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How other languages express emotions – and English lacks the words Add to ...

Lying around on weekends, have you ever felt a lethargic disinterest to do anything or see anyone? Not quite laziness, depression or hungover malaise – it’s something else. Viitsima, the Estonians would say: You just can’t be bothered.

How about the warm fuzzy feeling that occasionally takes hold as you dine with family or friends? Hygge, the Danes would say – there’s some serious hygge happening at the table.

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Viitsima and hygge are two of many emotions we’ve all experienced, but don’t have words for in English. A Taiwanese design student, Pei-Ying Lin, recently collected 21 of these “untranslatable” words, turning them into a brain-tickling infographic currently making the rounds online. By no means an exhaustive list, the words come from Hebrew, Korean and Dutch, among other languages, and Lin amassed them while studying with an international cohort at London’s Royal College of Art.

“It was linked to my frustration of being a foreigner in London when my mother tongue is Chinese Mandarin. I had this frustration when expressing myself, especially when it came to emotion. I was wondering how people communicate feeling and how they understand it,” Lin said in an interview from Taiwan.

She found at least five different words to express surprise in Chinese Mandarin; some surprises are happy, others are shocks and still others are the slow, prolonged surprise you might experience while reading a book – suspense, we might say. Grief figured prominently, too: Saudade is a Portuguese word that translates loosely to “a somewhat melancholic feeling of incompleteness. Longing for something that might never return. Yearning.” The Welsh have their own version, according to Lin’s infographic: Hiraeth means “homesickness tinged with grief or sadness for the lost or departed; the earnest desire for the Wales of the past.”

Lin’s exercise yields weird moments of recognition: Even if the word doesn’t exist in English, the feeling is vaguely familiar. “People are able to understand the emotion even though they don’t have a word for it,” she said, adding that appropriated words such as schadenfreude make it clear we can feel what we can’t express in one word.

So does it say something about Germans if they have a word like schadenfreude when others don’t? Are they predisposed to feel the emotion more than others? Opinions are mixed.

“Language does not determine how people think,” said María Cristina Cuervo, an associate professor in linguistics at the University of Toronto. “This is more a question about the mind than about language.” In other words, the emotions come first, and the terms to describe them arrive later, Cuervo said, pointing out that infants can feel spitting rage before they learn how to express it in a culturally specific way.

“I think it is controversial, whether the collection of words tells us about the culture,” Lin said. An example is the Korean word chon, which describes the bond between friends. “The feeling itself is a cultural product because it’s a spirit encouraged within the Korean community,” Lin added.

An even more culturally distinct emotion is amae, a Japanese term for both the feeling a person gets when asking a favour of a close friend, and also the feeling the friend has when asked to perform the favour.

“It feels a little different to the giver than to the getter, but they both feel confident in the closeness of a relationship that lets you ask for favours,” explained Phoebe Ellsworth, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan who co-authored a 2006 article titled Amae in Japan and the United States: An exploration of a ‘culturally unique’ emotion.

Ellsworth offered the example of a pal asking you to water her house plants for a month while she’s on vacation. In Japan, the person being asked “actually feels, ‘Oh good, I’m the person they asked, that means we’re very close. I feel better about that than if she’d asked another friend to help out.’” Westerners don’t have the concept or the correlating emotion, Ellsworth argued, because of our cultural attitudes toward dependence – the Japanese like it, but we don’t. “We would be much more reluctant to ask a big favour of somebody,” she said.

Today, Ellsworth is looking at the work of 19th-century scholar William James: “He believed that … [emotion] was like the weather, so fluid and ever-changing that one culture could mark one bit to emphasize, and another culture, another bit.”

Lin says she’s delighted by the reaction adults are having to her infographic, from hygge to hiraeth. “Perhaps,” she said, “it’s like babies learning what anger is.”

EMOTIONAL DEFINITIONS

Gezelligheid

(Dutch)

Comfort and coziness of being at home, with friends, with loved ones, or general togetherness.

Saudade

(Portuguese)

A somewhat melancholic feeling of incompleteness. Longing for something that might never return. Yearning.

Viitsima

(Estonian)

The feeling of laziness. Can’t be bothered to do anything. Don’t want to work or go anywhere.

Follow on Twitter: @ZosiaBielski

 

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