“The lexicon of a foreign language is like a map of a country you’ve never been to,” says psychologist Tim Lomas, a lecturer at the University of East London.
While travelers tend to think that seeing the world is central to understanding it, some language experts shift the paradigm: to them, words themselves shape our perspectives on the world. Studying words therefore offers a window into the human experience.
To these researchers, dictionaries are like maps. They help define the topography and textures of our world, and they can lead the way to discoveries. For travelers left grounded by the pandemic, that means learning new words—or an entire language—might be the most mind-expanding journey of all.
As a word collector, Lomas makes an excellent tour guide. He studies the words we use for our emotions, dreams, and desires—words that vary widely across the world’s 7,117 spoken languages. His research constitutes a global glossary of feelings.
A world of emotions
Languages from Aleut to Zulu contain unique terms for our internal lives, and Lomas has gathered thousands of them into an interactive lexicography. The searchable index of words is sorted by language and theme, and drawn from every part of the globe.
His collection, featuring categories such as “revelry” and “longing,” brims with treasures: Roll your tongue around the German word zielschmerz, for example, to imagine the thrilling dread of finally chasing a long-held dream. Or crank up your stereo and channel the Arabic tarab, a state of enchantment or ecstasy that only music can induce.
Some such words are a journey in themselves. The Wolof term teraanga is a spirit of hospitality, generosity, and sharing that permeates life in Senegal, where travelers enjoy a warm welcome traditionally extended to guests.
And Lomas’s own lexicon is inspired, in part, by travel. More than two decades ago, a teenaged Lomas spent six months roaming around China. The trip introduced him to far-ranging cultures and belief systems, including Buddhism, which arose in ancient India before spreading across much of Asia. Lomas became particularly enthralled by the concepts of tao and nirvana.
“China had such detailed theories about the mind, well-being, or emotional states,” he says. “I could definitely appreciate that lots of this fell outside my conceptual horizon.” For Lomas, encountering the then-unfamiliar words—and the ideas behind them—inspired a lifelong interest in Buddhism and meditation.
“There are real limitations if we only view our emotional lives through the prism of English,” he says. It’s a belief that underlies the lexicon, and one that he brings to his psychological research. If you want to understand the human mind, Lomas suggests, you have to look beyond your own culture.
Are there ‘untranslatable’ words?
You may recognize some of the words in Lomas’s collection from the lists of “untranslatable” words that have taken the internet by storm in recent years. They include terms such as hygge, the Scandi-inflected pleasure of cozy comfort, and sisu, a kind of stoic grit celebrated in Finland.
Many language experts are skeptical of such lists. “Often, they hew suspiciously close to stereotypes about the culture in question,” writes David Shariatmadari in his myth-busting linguistics book Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language.
The very idea of words being “untranslatable” doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, either, Shariatmadari explains. After all, such lists of words invariably go on to include perfectly good translations. Instead of “untranslatable,” it’s more accurate to say they lack a one-word, English-language equivalent.
Here’s the real surprise: This is the case not just for ultra-specific words like hygge and sisu. When it comes to feelings, one-to-one exact translations are less common than you might think. Even terms such as happiness, sadness, and anger—which seem basic to English speakers—are not universal and don’t exist in every language.
Take “happy,” for instance. Flip through a Polish-English dictionary, and you’ll find the term szczęśliwy offered as a direct translation. But the Polish word is actually different, said the late Polish poet Stanisław Barańczak, who translated emotion-rich works by authors including William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson into his native language.
While happiness can be casual, szczęśliwy is set aside for “rare states of profound bliss, or total satisfaction with serious things such as love, family, the meaning of life,” Barańczak wrote in the book Emotion and Cause: Linguistic Theory and Computational Implementation. The emotional contours of szczęśliwy are different from that of happiness. What first appears to be an easy translation is anything but.
Why words matter in the first place
When learning a new language, students have been known to paste tiny vocabulary stickers all over the house, turning furniture into memory-jogging flash cards. But if words are just labels, why does it matter how we refer to emotions?
Some researchers believe that words can subtly shape the way we see the world. One such researcher is neuroscientist Kristen Lindquist, director of the Carolina Affective Science Lab at the University of North Carolina, who has found that the words we use play an important role in turning experiences into recognizable emotions. She described the process as a kind of categorization, like slipping an experience into a mental filing cabinet.
“The brain automatically and implicitly engages in categorization all the time,” Lindquist says. As an example, she describes the desktop display on her computer, which has a photo of a mountain on it. Tiny pixels of light beam out at her from the screen, and her brain uses categories acquired through experience—she’s seen plenty of mountains—to interpret the image. Without such categories, which rely on language, the display would be just a random smattering of color.
“That’s the process by which any emotional experience is coming into being,” she says. “The concepts that we know, especially for categories such as emotion, which are really abstract categories, are supported in large part by the language that we speak.”
Using a theory called psychological constructionism, Lindquist explains how an emotion, such as joy, might arise. First comes a constellation of thoughts, sights, smells, and other experiences. Your brain uses existing categories, she says, to sort those incoming sensations into something you can make sense of.
Peer inside each of those categories, and you’ll find impressive variety, Lindquist says. Feelings can be fuzzy, free-floating, and hard to define, but words help group them into something more coherent. “Language serves as the glue,” she says.
The power of learning language
Learning a new language might start to make that glue more flexible. “There are all sorts of differences in terms of how finely you break down your categories,” says Aneta Pavlenko, a linguist at the University of Oslo’s Center for Multilingualism in Society across the Lifespan. Pavlenko argues that becoming bilingual or multilingual can restructure those categories, expanding the ways we conceive of emotions.
“Maybe you see things as a single type of anger, but now you need to see them as three or four different varieties of anger,” she says. The same goes for joy, delight, or even love.
Pavlenko warns that simply picking up some flash cards won’t reshuffle your brain’s emotional categories. To do that, you need to put the new vocabulary to use, preferably in a situation where you’re sure to talk about feelings. (She notes that a cross-cultural romance might be the quickest route to a reshuffling.)
But even if you’re not making flirty small talk in Tagalog or Urdu this winter, language study can still be a mind-expanding experience, says Lomas. While poring over a map isn’t the same as actually exploring the nooks and crannies of an unfamiliar landscape, it does hint at the shape of things—just as learning new words gives a glimpse of just how expansive the world of emotions can be.
As we struggle to make sense of our feelings amid the ongoing pandemic, foreign words can offer solace, in the form of named experiences English lacks the vocabulary for.
After months away from loved ones, we can surely all relate to the Romanian dor, intense yearning after absent people and places. Moments of beauty in a difficult time could stir the Chinese bēi xî jiāo jí, a bittersweet blend of joy and sadness. And travelers staying safely at home might feel the aching tug of fernweh, the German nostalgia for places not yet seen.
“It’s trying to appreciate how people live and experience life,” Lomas says. “And I think words can do that.”