Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Non-English emotion words

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Non-English emotion words:
What non-English words help to describe human emotions?

Overview[edit | edit source]

The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines emotion as a ‘complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioural, and physiological elements, by which an individual attempts to deal with a personally significant matter or event’ (APA, 2020). According to the Merriam-Webster English dictionary (2021) whilst there are 3000 core words to describe these emotions, most of us experience feelings not easily expressed using the English language. As a result, there is a growing fascination with non-English words that perfectly capture these familiar sentiments. The purpose of this chapter is to introduce some of these captivating words, discuss whether emotions are universal or influenced by geography and culture, and explain how a richer emotional vocabulary using non-English words may assist psychological wellbeing.

Focus questions:

  • Are emotions universal?
  • Can non- English words for emotions be directly translated?
  • How expanding our non-English emotional vocabulary can improve psychological wellbeing

Non-English words that describe human emotion[edit | edit source]

Why such words bring joy[edit | edit source]

As much of the study of psychology has taken place within the Western context, many of its concepts tend to reflect a bias towards such ways of thinking. As a result, Lomas (2016) argues Western-centric psychologists have much to learn from other cultures, particularly with reference to how they think and speak about well-being. The author states that many non-English words for emotions feel like whispered secrets from other cultures that prompt a comprehension of the size of the universe and a joy of uncovering a new perspective. In addition, these intriguing words are often a stepping stone to new vocabularies that crystallize unnamed sentiments and remind us of the shared experience of being human.

Table 1. Selected non-English Emotion Words Including Meaning and Origin
Word Meaning Language
Saudade A somewhat melancholic feeling of incompleteness. Longing for that might never return. Yearning. Portuguese
Taarab A musically induced state of ecstasy or enchantment. Arabic
Iktsuarpok The anticipation one feels when waiting for someone, whereby one keeps going outside to check if they have arrived. Inuit
Commuovere Heart-warming, specifically refers to a story that moved you to tears Italian
Jijivisha Strong, eternal desire to live and to continue living Hindi
Kilig Jittery fluttering feeling when talking to someone you fancy Tagalog
Tokimeki Excitement; Feeling of bliss or joy from a discrete experience Japanese
Tartle Hesitating while introducing someone because you have forgotten their name Scottish
Han The state of feeling sad and hopeful at the same time Korean
Estrenar The feeling you get when you wear something for the first time Spanish
Eudaimonia The contented happy state you feel when you travel Greek
Fremdscham A feeling of shame for actions done by someone else. German
Test yourself - Obscure Emotions Quiz

Universality of human emotions[edit | edit source]

All languages distinguish between pleasant and unpleasant emotions[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Ekman proposed basic emotions are evident through universally recognised facial expressions.

Charles Darwin suggested that as emotions serve to communicate they are universally expressed, whilst Ekman identifies the six basic human emotions as anger, surprise, disgust, enjoyment, fear, and sadness claiming they are accurately recognised across cultures (Kowalska & Wrobel, 2017). However according to Wierzbicka (1986), if there is a set of fundamental human emotions why are they all so conveniently expressed in the English language. The author claims that English words for emotion represent a folk taxonomy not a culture -free objective framework, so the assumption that such feelings are universal are false. Yet in a major study of emotion semantics and linguistic colexifications Jackson et al., (2019) found that whilst not all emotion words are common there is evidence of a universal structure. The authors state that regardless of language, positive and negative emotions seldom belonged to the same colexification community, suggesting there are common psychophysiological domains. This means that emotions are distinguished based on hedonic valence and whether low or high levels of physiological arousal are involved. For example, few languages linked low arousal sadness to high level anger or pleasant emotion happy to the unpleasant sensation of regret.

Universal elements of the emotion experience may stem from biological evolution[edit | edit source]

Modern evolutionary theorists therefore highlight the adaptive value of emotional expression stating there is a biological basis for certain innate emotions across all cultures (Passer & Smith, 2019). Cross-cultural research on the universality of facial expressions and physiological responses supports this view claiming that when certain emotions are aroused, changes in both the autonomic and central nervous systems occur (Matsumoto & Hwang, 2012).

RESEARCH SPOTLIGHT | Evidence for biology activating universal emotional expression
This study compared the facial expressions of blind athletes in medal matches at the 2004 Paralympic Games with sighted athletes competing at the Olympics in the same year. They found near perfect concordance in facial actions and emotional facial configurations amongst the non - sighted and sighted athletes from all the participating countries. Because congenitally blind athletes could not have learnt these expressions visibly, they cite this as compelling evidence that spontaneous facial expression of emotion is not dependent upon cultural learning but biology (Matsumoto & Willingham, 2009).

Cultures express emotion in relation to geography[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Studies of blind and sighted Olympic athletes indicate that facial expression of emotion is not socially learnt.

However, the evolutionary view does not assume all emotions are innate with recent research indicating many expressions of emotions are also a result of geographical proximity (Jackson et al., 2019). Whilst emotion words vary across languages, by examining colexification and the latitude and longitude of linguistic families, the authors found speakers who live close to each other tend to share similar meanings. “For example, “anxiety” was closely related to “fear” among Tai-Kadai languages but was more related to “grief” and “regret” amongst Austroasiatic languages. By contrast, “anger” was related to “envy” among NakhDaghestanian languages, but was more related to “hate,” “bad,” and “proud” among Austronesian languages” (p.1521). Furthermore, regional display rules dictate how emotions are expressed with body posture and gestures varying in meaning depending upon cultural context. For example, an upright thumb in Greece is equivalent to a raised middle finger in Australia (Passer & Smith, 2019). It is therefore clear that the human expression of emotion should not only recognise biological evolution but geographic proximity and cultural variation.

Diversity in how humans understand and experience emotion[edit | edit source]

Psychological constructionist model of emotions[edit | edit source]

When considering the emotion-brain connection, constructionist models of emotion claim that feelings such as anger, fear, and sadness, occur when humans make socially learned inferences about the meaning of basic physiological sensations and processes (Jackson et al., 2019). According to Russell (as cited in Ellis & Zachar, 2012) emotions are not explained by one process but a combination of (a) the components such as nervous systems changes, behaviours, or subjective experience (b) the associations amongst these components and (c) the categorisation of the patterns of these components into an emotion. Research by Lindquist and Barret (2012) has shown that areas of the brain activated during emotion experiences are similar to the areas associated with other psychological processes such as memory, language, and attention. They claim this is evidence that emotions are constructed as a result of basic feelings (positive and negative) and knowledge about emotions itself.

Listen, Hear - Your brain is not what you think it is, with Lisa Feldman Barrett

Conceptual act theory[edit | edit source]

The ability to perceive emotions is therefore not innate but constructed through changes in homeostatic behaviour made meaningful by experience. The Conceptual Act Theory (CAT) explains how language plays a fundamental role in the construction of emotion by helping individuals acquire and support representations of emotion categories (Lindquist et al., 2015). For example, concept knowledge about the category of fear includes bodily sensations such as sweaty palms or racing heart (affect) and a threatening context such as public speaking or a dark alley, which helps the brain understand these sensations and act upon them. According to research, this knowledge is acquired in early childhood as words for specific emotions are learnt and feedback from caregivers about their own and others effective states is received. For example, according to Barrett (2017), whilst children are not taught feelings, emotional concepts such as feeling sad when something bad happens or being happy on your birthday are learnt. This learning continues throughout adulthood as sensory inputs are moderated by experience and language acquisition to create new representations of emotion. CAT makes it clear that language plays a powerful role in the construction of emotion and as result culture predicts which emotional concepts are available to each person.

AUSTRALIAN FOCUS | Aboriginal expressions of emotion

As already described bodily and linguistic expressions of emotion are influenced by biology, geography, and culture. As a result, there exists differences in expressivity however, many Australian Aboriginal languages have a specific body-emotion association that shapes their unique emotional experience. According to Ponsonnet (2021), there a number of reasons for this phenomenon including that body parts are involved in both emotional and physiological behaviours whilst some body parts such as ears represent a bridge to the mind. The researcher has created a lexicon of over 800 Aboriginal emotion words that connect to the body though metaphor available at

         Table 2. Selected body-emotion Aboriginal expressions of emotion 
Word Translation Meaning Aboriginal language
kangu-mon belly good feel good, be in a good mood Dalabon (Arnhem Land)
buladu-gaang big nose greedy Woiwurrung (Victoria)
ngarrkalen to have someone in the heart to be in love Gija (Kimberley)
mee'ang wakan follow from the eyes covet Wik Mungkan (Cape York)
atkrek heart cracks fear or shock Kriol (Top End)
miyalu pi-nyi stomach strike angry or upset Warlpiri (Central Australia)
pin-warr ears stop/cease homesick, miss a person Yir Yoront (Cape York)

Source: Ponsonnet, M. 2021. Emotion Language Australia. Online content, The University of Western Australia.

Figure 3: 'Another aboriginal beauty' by Michael Loke

Role of culture and appraisal in emotional response to the world[edit | edit source]

When words are translated there is a risk of changing meaning[edit | edit source]

Whilst evidence exists of biological expressions of universal human emotions, the CAT theory also explains emotions are constructed through culturally agreed perceptions of cognitions that are shared through language. As already discussed, according to Ekman selected facial expressions are labelled with the same emotion regardless of language or culture, yet for this to be true common English words for emotions must have equivalent translations in other languages. In fact an English-Arabic study of such translations found only one emotion word (happiness -farah) passed the test of equivalence in which the same event, facial expression and synonym matched (Kayyal & Russell, 2012). Whilst other words such as sadness and anger show a language difference with words disgust and interest displaying a cultural difference. This study is significant as it provides evidence that the translation of emotion words risks changing its meaning.

No Word-No Feeling? [edit | edit source]

However, according to Wierzbicka (1986), this is because whilst countless human emotions are recognised and experienced by all cultures, each language has its own set of emotion words they regard as particularly salient. For example, the Polish word 'tesknic' whilst related to English words such as 'homesick' or 'nostalgic' has a unique meaning more akin to the debilitating pain of distance. Whilst the Aboriginal language Pintupi has a series of emotion words, not seen in Western culture, reflecting a deep love and concern for kin and country. However, this does not mean English speakers do not understand or experience these emotions but just have not found it worthy of a significant or special name. The author therefore believes that the emotion words used by any speaker provides important clues as to their culture often reflecting history, national preoccupations, and ways of thinking. As a result, whilst outsiders may appreciate these emotion words, the rich nuances of meaning cannot be replaced by translations without a knowledge of the cultural phenomenon from which it was derived.

Cultural appropriation and commercialisation[edit | edit source]

It is therefore clear that emotion words specific to a country or region often arise from different cultures, values, and history. With the rise in popularity of these words, new concepts can be in danger of cultural appropriation as the associated experiences are marketed for consumption in new territories with little understanding of its context.

A defining feature of Danish identity is Hygge (pronounced hoo-ga), which whilst difficult to translate is described as a feeling of wellbeing, cosiness, and comfort. Hygge is embedded in Danish culture from childhood and represents the shared values of collective well-being and safe habitat, which led to an application for the concept for inclusion in UNESCO's Convention (2017) for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. However, the recent trend of selling books, homewares and television shows based on the concept implies that Hygge is achieved through the purchasing of goods. Yet as the Danes emphasise Hygge is a feeling that cannot be bought, some claim that the concept has been misused as a lifestyle trend and thus in danger of cultural appropriation (Marozaite & Preshelkova, 2019).

How a non-English vocabulary can enrich well-being[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Well-being can be described as judging life positively and feeling comfortable, healthy and happy.

Positive lexicography project[edit | edit source]

To overcome criticism of well-being psychology’s Western bias, culture specific studies of positive mental states are an important addition to the discipline. As seen, untranslatable words are trending in popular culture as they identify a familiar feeling in a novel way. Furthermore, these words provide an opportunity to conceptualise unexpressed feelings simply because previously no word existed to capture them using a limited vocabulary. An interest in positive mental states combined with this fascination for untranslatable emotions words therefore prompted psychologist Tim Lomas to develop the positive lexicography project. Using concepts such as positive emotions, valued qualities, and beneficial relationships, Lomas searched websites and blogs, and canvased colleagues, friends, and family to uncover well-being expressions from languages other than English. As the lexicography is an ongoing project it can be revisited and reused to improve understanding of well being in a cultural context and expand the emotional vocabularies and experiences of all language speakers.

Summary of the benefits of non-English words on well-being[edit | edit source]

  • Better identification and understanding of complex emotions
  • Helps communicate thoughts using words not available in the English vocabulary
  • Openness to experiences of the beauty and richness of other cultures
CONCEPT CHECK | Linguistic relativism
Does the language we speak, shape how we think? The milder version of the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ linguistic relativism, states that the grammatical structure of a language influences thoughts and decisions. It proposes that people can only reflect on a concept if they have the words to describe it. It is true that untranslatable words often identify unique cultural concepts which native speakers naturally understand. For example, although words like schadenfreude can be borrowed by other languages it may be difficult to say, making it easier for speakers of German to think about the world in a certain way (Swoyer, 2013). Yet having a name for concepts like ‘the pleasure derived from another person's misfortune’ illustrates how non-English words can act like a mental toolbox to extend thinking and capture emotional nuance.

Emotional granularity - how learning new words can provide strategies to deal with life[edit | edit source]

Expanding vocabularies to include non-English words can improve emotional granularity or the ability to identify more precise feelings. Individuals who label nuanced emotions are more likely to understand, regulate and utilise their feelings and avoid negative coping mechanisms (Barrett, 2017). This is particularly important when making distinctions between similar emotional states. According to Smidt & Suvak, (2015) whilst differentiating between positively and negatively valanced emotions such as 'happy' and 'sad' is relatively easy, attending to emotions of similar valence and activation such as 'angry' and 'frustrated' is more difficult. By paying attention to specific feelings and moving away from using standard words such as 'happy', 'sad', or 'excited', into more accurate words such as 'carefree', 'melancholy' and 'elated' helps recognise, reframe, and respond to emotions. Furthermore, as emotion vocabularies vary from language-to-language incorporating non-English emotion words that more precisely represent the emotional experiences that English often neglects, offers a more nuanced way of seeing ourselves and understanding the world (Lomas, 2020).

Ambivalence - power of positive and negative emotions[edit | edit source]

A further advantage of non-English emotions words is they can perfectly capture the state of ambivalence, experiencing emotions with both negative and positive valence. For example, the Japanese term ‘mono no aware’ refers to the bittersweet realisation of impermanence of life as seen in falling autumn leaves or realising the fleeting nature of youth. According to studies, experiencing these inconsistent emotions simultaneously may diminish stress, foster resilience and creativity, ensure self –protection and help people cope with negative events (Lomas, 2017). These findings dispel the myth that only positive emotions are essential for good mental health and feelings such as hirateh (Welsh for longing), weltschmerz (German for pathos) and yugen (Japanese for awe/sad beauty) whilst sometimes uncomfortable to experience do not always detract from well-being.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

  • Whilst all languages distinguish between pleasant and unpleasant emotions indicating a biological basis for expression, new words to describe emotion have been added over time based on experiences, geographical proximity, and cultural differences.
  • The words we use to name and communicate these emotions highlights the importance of language in the way humans think about feelings such as happiness, fear, and anger, meaning it is important to counter a Western centric view of emotion.
  • In fact, some non- English words are so unique to place they cannot be easily translated due to the cultural and grammatical context meaning not all emotions are equally understood.
  • Despite these difficulties broadening emotional vocabularies to include some of these fascinating words may improve well-being through the ability to pinpoint and appreciate more nuanced feelings.

See also[edit | edit source]

Emotion and Culture (Book chapter, 2010)

Ekman's basic emotions (Book chapter, 2012)

Positive psychology

Over to you[edit | edit source]

Table 3. Reader contributions
Word Meaning Lanuage
Anonadado An emotion that leaves you bewildered, confused and undermined. Spanish
Mudita Feeling good when someone else feels good. Buddhist
Insha'Allah Meaning if God wills it used for future events and a kind way of saying no Arabic
Habib Albi The love of my heart or dearest to the heart Arabic
Fernweh Longing for a place you have never been German
Sukha Genuine, long-term happiness that is unaffected by environment Ancient Indian (Sanskrit)
Inta hayati You are my whole world or the love of my life Arabic
Ala raasii Literal meaning (on the top of my head) meaning I will get it done for you, or no worries or no problem Arabic
Tuqburnii A deep expression of love or care for someone important in your life Arabic

Please share in the table above other non-English words for emotions that capture sentiments you have experienced but were unable to express until now.

References[edit | edit source]

American Psychological Association. (2020). Emotion. In APA dictionary of psychology . Retrieved October 10, 2021 from

Barrett, L. F. (2017). How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain . Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Jackson, J., Watts, J., Henry, T., List, J.-M., Forkel, R., Mucha, P., Greenhill, S., Gray, R., & Lindquist, K. (2019). Emotion semantics show both cultural variation and universal structure. Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science), 366(6472), 1517–1522.

Kayyal, M., & Russell, J. (2013). Language and emotion: Certain English–Arabic translations are not equivalent. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 32(3), 261–271.

Kowalska M., Wróbel M. (2017) Basic Emotions. In V. Zeigler-Hill & T. Shackelford (Eds) Encyclopaedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer.

Lindquist, K., & Barrett, L. (2012). A functional architecture of the human brain: emerging insights from the science of emotion. Trends in cognitive sciences, 16(11), 533–540.

Lindquist, K., MacCormack, J., & Shablack, H. (2015). The role of language in emotion: Predictions from psychological constructionism. Frontiers in psychology, 6(444).

Lomas, T. (2016). Towards a positive cross-cultural lexicography: Enriching our emotional landscape through 216 ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11, 546-558. 10.1080/17439760.2015.1127993

Lomas, T. (2017). The value of ambivalent emotions: a cross-cultural lexical analysis. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 1–25.

Lomas, T. (2020). Towards a cross-cultural lexical map of wellbeing. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1–18.

Marozaite, R. & Preshelkova, V. (2019). Is hygge still hygge in Britain? Roskilde University.

Matsumoto, D., & Hwang, H. (2012). Culture and emotion: The integration of biological and cultural contributions. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 43 (1), 91–118.

Matsumoto, D., & Willingham, B. (2009). Spontaneous facial expressions of emotion of congenitally and noncongenitally blind individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(1), 1–10.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Emotional. In thesaurus. Retrieved October 10, 2021, from

Passer, M., & Smith, R. (2019). Psychology: The Science of mind and behaviour. McGraw-Hill.

Ponsonnet, M. (2021). Emotion Language Australia. The University of Western Australia.

Russell, J. (2012). From a psychological constructionist approach. In P. Zachar & R. Ellis (Eds). Categorical versus Dimensional Models of Affect (79-118). John Benjamin Publishing.

Smidt, K. E., & Suvak, M. K. (2015). A brief, but nuanced, review of emotional granularity and emotion differentiation research. Current Opinion in Psychology, 3 , 48–51.

Swoyer, C. (2003). The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Archive ,

Wierzbicka, A. (1986). Human Emotions: Universal or culture-specific? American Anthropologist, 88 (3), 584–594.

Image Attributions[edit | edit source]

Figure 1 "24/52. Emotion" by danielito311 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Figure 2 "File: Athletics at the 2008 Summer Paralympics – Men's 1500 metres T13.jpg" by li yong is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Figure 3 "Another aboriginal beauty" by Michael Loke is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Figure 4 "Happy Faces” Linnaea Mallette image released under Public Domain licence

External links[edit | edit source]

Expanding our experiential horizons through untranslatable words (TEDx Talks)

From Oldboy to Burning: Han in South Korean films

The ‘untranslatable’ emotions you never knew you had (BBC)

The Unspeakableness (Pei-Ying Lin)

Dictionary of obscure sorrows (John Koenig)