PerspectiveLINGUISTICS

Mapping words reveals emotional diversity

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Science  20 Dec 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6472, pp. 1444-1445
DOI: 10.1126/science.aba1763

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Summary

After seeing an elephant mother standing over her dead infant's body, prodding the baby as if to wake it up (1), it is hard not to believe that elephants grieve—just as we do. It seems some emotions are so elemental that they are evident even in nonhuman animals. At the same time, some cultures' emotional worlds may appear utterly alien to others (2). For example, in Papua New Guinea, Baining hosts feel awumbuk when guests leave after having stayed overnight. Awumbuk, which has been called a 3-day “social hangover” (3), leaves people listless, unable to wake in the morning or to complete mundane tasks. How do we reconcile these disparate observations? Does each culture have its own emotional universe, or is there a bedrock of similarity that unites us all? Centuries of debate have not resolved the issue, but on page 1517, Jackson et al. (4) present the most ambitious cross-cultural study to date of emotion concepts, mapping semantic networks for more than one-third of the world's languages to reveal substantial variability in how emotion concepts are expressed cross-culturally.

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