In some languages, love and pity get rolled into the same word

A study of over 2,000 languages shows how words used to describe feelings vary across cultures

father and daughter

A large study suggests that the words used to describe emotions are shaped by culture.

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Lexically speaking, love is love. Except when it’s not. In some languages, the word for love comes tinged with pity.

By analyzing the meanings of words used to describe emotions in over 2,000 languages, researchers found some universal truths. But the analysis, described in the Dec. 20 Science, also revealed cultural quirks. That includes “hanisi,” which, in the Rotuman language spoken just north of Fiji, refers to both love and pity.

Figuring out how people label their emotions with words may give clues about how different cultures experience the world (SN: 9/10/19).

Along with colleagues, psychologists Joshua Conrad Jackson and Kristen Lindquist of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studied emotion words from 2,474 languages spanning 20 major language families. The researchers looked for words that were used to describe similar concepts (“water” and “sea,” for instance, but not “water” and “sun”).

Among emotion words, an overall structure emerged. Generally, words used to communicate good and bad feelings were distinct from each other, and so were words for feelings that rev up the body. “People around the world may all feel bad when they lose a loved one, and people around the world may feel their heart begin to beat faster in the face of danger,” Jackson says.

But against this backdrop, researchers found differences. In some Indo-European languages, for instance, “anxiety” and “anger” overlap. But “anxiety” is more closely tied to “grief” and “regret” among Austroasiatic languages, the large language family of mainland Southeast Asia. “Surprised” goes with “fear” in some languages, but not in others, the researchers found.

The results suggest that the meanings of words that describe emotions — and perhaps even the underlying feelings — vary across cultures, no matter what a translation dictionary might say.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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