Emotions Like Love, Anger, and Anxiety May Differ Between Cultures

While certain human emotions—like anger and fear—are universal, the meanings of the words used to express them vary significantly from culture to culture, according to researchers.

To explore whether the concept of a word like "love" is the same in different tongues, for instance Turkish and English, an international team of researchers examined a sample of 2,474 languages. They looked for examples of what is known as colexification, where a word has more than one meaning in a language. For instance, in French the word "femme" can mean both woman and wife.

Like primary colours, it is believed humans share certain baseline emotions due to our biological processes, the authors explained in the journal Science.

More recently, researchers have argued that concepts—like anger—don't come from shared brain structures, but from socially learned inferences about survival.

They hypothesized languages from regions close to each other may share more semantically than those which are farther apart. The analysis indicated emotions vary more than three times as much as color in their meaning across language groups. That is "a tremendous amount of variability," study co author Joshua Conrad, a PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Newsweek.

For instance, in Indo-European languages, "anxiety" was more closely tied to "anger," but to "grief" and "regret" in Austroasiatic languages.

"Anger," for instance, was associated with "envy" in the Nakh-Daghestanian languages, but linked to the terms "hate," "bad," and "proud," in Austronesian languages. Meanwhile, "love," was connected to "pity" in Austronesian languages.

"It was also surprising to find that, despite this variability, there were some aspects of emotion, for example pleasantness, that did seem universal," Conrad said.

Conrad argued: "This study gives us a clearer understanding of human emotion. It suggests that feelings of pleasantness and physiological arousal might be universal.

"But it also suggests that emotions are very sensitive to culture, and that the meaning of certain emotions might be passed across cultures through forms of contact such as migration, conquest, or trade."

"Psychologists have long studied how humans understand their worlds, and our approach provides the tools to do these analyses on an unprecedented scale," he said.

"For a truly global analysis of emotion, we needed to gather linguistic data from thousands of languages," Conard said, detailing how the team executed their study.

"And to properly understand our data, we needed to use the most cutting edge network analysis techniques. We solved this problem by bringing together an international team of linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, computer scientists, and statisticians who each had expertise in a different area of the study."

Conrad suggested their method of analyzing language could next be used to shed light on how people from different cultures understand many concepts, not just emotions.

Co-author Kristen A. Lindquist, associate professor in the department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, told Newsweek: "Questions about the universality versus cultural relativity of emotions are as old as the scientific study of evolution, psychology, and neuroscience. Our ability to apply this new method using big data from computational linguistics thus makes our findings particularly novel."

Professor Asifa Majid of the Unviersity of York, who did not work on the paper, wrote in a perspective piece in Science: "Whereas previous studies have focused on close comparison of one or two cultures and a limited selection of emotions, the unprecedented scale of [the study] reveals considerable cross-cultural variation."

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A stock image shows a range of human emotions. Researchers have investigated how emotions are communicated in different cultures. Getty