The Human Planet | Psychology
The ‘untranslatable’ emotions you never knew you had
By David Robson26th January 2017
From gigil to wabi-sabi and tarab, there are many foreign emotion words with no English equivalent. Learning to identify and cultivate these experiences could give you a richer and more successful life.
- This story is featured in BBC Future’s “Best of 2017” collection.Discover more of our picks.
Have you ever felt a little mbuki-mvuki – the irresistible urge to “shuck off your clothes as you dance”? Perhaps a little kilig – the jittery fluttering feeling as you talk to someone you fancy? How about uitwaaien – which encapsulates the revitalising effects of taking a walk in the wind?
These words – taken from Bantu, Tagalog, and Dutch – have no direct English equivalent, but they represent very precise emotional experiences that are neglected in our language. And if Tim Lomas at the University of East London has his way, they might soon become much more familiar.
Lomas’s Positive Lexicography Project aims to capture the many flavours of good feelings (some of which are distinctly bittersweet) found across the world, in the hope that we might start to incorporate them all into our daily lives. We have already borrowed many emotion words from other languages, after all – think “frisson”, from French, or “schadenfreude”, from German – but there are many more that have not yet wormed their way into our vocabulary. Lomas has found hundreds of these "untranslatable" experiences so far – and he’s only just begun.
Learning these words, he hopes, will offer us all a richer and more nuanced understanding of ourselves. “They offer a very different way of seeing the world.”
Gigil is a Tagalog word that describes the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished (Credit: Alamy)
Lomas says he was first inspired after hearing a talk on the Finnish concept of sisu, which is a sort of “extraordinary determination in the face of adversity”. According to Finnish speakers, the English ideas of “grit”, “perseverance” or “resilience” do not come close to describing the inner strength encapsulated in their native term. It was "untranslatable" in the sense that there was no direct or easy equivalent encoded within the English vocabulary that could capture that deep resonance.
Intrigued, he began to hunt for further examples, scouring the academic literature and asking every foreign acquaintance for their own suggestions. The first results of this project were published in the Journal of Positive Psychology last year.
Many of the terms referred to highly specific positive feelings, which often depend on very particular circumstances:
- Desbundar (Portuguese) – to shed one’s inhibitions in having fun
- Tarab (Arabic) – a musically induced state of ecstasy or enchantment
- Shinrin-yoku (Japanese) – the relaxation gained from bathing in the forest, figuratively or literally
- Gigil (Tagalog) – the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished
- Yuan bei (Chinese) – a sense of complete and perfect accomplishment
- Iktsuarpok (Inuit) – the anticipation one feels when waiting for someone, whereby one keeps going outside to check if they have arrived
But others represented more complex and bittersweet experiences, which could be crucial to our growth and overall flourishing.
- Natsukashii (Japanese) – a nostalgic longing for the past, with happiness for the fond memory, yet sadness that it is no longer
- Wabi-sabi (Japanese) – a “dark, desolate sublimity” centred on transience and imperfection in beauty
- Saudade (Portuguese) – a melancholic longing or nostalgia for a person, place or thing that is far away either spatially or in time – a vague, dreaming wistfulness for phenomena that may not even exist
- Sehnsucht (German) – “life-longings”, an intense desire for alternative states and realisations of life, even if they are unattainable
In addition to these emotions, Lomas’s lexicography also charted the personal characteristics and behaviours that might determine our long-term well-being and the ways we interact with other people.
- Dadirri (Australian aboriginal) term – a deep, spiritual act of reflective and respectful listening
- Pihentagyú (Hungarian) – literally meaning “with a relaxed brain”, it describes quick-witted people who can come up with sophisticated jokes or solutions
- Desenrascanço (Portuguese) – to artfully disentangle oneself from a troublesome situation
- Sukha (Sanskrit) – genuine lasting happiness independent of circumstances
- Orenda (Huron) – the power of the human will to change the world in the face of powerful forces such as fate
You can view many more examples on his website, where there is also the opportunity to submit your own. Lomas readily admits that many of the descriptions he has offered so far are only an approximation of the term's true meaning. "The whole project is a work in progress, and I’m continually aiming to refine the definitions of the words in the list," he says. "I definitely welcome people’s feedback and suggestions in that regard."
Portuguese fado singers like Cristina Branco channel the intense longing of "saudade" (Credit: Getty Images)
Welcome to The Human Planet
Humans are unique in their ability to adapt to their environments - allowing us to build lives from the North Pole to the Sahara Desert. This article is the second part ofThe Human Planet, a new series in which BBC Future uses cutting-edge science to explore our extraordinary diversity. To read more, see the first article in the series: "How East and West think in fundamentally different ways'.
In the future, Lomas hopes that other psychologists may begin to explore the causes and consequences of these experiences – to extend our understanding of emotion beyond the English concepts that have dominated research so far.
But studying these terms will not just be of scientific interest; Lomas suspects that familiarising ourselves with the words might actually change the way we feel ourselves, by drawing our attention to fleeting sensations we had long ignored.
“In our stream of consciousness – that wash of different sensations feelings and emotions – there’s so much to process that a lot passes us by,” Lomas says. “The feelings we have learned to recognise and label are the ones we notice – but there’s a lot more that we may not be aware of. And so I think if we are given these new words, they can help us articulate whole areas of experience we’ve only dimly noticed.”
As evidence, Lomas points to the work of Lisa Feldman Barrett at Northeastern University, who has shown that our abilities to identify and label our emotions can have far-reaching effects.
Her research was inspired by the observation that certain people use different emotion words interchangeably, while others are highly precise in their descriptions. “Some people use words like anxious, afraid, angry, disgusted to refer to a general affective state of feeling bad,” she explains. “For them, they are synonyms, whereas for other people they are distinctive feelings with distinctive actions associated with them.”
This is called “emotion granularity” and she usually measures this by asking the participants to rate their feelings on each day over the period of a few weeks, before she calculates the variation and nuances within their reports: whether the same old terms always coincide, for instance.
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese term that describes our appreciation of transient and imperfect beauty - such as the fleeting splendour of cherry blossom (Credit: Getty Images)
Importantly, she has found that this then determines how well we cope with life. If you are better able to pin down whether you are feeling despair or anxiety, for instance, you might be better able to decide how to remedy those feelings: whether to talk to a friend, or watch a funny film. Or being able to identify your hope in the face of disappointment might help you to look for new solutions to your problem.
In this way, emotion vocabulary is a bit like a directory, allowing you to call up a greater number of strategies to cope with life. Sure enough, people who score highly on emotion granularity are better able to recover more quickly from stress and are less likely to drink alcohol as a way of recovering from bad news. It can even improve your academic success. Marc Brackett at Yale University has found that teaching 10 and 11-year-old children a richer emotional vocabulary improved their end-of-year grades, and promoted better behaviour in the classroom. “The more granular our experience of emotion is, the more capable we are to make sense of our inner lives,” he says.
Both Brackett and Barrett agree that Lomas’s “positive lexicography” could be a good prompt to start identifying the subtler contours of our emotional landscape. “I think it is useful – you can think of the words and the concepts they are associated with as tools for living,” says Barrett. They might even inspire us to try new experiences, or appreciate old ones in a new light.
It’s a direction of research that Lomas would like to explore in the future. In the meantime, Lomas is still continuing to build his lexicography – which has grown to nearly a thousand terms. Of all the words he has found so far, Lomas says that he most often finds himself pondering Japanese concepts such as wabi-sabi (that “dark, desolate sublimity” involving transience and imperfection). “It speaks to this idea of finding beauty in phenomena that are aged and imperfect,” he says. “If we saw the world through those eyes, it could be a different way of engaging in life.”
David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.
If you liked this story,sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.
Of all the different types of emotions, happiness tends to be the one that people strive for the most. Happiness is often defined as a pleasant emotional state that is characterized by feelings of contentment, joy, gratification, satisfaction, and well-being.What language has the most emotional words? ›
Spoken by some 400 million native speakers around the world, Spanish is a language rich in history but also constantly adapting and evolving. Spanish is also a deeply emotional and intuitive language which has words to express the most specific but also the most profound of feelings.What is it called when you don't like showing your emotions? ›
Share on Pinterest A person with alexithymia may find it hard to communicate their emotions to others. Researchers describe alexithymia as a construct relating to a difficulty experiencing, identifying, and expressing emotions.What causes alexithymia? ›
Alexithymia isn't well understood. There's a possibility it may be genetic. The condition may also be a result of brain damage to the insula. This part of the brain is known for its role in social skills, empathy, and emotions, with some studies linking insula lesions to apathy and anxiety.What are the 3 most powerful emotions? ›
- #1 Fear. The greatest (and most primitive, since it originates from our early reptilian brain) is fear. ...
- #2 Anger. Coming in at a close second is anger. ...
- #3 Sorrow. The third emotion is probably sorrow. ...
- #4 Joy. The light at the end of the emotional tunnel is of course joy.
Euphoria – intense and the all-encompassing sense of joy or happiness, often experienced when something extremely positive and exciting happens. Contentment – peaceful, comforting, and low-key sense of happiness and well-being.What is the world's nicest language? ›
- Italian. When it comes to the most attractive languages, for many people the native language of Italy likely springs to mind. ...
- Arabic. ...
- English. ...
- (Brazilian) Portuguese. ...
- 5. Japanese. ...
- Turkish. ...
Research published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences proved that every human language is biased toward the positive, but that the degree to which this bias occurs can vary widely between different languages.What is the sweetest language? ›
According to a UNESCO survey, Bengali has been classified as the sweetest language in the world. As a language, Bengali is widely spoken all over India, including Assam and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. The sweetest language in the world is also recognized in the Constitution of India.What is an emotionless person called? ›
apathetic. / (ˌæpəˈθɛtɪk) / adjective. having or showing little or no emotion; indifferent.
Summary: Contrary to popular belief, those suffering from psychopathy are able to experience emotions, but they do have a blunted emotional response if their attention is directed toward something else.What is a person with no feelings called? ›
Means to push away emotions, feelings. Nonmedical terms describing similar conditions include emotionless and impassive. People with the condition are called alexithymics or alexithymiacs.Do people with alexithymia feel love? ›
Can alexithymic people feel love? People with alexithymia can feel love when it's strong enough. They just can't describe or express it in a way that provides others with emotional validation. Instead, they may express their love through action, rather than words or affection.What is narcissistic alexithymia? ›
Concept description. In his New York Times column of 11 October 2016, David Brooks wrote that “Trump continues to display the symptoms of narcissistic alexithymia, the inability to understand or describe the emotions in the self. Unable to know themselves, sufferers are unable to understand, relate or attach to others. ...What are alexithymic personality traits? ›
Alexithymia is a personality trait in which an individual experiences problems in identifying their own feelings, describing them to others, showing external-oriented cognitive style and little ability for introspection.What is the oldest and strongest emotion? ›
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. ― H.P. Lovecraft: 6X9" 184 ...What is the healthiest human emotion? ›
Gratitude Is the Healthiest of All Human Emotions.What are 7 universal emotions? ›
Facial expressions that give clues to a person's mood, including happiness, surprise, contempt, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger.What is the strongest emotion? ›
Generally, people tend to view anger as one of our strongest and most powerful emotions. Anger is a natural and "automatic" human response, and can in fact, serve to help protect us from harm. While angry behavior can be destructive, angry feelings themselves are merely a signal that we may need to do something.What are 27 emotions? ›
The 27 emotions: admiration, adoration, aesthetic appreciation, amusement, anger, anxiety, awe, awkwardness, boredom, calmness, confusion, craving, disgust, empathic pain, entrancement, excitement, fear, horror, interest, joy, nostalgia, relief, romance, sadness, satisfaction, sexual desire, surprise.
- English. Possessing a wealth of adopted words, English is an incredibly expressive, varied and flexible language. ...
- Spanish. ...
- 3. Japanese. ...
- Sign language. ...
- Brazilian Portuguese. ...
- Turkish. ...
- Italian. ...
Italian language, or Italiano—as it is commonly known, is a Romance language and one of the languages most people would readily agree on as one of the softest and sweetest languages in existence. The language of revolutionists like Dante da Vinci, and Pavarotti, Italian is spoken by 66 million people globally.What language sounds beautiful? ›
FRENCH – MOST BEAUTIFUL SPOKEN LANGUAGE
With its unpronounceable “r”, its nasal vowel sounds “en”, “in”, “un” and melodious intonation, it sounds extremely musical to the non-native ear. And let's not forget the strong cultural context which lends French the status of the most beautiful spoken language in the world.
Sanskrit is spiritually pure of all languages, claim linguists.What is the happiest word? ›
According to a report on the English language, "laughter," "happiness," and "love" are the three most positive words in English. A linguist discusses the happiest words and asks for your suggestions.What is the least liked language? ›
Also known as Tetawo, the Tanema language is again only spoken by one person, Lainol Nalo, on the island of Vanikoro, in the easternmost province of the Solomon Islands. The population of the island is around 150, most of whom speak the related language of Tetau and speak some Tanema as a second language.What is the world's easiest language? ›
- Frisian. Frisian is thought to be one of the languages most closely related to English, and therefore also the easiest for English-speakers to pick up. ...
- Dutch. ...
- Norwegian. ...
- Spanish. ...
- Portuguese. ...
- Italian. ...
- French. ...
1. Egyptian – 2690 BC (circa. 4700 years old) The first known language ever was a proto-language on the African continent, and the first known proto-writing system was created in Nigeria. So, it is perhaps no surprise that the oldest language on this list is also from and used in Africa – Egyptian.Which is toughest language in the world? ›
1. Mandarin Chinese. Interestingly, the hardest language to learn is also the most widely spoken native language in the world. Mandarin Chinese is challenging for a number of reasons.Why don't I know how I feel? ›
Alexithymia is when an individual has difficulty identifying, describing, and expressing emotions. This term was coined by Peter Sifneos in 1972, and it comes from the roots of Greek words that literally mean, “lack of words for emotion.”
This condition in psychological terms is rarely known, it is called an eccedentsiast. Eccedentsiast means those who hide behind a smile to convince others that they are happy. Also known as smiling depression which is a type of depression that is often not detected.Can a person have no feelings? ›
When you lose the ability to feel or express any emotions, this is called flat affect. If you feel numb only to positive emotions but are still able to feel negative emotions, this is called anhedonia. Anhedonia is a common symptom of depression and shows up in a lot of mental health conditions.Can psychopaths still cry? ›
There are some areas where psychopaths may experience normal emotions and grief is one such area. In response to death of a person with whom there is a bond, some psychopaths can experience sadness and this may even bring about feelings of guilt which are otherwise impossible to feel. Crying may be a part of this.What emotions do psychopaths lack? ›
For decades, researchers studying psychopathy have characterized the disorder as a profound inability to process emotions such as empathy, remorse, or regret.How do psychopaths react to danger? ›
If someone gave you a fright while you were watching a horror movie, you would probably show an “exaggerated startle response” – in other words, you'd jump out of your skin. Psychopaths react far less intensely in such fear-evoking situations. If anything, they remain calm.Why do I cry when I talk about my feelings? ›
When a person is feeling emotional, the cerebrum (the front part of the brain) registers that emotion and a hormone is triggered causing emotional type tears to form.What do you call someone who doesn't like attention? ›
Reticent can refer to someone who is restrained and formal, but it can also refer to someone who doesn't want to draw attention to herself or who prefers seclusion to other people. Don't confuse reticent with reluctant, which means unwilling. Definitions of reticent. adjective. reluctant to draw attention to yourself.What causes lack empathy? ›
Parents, teachers, peers, society, and culture affect how people feel about kindness, empathy, compassion, and helping behaviors. Some conditions may play a role in a lack of empathy such as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), antisocial personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder (BPD).Are people with alexithymia intelligent? ›
Across three independent, healthy adult samples (Ns = 389, 318, & 273), we examined whether alexithymia was associated with general intelligence. In all three samples, we observed a significant negative association between alexithymia and general intelligence.What is alexithymia example? ›
Here are a few examples those with alexithymia experience: Difficulty identifying different types of feelings. Limited understanding of what causes feelings. Difficulty expressing feelings.
Alexithymia, Not Autism Spectrum Disorder, Predicts Perceived Attachment to Parents in School-Age Children. Alexithymia is defined as a limited ability in the cognitive processing of emotions.What is blunting in psychology? ›
Blunted affect, also referred to as emotional blunting, is a prominent symptom of schizophrenia. Patients with blunted affect have difficulty in expressing their emotions , characterized by diminished facial expression, expressive gestures and vocal expressions in reaction to emotion provoking stimuli [1–3].Could you have quiet BPD? ›
Quiet borderline personality disorder, or quiet BPD, is a classification some psychologists use to describe a subtype of borderline personality disorder (BPD). While many symptoms of BPD can manifest outward (such as aggression toward others), individuals with quiet BPD may direct symptoms like aggression inward.Is there a narcissistic empath? ›
That is, some narcissistic individuals may have intact empathic ability, but choose to disengage from others' pain or distress, while others may have a deficient ability in the recognition of others' feelings.Do people with alexithymia lack empathy? ›
Moreover, alexithymia is linked to deficits in empathy, i.e., the ability to take the perspective of others and to understand others' feelings and intentions. In fact, alexithymia has been found to be a transdiagnostic precursor of empathic difficulties (Valdespino et al., 2017).How does a person with alexithymia act? ›
Alexithymia is not a condition in its own right, but rather an inability to identify and describe emotions. People with alexithymia have difficulties recognizing and communicating their own emotions, and they also struggle to recognize and respond to emotions in others.Can alexithymia patients feel pain? ›
Alexithymia, the inability to identify or label emotions, has been shown to be associated with pain in patients with a number of chronic pain conditions.What is the most softest language? ›
Italian language, or Italiano—as it is commonly known, is a Romance language and one of the languages most people would readily agree on as one of the softest and sweetest languages in existence. The language of revolutionists like Dante da Vinci, and Pavarotti, Italian is spoken by 66 million people globally.What languages are sensitive? ›
A programming language that can differentiate between upper case and lower case characters is known as a case-sensitive language. Many programming languages such as C, C#, C++, Java, Python, Ruby, Swift, etc. can differentiate between upper case and lower case characters, making it case sensitive language.What is the strongest love language? ›
The love language preferred by the most people is quality time: 38% rank this as their top love language. Women — those under 45 (41%) and those 45 and over (44%) — are especially likely to say quality time is their favorite way to receive love.
The Polish language uses all types of swearing mentioned. Research has shown that "Polish people hear profanity more often in a public space than in a private space". 65% of surveyed adults said they have sworn due to emotions and only 21% claimed they never swore.What language sounds the angriest? ›
But what about German? By reputation at least, the mother tongue of Bach, Beethoven and Goethe is the death metal of languages. Non-German speakers often describe it as “harsh,” “angry” and “guttural.”What is the most peaceful language? ›
In the latter half of the 19th century, Ludovik Lazarus Zamenhof had an idea.What is the hardest language to listen to? ›
As mentioned before, Mandarin is unanimously considered the most difficult language to master in the world! Spoken by over a billion people in the world, the language can be extremely difficult for people whose native languages use the Latin writing system.
Everyone has a primary love language-quality time, words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, or physical touch. In The Five Love Languages Men's Edition, #1 New York Times bestselling author Dr. Gary Chapman guides husbands in identifying, understanding, and speaking their wife's love language.What is the easiest love language? ›
it's a way to show affection to your partner and it's also a great way to receive affection as well. Out of the five love languages, physical touch is easy to express and is usually the easiest to understand.
1. Spanish. Spanish is the most spoken of the Romance languages, with around 75% of today's Spanish vocabulary coming from Latin. After Mandarin Chinese, Spanish is the second most spoken native language worldwide.Which language has no abusive? ›
Without curse words, the Japanese language managed to articulate its way across hundreds of years of evolution, though with some limitations to apply. Looking into another language and its special traits, even just the smallest aspects like profanity, is truly inspiring.What languages have no swears? ›
Unless you're speaking Esperanto, it's best to cover your ears. It's been suggested people can't swear in Japanese or Finnish, but the rumours are wrong in both cases - the only languages in which one cannot swear are 'artificial' ones such as Esperanto.Which language is oldest in the world? ›
1. Egyptian – 2690 BC (circa. 4700 years old) The first known language ever was a proto-language on the African continent, and the first known proto-writing system was created in Nigeria. So, it is perhaps no surprise that the oldest language on this list is also from and used in Africa – Egyptian.