaling to help get the words out.
If neither of these strategies seem helpful, you can find a myriad of additional tips by doing an online search for “how to get better at talking about emotions”.
The important thing isn’t finding a single, on-the-nose word, or even one set technique, so much as using your own words to find relief, release, and self-realization.
I’d like to end this article with a phrase that has a translation in most of the more than 7,000 languages currently spoken in the world today: Happy New Year! We at aiaTranslations hope that 2021 will be a healthy and happy year for you and yours.
Contact Our Writer – Alysa Salzberg