Put the spoon in

Jagoda Ratajczak, kategoria: English readers are welcome

Without emotions, the world would probably know neither wars…nor excitement. And there would be even less excitement if language didn’t confuse things a bit in the already confused world of emotions and the words that denote them. The confusion continues, which you can judge by what different people see once they hear the word „fear”,  the communication breakdown between Greeks and the rest of the world, the incredible simplicity of Ilongot mentality and the way psychopaths seduce others with tender words. And most importantly, you can judge it by the fact that something that you put into one jar, may be put into five different jars when given to someone else…

 Polish version here

Never mind the weather or the destination. It doesn’t matter whether  it’s sunny or rainy and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a trip to Warsaw or to Beijing-  grandpa refuses to take the plane, no matter what.  Never mind heat or frost- when grandpa leaves his hometown, Kutno, to visit his grandchildren in London, the only way he does it is by his wheezing car, changing then to a wheezing ferry. On his way, he avoids any routes leading through fields, just in case some disoriented Airbus was to crash somewhere there. He also avoids any bridges just in case some lost Boeing 737 was to get entangled in between its spans.  What grandpa sees once he hears the word „fear” are on-board sickness, captain Wrona informing the passengers that the undercarriage is kaputt, the burning fuselage and the black box searched for among the rumbles and burnt corpses.

Grandpa’s on-board friend, aviophobia, is known by tens of thousands of people, and those who are particularly intimate with her, would be able to understand each other  independently from the language barrier they are divided by. No explanations and descriptions would be needed in the group of these poor fellows, jointly crammed in their plane seats, with their heads stuck into paper bags, or, for a bit of variation, with a supplicatory look of St. Sebastian during the execution.

Since panic-like behaviour is quite common on board, it could belong to the group of the emotions which we consider basic and generally known. This very group includes such emotions as love or hate, as well as fear, excitement, joy and sadness. Never mind the accidental letter order which forms either the word „fear”, or „Furcht” or „strach”; after all, they say there is only one truth hidden behind the facade of spelling. This truth is supposed to be the basis of universal emotion code which you can understand at least instinctively, without using translator’s help or reading footnotes, the pin code which gives you an access to the world of mutual thoughts and behaviours, the one which does not require any linguistic analysis. And they say that fear is an emotion which the speakers of various languages do not really have to explain to each other. Fear is mutually understandable, irrespectively of the letters and sounds the word itself was dressed up in and irrespectively of the associations it provokes, be it a taxiing Boeing, or a metal shoehorn used in some progressive families as a punishment accessory. Or maybe we DO have to explain what fear is?

Emotion concepts, named as such in the linguistic and psychological glossary, belong to a very peculiar category of abstract concepts. What a nightmare- problematic emotions plus problematic abstraction equals getting pretty far away from any straightforward conclusions. The world of abstract concepts is a world of the concepts with millions of faces, created in accordance with one’s individual experiences and associations. It comes as a bit of a surprise then that despite concepts being so individualised, you can still have a conversation with another human being and discuss such issues as love, beauty and justice without having to stop on every key term in order to present one’s personal definition of it.

If there is no such necessity, we are tempted to think that there must be a common point of reference somewhere; that there must be some common „mental store room” which reaches beyond the language and its lexicon. This store room does exist after all- but the jars you store there, even if labelled „love/ miłość/ Liebe” or „fear /strach/ Furcht”, do not necessarily contain the very same thing. The instinctive answer to the question „are emotions universal?” is yes. If we managed to refute the theory saying that there are places on the earth which are inhabited by one-footed or three-eyed human beings and if we then agreed that human beings look and process alike irrespectively of where they live, the emotions they experience should be universal as well.  And universal they are- but to some extent only. Emotion concepts are shaped by language and culture, magical cultural specificity[1],which introduces subtle or not that subtle nuances in the world of concepts that we unreasonably take for granted.

Noam Chomsky, the icon of the field and a linguist that we all know for having something to say about every topic of this world, was aware enough to notice that there must be some property of the human mind which makes us able to develop a conceptual level separately from language and culture. This property must be there since our mental conveyor belt is able to churn out some emotion jars with universal content,digestible by everyone, irrespectively of their origin and the language they speak. However, since Noam ignored the contribution of linguistic and cultural reality to what is going on on the conveyor belt, he didn’t add that the words in different languages which are believed to be mutual counterparts are only partial counterparts. The English shame and the Japanese haji have a bit different faces so they are also interpreted in a different way: the jar which contains shame is not that capacious as the one with haji  and it also doesn’t contain the ingredient which is indispensable in the Japanese recipe: „a feeling of defeat which results from disappointing others and not living up to the social standards”. The masochistic nature of the Japanese people who would hang themselves on their ties in the office rather than ask their boss for a holiday leave, is then confirmed by the capaciousness and content of the haji jar. At the same time, it shows how important it is to understand the cultural background in order to grasp the idea behind the term. Both shame and haji have their dictionary equivalents in other languages, but these equivalents do not reflect the importance of a given term in a given culture. Such terms are said to be linguistically translatable, but culturally untranslatable (Panayiotou 2006[3])-you can label the jars in a few languages, but it might not prevent you from getting surprising content.

Here comes another surprise: the emotion which is denoted by one word in the language X, the language Y expresses by means of a few different words which are differently understood and differently translated, depending on the context. Take the English word insecurity. Even though it originated in the British, culturally similar world, every now and then it becomes a translator’s nightmare and makes him ponder what the meaning of the word is this time: is it uncertainty, instability (economical), fear or even a hang-up? The marmalade you spill into the English jar must now be spilled into a few Polish jars, each of them getting its own label and a note „serve depending on the occasion”. Anything else? Something that we, and even Britons consider to be two different emotions, for instance  anger and sadness, can work as one emotion for the speakers of other languages. This is exactly what happens in the language of Ilongot and Faluk tribes which do not distinguish between these two terms (Lutz 1988[4]). Perhaps the native culture of Ilongot and Ifaluk speakers taught them that he who is sad must also be angry and vice versa, but the European mentality which adores philosophising and details assumes that these two emotions do not necessarily go hand in hand. Something that we put into two jars, may be put into one jar, when given to the economical Ilongot and Ifaluk speakers. Such surprising twists can even seem tasty, at least until you realise that a given term does not have its equivalent! What shall we do then, the jar can’t be empty and the common store room must be well- equipped! Does it mean that some speakers can feel more than others…if they know and name the concepts which we can’t find in our own dictionary?

English-learning Greeks as well as Greek-learning Britons know the problem. The content of a jar with the label frustraton on it, is a bit exotic for a Greek speaker and adopting this content is a process which requires long tasting. In Greek, there is simply no word for „frustration”. Does it mean that Greeks don’t know what it’s like to be frustrated?  Not necessarily- they don’t know the concept of frustration, but they have their own local speciality prepared from similar, yet a bit different ingredients- stenahoria which is not fully adoptable either by Britons or non-Greeks in general. The emotion term Stenahoria- a Greek delicacy which deserves to be certified no less that feta cheese, is a mixture which is obviously easily adopted by Greeks. Non-Greeks, however, must spill this mixture into three different jars labelled discomfort,, sadness and …suffocating. Stenahoria is a combination of all of these emotions, an emotional combo which Greeks find absolutely transparent and almost tangible. Creating such a peculiar and culturally embedded term is quite strange,  bearing in mind that Greece is no isolated, exotic island in the middle of the ocean, thousands kilometres away from the land.  You can’t even say- as you would in the case of Japan- that Greece represent a different (non-European) culture, which could justify the creation of such peculiar local rarities which  ”strangers” taste with such interest and confusion.

Does it mean that Greeks who discuss their emotions with non-Greeks can count on mutual understanding? The more time passes by, the bigger the chances for mutual understanding.  For both parties, learning a foreign language itself is an attempt to understand the language and the emotions it describes. English-learning Greek will finally realise there is a word like frustration and thus, he will face the necessity to analyse the meaning of the term. Greek-learning Briton will finally open the stenahoria jar and as he tastes it, he will finally learn what is it and what this taste really is. At first, the taste isn’t too distinctive and is compared to the taste of your native marmalade, which follows the idea that the new is always compared to what we already know. It is language proficiency, including embedding in the target culture, which makes us able to distinguish subtle individual properties and subtle taste differences between the content of different jars. If foreign emotion concepts start to arouse strong feelings and associations- this is when we deserve a high-five. „Learning” emotions which do not belong to our native repertoire is one of the final stages in language acquisition, the barometer of our understanding and embedding in the foreign culture (Panayiotou[5]).  That’s why in the beginning, monolingual Greeks might not feel frustration and monolingual Britons do not know what stenahoria is. Still, they all have a chance to learn it once they engage in a bilingual tasting in the common store room. You can learn emotions the way you learn language itself.

Emotions are a delicate matter and delicate matters require subtlety. However, being bilingual is no guarantee of an ability to grasp subtleties. You can speak even five languages, yet remain insensitive to the subtle differences between joy, happiness and luck, and to the exact meanings of each of these words – why bother, if your dictionary tells you they are synonyms? Those who can taste language marmalade effectively, find one trait particularly useful- emotional intelligence, understood as the combination of sensitivity and the legendary empathy popularised by the contemporary New Age pundits. But maybe these requirements are just too high? Maybe if you want to understand and interpret emotions effectively, all you need is to be…simply normal?

A few decades of experience gained by prof. Robert D. Hare, the American specialist in psychopathy and sociopathy, indicate that people suffering from these conditions can tell us something far more interesting about emotion terms, than the so called common citizens. The conclusion drawn from the research and hundreds of interviews conducted with the psycho- and sociopathic prisoners is the following: often incredibly intelligent and clever, they know the meaning of emotion terms very well, but they are unable to feel empathy or anything that could help them understand and simply experience the emotions described by these words. If a psychopath opens a jar with the label love on it and tastes the content, he will be able to define the ingredients of the mixture, but he won’t be able to feel them. You can compare it to knowing a recipe by heart and not knowing the taste of the dish prepared according to this recipe. When asked what love or any emotion is, a psychopath will provide you with a very impressive, precise and convincing definition, which may suggest he knows what he’s talking about. Not so- a psychopath knows the dictionary meaning of words and their scripts, but he cannot comprehend the emotional level. Perhaps this is the reason why many psychopaths who conned money out of their lovers, were skilled writers producing passionate letters packed with confessions of love, care, tenderness, and a whole load of other emotions, which they know only from books or even…dictionaries. After all, they didn’t even have to learn them on a more profound level- the knowledge of emotion scripts and the way healthy people react to emotion terms, must be completely sufficient for them and their nasty business, exploiting and duping. Prof. Hare is not a linguist and his remark on superficial emotion processing in psychopaths was more of a side remark. However, if we took his observations into account and design a linguistic study, that would also account for such variables as mono or bilingualism, we would learn even more about emotion processing. The way the so called normal system operates often becomes clear once you analyse how the deviated system operates.

The conclusions drawn by prof. Hare make the scary psychopaths even scarier, since they are apparently able to separate the level of language (the knowledge of emotion terms and their meanings) from its supralingual backstage, that is, the emotions which are understood biologically, embedded in our system and inextricably linked to our humanity. Chomsky has a problem now, just as Fodor and Pinker do, as well as other linguists who support the existence of supralingual mental system which encodes emotions before we even start to walk on two legs and name these emotions. After all, if psychopaths are able to separate these two levels, the theories coined by the gentlemen mentioned above must be no longer valid. They might stand the test of time if it turns out that psychopaths simply have a faulty biological construction which resulted in the language level not merging with the biologically imprinted ability to decipher and understand emotions.

The incredible complexity of this problem will probably provoke some scholars to follow the example of overworked Japanese businessmen and to misuse their ties. But it may also bring something else: the ultimate proof that linguistics is not a non-access area where only socially useless masturbators get fulfilled, but the area which is able to reveal quite a lot, at least once it’s combined with medicine, psychology, anthropology or even physics.

If there is anyone who can pray for the defeat of the research aiming at deciphering the world of emotions, these are poets and songwriters. The word „love” in a beautiful poem will never again sound as beautiful to those who get too excited about emotion terms, scripts, mono or bilingualism. Or at least it will not sound that obvious. Still, some artists have already sensed the idea. You can’t be completely serious while listening to De Mono’s hits, but when you listen to their lyrics: „To love…it doesn’t always mean the same” (Kochać to nie znaczy zawsze to samo), you know that the band deserves appreciation. Bet, you would never suspect such linguistic depth in the lyrics by Andrzej Krzywy…

[1] One of the five factors which influence the structure of an emotion concept, distinguished by Jarvis and Pavlenko. Jarvis, S.-A. Pavlenko. 2008. „Crosslinguistic influence in language and cognition”. Routledge: New York.

[2] Chomsky, N. 1991. “Linguistics and cognitive science: Problems and mysteries”, in: Asa Kasher (ed.), The Chomskyan turn. Cambridge and Oxford, MA: Basil Blackwell.

[3] Panayoitou, A. 2006. “Constructing labour: An exploration of emotional responses to work in two cultural settings”, International Journal of Work Organisation and Emotion 1.

[4] Lutz, C. 1988. „Unnatural emotions: Everyday sentiments on a Micronesian atoll and their challenge to Western theory”. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[5] Panayiotou, A. 2004. „Bilingual emotions: The untranslatable self”, Estudios de Sociolinguistica 5.

[6] Hare, Robert D. 1993. „Without conscience. The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us”. The Guilford Press: New York.

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