Thursday, 28 January 2016

There are at least 216 foreign words for positive emotional states and concepts that we don't have in English

One criticism levelled at positive psychology is that it takes an overly Western-centric view of the lighter side of human experience. Addressing that problem, Tim Lomas at the University of East London has begun a deep investigation into all the non-English words for positive emotions and concepts that don't have a direct translation in English.

Publishing his initial findings in the The Journal of Positive Psychology, Lomas' hope is not only that we might learn more about the positive psychology of other cultures, but that hearing of these words might enrich our own emotional lives. Of course there is a long-running debate about how much words influence our thoughts and emotions. Few people these days would advocate the idea that you can't feel an emotion if you don't have a word for it. But Lomas argues that at a minimum, if you don't have a way of identifying a specific emotion or feeling, it "becomes just another unconceptualised ripple in the ongoing flux of subjective experience."

Lomas' method was to trawl websites devoted to "untranslatable words" (i.e. words that don't have a single corresponding word in English), then to do some googling and finally to consult colleagues and students. This way he ended up with a list of 216 untranslatable words for positive emotional states and concepts. To find approximate English definitions of the words he used online dictionaries and academic references. Here are some examples of the untranslatable positive words that Lomas has organised into three main categories:

Words relating to feelings, including the subcategories of positive and complex feelings (definitions are taken from Lomas' paper):

Gula – Spanish for the desire to eat simply for the taste
Sobremesa – Spanish for when the food has finished but the conversation is still flowing
Mbukimvuki – Bantu for "to shuck off one's clothes in order to dance"
Schnapsidee – German for coming up with an ingenious plan when drunk
Volta – Greek for leisurely strolling the streets
Gokotta – Swedish for waking up early to listen to bird song
Suaimhneas croi – Gaelic for the happiness that comes from finishing a task
Iktsuarpok – Inuit for the anticipation felt when waiting for someone
Vacilando – Greek for the idea of wandering, where the act of travelling is more important than the destination
Gumusservi – Turkish for the glimmer that moonlight makes on water

Words relating to relationships, including the subcategories of intimacy and more general prosociality:

Nakama – Japanese for friends who one considers like family
Kanyininpa – Aboriginal Pintupi for a relationship between holder and held, akin to the deep nurturing feelings experienced by a parent for their child
Gigil – Philippine Tagalog for the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because you love them so much
Kilig – Tagalog for the butterflies in the stomach you get when interacting with someone you find attractive
Sarang – Korean for when you wish to be with someone until death
Myotahapea – Finnish for vicarious embarrassment
Mudita – Sanskrit for revelling in someone else's joy
Karma – the well known Buddhist term for when ethical actions lead to future positive states
Firgun – Hebrew for saying nice things to someone simply to make them feel good
Asabiyyah – Arabic for a sense of community spirit

Words relating to character, including the subcategories of resources and spirituality:

Sitzfleisch – German for the ability to persevere through hard or boring tasks (literally "sit meat")
Baraka – Arabic for a gift of spiritual energy that can be passed from one person to another
Jugaad – Hindi for the ability to get by or make do
Desenrascanco – Portuguese for the ability to artfully disentangle oneself from a troublesome situation
Sprezzatura – Italian for when all art and effort are concealed beneath a "studied carelessness"
Pihentagyu – Hungarian for quick witted people who come up with sophisticated jokes and solutions (literally "with a relaxed brain")
Kao pu – Chinese for someone who is reliable and responsible and gets things done without causing problems for others
Prajna – Sanskrit for intellectual wisdom and experiential insight
Wu Wei – Chinese for "do nothing" (literally) but meaning that one's actions are entirely natural and effortless [check out the recent Psychologist magazine article on this concept]
Bodhi – Sanskrit for when one has gained complete insight into nature

Lomas is continually updating his list online and he welcomes any suggestions. He says compiling the list is just the start of this project – as a next step he suggests that each word now deserves its own paper "explicating and analysing them in rich detail".


Lomas, T. (2016). Towards a positive cross-cultural lexicography: Enriching our emotional landscape through 216 ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to well-being The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-13 DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2015.1127993

--further reading--
How language reflects the balance of good and bad in the world
How we see half the world through the prism of language

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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