Lexically speaking, love is
love. Except when it’s not. In some languages, the word for love comes tinged
with pity.

By analyzing the meanings of words used to describe emotions in
over 2,000 languages
, researchers found
some universal truths. But the analysis, described in the Dec. 20 Science, also revealed cultural quirks.
That includes “hanisi,” which, in the Rotuman language spoken just north of
Fiji, refers to both love and pity.

Figuring out how people
label their emotions with words may give clues about how different cultures experience the world (SN: 9/10/19).

Along with colleagues, psychologists
Joshua Conrad Jackson and Kristen Lindquist of the University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill studied emotion words from 2,474 languages spanning 20 major
language families. The researchers looked for words that were used to describe
similar concepts (“water” and “sea,” for instance, but not “water” and “sun”).

Among emotion words, an
overall structure emerged. Generally, words used to communicate good and bad
feelings were distinct from each other, and so were words for feelings that rev
up the body. “People around the world may all feel bad when they lose a loved
one, and people around the world may feel their heart begin to beat faster in
the face of danger,” Jackson says.

But against this backdrop, researchers
found differences. In some Indo-European languages, for instance, “anxiety” and
“anger” overlap. But “anxiety” is more closely tied to “grief” and “regret” among
Austroasiatic languages, the large language family of mainland Southeast Asia. “Surprised”
goes with “fear” in some languages, but not in others, the researchers found.

The results suggest that the
meanings of words that describe emotions — and perhaps even the underlying
feelings — vary across cultures, no matter what a translation dictionary might say.