Emotion semantics show both cultural variation and universal structure

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Science  20 Dec 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6472, pp. 1517-1522
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw8160

The diverse way that languages convey emotion

It is unclear whether emotion terms have the same meaning across cultures. Jackson et al. examined nearly 2500 languages to determine the degree of similarity in linguistic networks of 24 emotion terms across cultures (see the Perspective by Majid). There were low levels of similarity, and thus high variability, in the meaning of emotion terms across cultures. Similarity of emotion terms could be predicted on the basis of the geographic proximity of the languages they originate from, their hedonic valence, and the physiological arousal they evoke.

Science, this issue p. 1517; see also p. 1444


Many human languages have words for emotions such as “anger” and “fear,” yet it is not clear whether these emotions have similar meanings across languages, or why their meanings might vary. We estimate emotion semantics across a sample of 2474 spoken languages using “colexification”—a phenomenon in which languages name semantically related concepts with the same word. Analyses show significant variation in networks of emotion concept colexification, which is predicted by the geographic proximity of language families. We also find evidence of universal structure in emotion colexification networks, with all families differentiating emotions primarily on the basis of hedonic valence and physiological activation. Our findings contribute to debates about universality and diversity in how humans understand and experience emotion.

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