Two weeks ago, researchers in London found experimental proof for the proverbial "fine line" between love and hate. The emotions activate the same brain circuitry and are very similar cognitive experiences, according to Lauren Cox of the ABC News medical unit. The finding supports what many have suspected: our complex human emotions do not always represent very different phenomena but may blur and overlap within the brain. Despite this neurological fact, we maintain important distinctions among the terms we use to describe emotions. We would not spit out "I hate you" to convey the warm feelings akin to love. If these emotions do not involve contrasting cognitive processes, why then do we grant them oppositional meanings?
According to psychologist Lisa Barrett in her 2006 article "Solving the Emotion Paradox: Categorization and the Experience of Emotion," a word is typically an arbitrary construct with regard to its referent. That is, what we call a 'rose' might well have been called 'halitosis' or 'sewage' or 'garbage dump' without any loss to its concrete meaning; its rose-ness would remain intact, and yes, it would still smell as sweet. Emotions, unlike roses, have no external referent to hold or pick or sniff. But our linguistic knowledge contains terms like 'love' and 'hate' that give titles to these abstracts. We must wonder, are these emotion-words still arbitrary constructs or might they bear more relevance to meaning? Could different words for one emotion give rise to different experiences?
Try extending these questions to a cross-linguistic scenario: a Spaniard and a Czech meet on an airplane and, despite the absence of a common language, fall hopelessly and madly in love. Sadly, their time together is short and they must separate after a few days. The linguistic gap in their communication now combines with their physical miles of separation and leaves them in a constant state of unappeased yearning.
To an English-speaker, this longing signifies a shared nostalgia that adds another emotional component to the experience of 'love.' The ancient Greek nostos ('return') and algos ('suffering') combine to give us the word that denotes a painful desire for an impossible return. Many languages contain a version of the Greek as well as their own term of local origin. As Czech author Milan Kundera explains in his novel Ignorance, semantic differences abound between the derivations. In Spanish, a Romance language, the word a√±oranza comes from the Latin ignorare, 'to be unaware' or 'to not know.' A√±oranza then is a need to know what has become of a person--simply put, to miss someone. This word does not explicitly denote an experience of love. Other languages connect nostalgia to a physical location and stray farther from love. These words might translate simply as 'homesick.' But other languages, like Czech, embed nostalgia within the experience of love and emphasize the suffering, the algos, of the term. The Czech word stesk is used to convey the most moving Czech expression of love: styska se mi po tobe...'I yearn for you,' 'I'm nostalgic for you'; 'I cannot bear the pain of your absence.' There is a palpable gap between these translations. We take a semantic leap to move from 'I feel homesick' to reach 'the pain of missing you is unbearable.'
Aside from a√±oranza, other Spanish words could bring our sad Spaniard closer to expressing 'love.' He could use the verb querer, 'to want' and say, 'Te quiero,' (literally, 'I want you'). But this desire lands far from the necessity and intensity of 'I cannot bear your absence,' and lacks any notion of nostalgia. There is a problem, quite obviously, in the couple's ability to convey their feelings. But there is an even greater problem in that the emotions they feel are not congruent, merely similar. The semantic differences may influence the actual experience; the way a Spaniard yearns with his a√±oranza may be incomparable to the way a Czech feels stesk.
In 1956, linguistic anthropologist Benjamin Whorf published his linguistic relativity hypothesis (LRH), and argued that language intrinsically influences cognition. According to the LRH, the available words of our spoken language do not function on a one-way path, passively encasing what we see and feel. The LRH theorized that words have a more active power in shaping our observations and perceptions.
According a 2005 article by Pollio, Fagan, and Graves in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, debate surrounding Whorf's LRH has led scholars to one of two opposing perspectives: universalism and particularism. Supporters of linguistic universalism hold that experience dictates language, that reality is universal regardless of lexical or semantic difference. Particularism reverses this logic and holds that experience is created by a language's words and definitions.
The strictest application of particularism is alienating. It severely limits the possibility of true communication. Language always precedes and shapes experience in a subjective way. Speakers of the same language then may have different usages and dialects, leading them to divergent experiences. It is therefore somewhat fortunate for the human psyche that experimental support for this rigid theory is weak.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, linguistic universalism completely rejects Whorf's original LRH in favor of a total expressivity of human experience. Like strict particularism, however, this view also oversimplifies a much more complex issue: language and thought do not form a cause-and-effect relationship. Language might not create reality but it can, to use Whorf's word, "point" a speaker towards specific aspects of meaning. Our Czech and our Spaniard do not necessarily feel a different love. Instead their native expressions may highlight and emphasize different aspects of that same emotion.
Between universalism and strict particularism we find an apt middle ground, a view Stepanova and Coley termed, in a 2002 article in the Journal of Cognition and Culture, "weak linguistic relativity." This theory holds that linguistic structure does not rigidly confine thought but serves to make certain concepts more accessible and more salient to its native speakers. Many linguists align more closely with this view than with either extreme position. According to weak linguistic relativity, our language pushes and molds our observations. Most often, experiments find that there are differences in basic-level cognitive processes as a result of linguistic variations. These differences, however, rarely lead to any subjectivity in experience. Russian, for example, defines 'envy' and 'jealousy' as two distinct emotions. In English the two feelings overlap by definition. Experiments have shown that native Russians will differ from native English speakers in their classification of emotions in situations regarding 'envy' and 'jealousy' However, their understanding of the situations themselves will be the same.
In this same way, our Spaniard and our Czech might categorize their emotions with different terms. The Spaniard might identify his love as a combination consisting of equal parts 'amor' (love) and 'a√±oranza' (yearning). Without a label for the composite feeling, the Spaniard may take a nanosecond longer to categorize it. The Czech, however, could neatly name his love-yearning with one native word: 'stesk.' The differences in labels and categorization, under the lens of weak linguistic relativity, would not necessitate any subjectivity to their experience.
The universalist approach to language and cognition oversimplifies our reality. Strict particularism--the reverse of universalist logic--similarly fails to account for the dynamics of language and thought. Weak linguistic relativity gives us a more fluid perspective. Language can influence our thoughts and our thoughts in turn, can influence our language. There is an outside flow of factors--culture, history, and environment--that may influence both, giving rise to the innumerable words we use and the various connotations that they provide.
Let us now return a final time to our international lovers. The nation known today as the Czech Republic has passed through several periods of occupation and forms of government. The turbulent, insecure path of Czech history is ingrained as a fundamental aspect of the culture. The country's national anthem "Where Is My Home?" connects national pride to the feeling of nostalgia. It is no wonder then that a yearning necessity is incorporated into the most intense expression of Czech love. That the word 'stesk' exists in the lexicon is indicative of the nation's history and culture. The definition implied by the Czech term for love may not exist under any single Spanish dictionary entry. But our Spaniard can still be made to understand. Having taken the time and effort to learn his lover and his lover's history and culture, the Spaniard could see the depth and intensity of the expression "styska se mi po tobe." Perhaps he may even adopt a word into his own vocabulary, adding another layer of richness to his experience of the emotion known as 'love.'
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