The language of emotion, sensation and feelings Part I

When you start to try to explore the domain of human emotion, which we imagine is a universally shared human experience, you realise how your relationship to that which we call emotions or feelings are in some part defined by the lexicon.

For a start, the English-speaking world lack clarity of distinction between an emotion and a feeling. I have to go to work and don’t have time to elucidate on that at the moment, but there is a distinction to make biologically and cognitively.

In the meantime, I have noted that when academic efforts are made to categorise what you might call the fundamental emotions they end up with a variety of lists containing between 5 and 11 emotions, and furthermore that all of these academic sources include anger and fear, with sadness featuring on all but two.

These ‘universal’ emotions are accompanied by physical facial expressions which also seem to be recognisable throughout different people, languages and cultures.

Could it be posited that we are born with a limited emotional blueprint that we experience only as physical sensations whilst babies, unmediated by an as yet underdeveloped cognitive input? And that our emotional range then increases as the brain develops cognitive capacity?

We then learn various emotional states that I would suggest are not fundamental to human survival physically, but provide an indication of how we think we are in the world with others, which is, as any teenage schoolchild can tell you, only marginally less important than whether a lion is about to eat you up for breakfast.  By which I mean we may have learned fear from those around us quite early on, but as we increase our social networks, fear becomes more diffuse: fear of being disliked, left out, bullied for carrying the wrong bag, fear of not doing well in class…  We evolve into states of anxiety.

Some languages label these states in much greater existential detail than we have available in English. German, for example, has many more sophisticated words describing the state of being in the world although it may have only one that covers both feeling(s) and emotion(s): gefühl(e).

My question to myself (and anyone else out there) is, that although we may experience the feelings that the Germans actually have words for (or the French if we think about last week’s l’appel du vide) what do they gain, or we lose, by not being able to categorise them?

It is like holding up a linguistic mirror to the English stiff-upper lip, or the Germans’ existential angst. Does the clarity of the mirror affect the beholder’s experience of life? Too many words for the observation of feelings and you are thrown into the harsh light of life’s two-way changing room mirrors, not enough and you limit your reflective possibilities by trying to examine your existence with a handglass.

Here are a few German words that have found their way into my lexicon and other English speakers too, plus a few that, perhaps, have not, yet…

  • Schadenfreude – you know that one
  • Schwellenangst – threshold dread, the fear of going in somewhere new – something I come across a lot in community engagement work
  • Feierabend – a tricky one meaning the time you knock off work but it loses the positive accompanying feeling it signifies in German when translated into English
  • Torschlusspanik – literally a gate-closing panic but taken to mean the fear that time is running it out for you as you age
  • Gelassenheit – you could take this to mean merely composure, or you could go the whole hog and invoke the willingness to let things be as they are in all their uncertainties and mystery

I feel that that will do for a Monday morning.

Roughly translated - If I could do this day with gelassenheit I would 'be' happy

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Posted on September 12, 2011, in Words and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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