If your partner is Turkish, he will express his love with the phrase ‘seni seviyorum’, but if he is English, he will say ‘I love you’. Are these phrases equivalent? Or do Turks and English love differently? A study published today in the journal Science has compared more than a third of the languages spoken on the planet to conclude that there are variations in how emotions are expressed between cultures.
Comparing the meaning of the same word in different languages is not easy. The International Kilogram Prototype is stored in Paris, the ‘original’ kilogram with which someone could check if the weight stored at home deviates from the correct measure. This does not exist when we talk about linguistics and emotions such as envy, shame, fear and hope.
The solution proposed by the researchers was to use a new comparative method that measures variability and structure in word meanings. For this, they took advantage of a phenomenon known as ‘Colexification’.
“[This] occurs when a word has more than one meaning in a language, which frequently indicates that its speakers consider both concepts similar,” explains the researcher at the University of North Carolina (USA) and co-author of the study, Joshua Jackson.
For example, Russian speakers use the same word to describe the hand and arm: ‘ruka’. ‘Blow’ in English can be used to blow with your mouth, play the trumpet and also when the wind blows, while the Germans have three words for it (‘spielen’, ‘wehen’ and ‘pusten’).
“By measuring many colexifications you can assess whether a concept has a universal meaning,” continues Jackson. Thus, a study published in 2016 in the PNAS magazine found that languages around the world tend to unite ideas such as sea, lake and water; day, sun and sky; as well as dirt, dust and sand.
We feel how we talk
The work published today in Science follows the same strategy but focused on emotions. Thus, the researchers analyzed the meaning of 24 emotions in 2,474 languages - some of them poorly studied and spoken – of 20 linguistic families. The results showed that human emotions are less universal than they seem, although there are certain points in common.
“We found a wide variety in the meaning of emotions according to each language,” says Jackson. For example, while Persian speakers combine “affliction” with “regret” in the word ‘aenduh’, the Darguin language fuses it with “anxiety” in the term ‘dard’.
“Emotions varied more than three times [between languages] with respect to colors,” says the researcher. These discrepancies did not take place at random, but the meanings “were more similar in families of geographically close languages.” The researchers believe that this suggests that the experience of human emotions is shaped by their own words, as well as by biological evolution.
“Our findings reflect the role of culture [in the expression of emotions],” says Jackson. “The fact that nearby languages have a more similar understanding [of feelings] indicates that these meanings can be shared as human groups come into contact through trade, conquest and immigration.”
Love is also compassion
At the same time, the researchers found that the world’s languages differentiate emotions according to their levels of valence and activation. Valencia divides emotions into pleasant and unpleasant; For example, joy and regret. Activation refers to the physiological activity involved in that feeling – for example, heart rate – and that can be high, as in anger, or low, as in sadness.
“Languages almost never linked positive emotions with negative ones or emotions of high activity with others of low activity,” says Jackson, which implies that these are “psychophysiological dimensions” shared by all human beings.
Jackson concludes that “while valence and activation represent universal building blocks for emotions, we can learn from our culture and from neighbours when it comes to giving meaning to these feelings.”
Does this mean that speakers of two different languages may not love in the same way? “Precisely. Some cultures may conceptualize love in similar ways, but our analysis opens the possibility that there is no universal love.” For example, in some Austronesian languages - family to which Malay and Indonesian belong – this feeling is related to pity. This implies that they see love more negatively … or pity more positively.