Do Our Words Shape Our Feelings?





“Use your words,” we tell little kids when they start to stomp or wail. “Tell me what you’re feeling,” I urge my husband. What am I feeling? I ask myself regularly, knowing that once I name an emotion, it will crawl out of my gut, where it hid and trembled, and let me dangle it at arm’s length, studying it from that safe distance.

I steal words from other languages for the same reason, sneaking them into my backpack because they express in one or two syllables something English might need a whole sentence to convey. When, in Yiddish, I am kvelling, I am bursting with pride. When I have German’s Kummerspeck (literally, grief bacon), I have gained excess weight from emotional overeating. Even Japan’s three-word Koi No Yokan is easier than explaining “the sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall in love.”

But here is my question: How powerfully does the language we have for our emotions shape what we are able to feel? Is it any more likely that you will know your romantic destiny upon meeting someone if your language has a word for the phenomenon?

Certain languages lend themselves to certain experiences. Sprezzatura, we had to borrow from the Italians, because English lacks a particular word for this studied carelessness, this deliberate impression of ease in works of art. Is that because our artists try too hard, or because we do not fancy the elitism that would create special words for the arts? Sprezzatura must look effortless, but it cannot be reduced to “nonchalance.” If I want to seem nonchalant, I will smooth my brow and paste a slight smile on my lips. But if I am standing alone by the chips and dip pretending not to care, no one will call this sprezzatura.

Specificity, but also wisdom, have buried themselves in many of the words I steal. Lord knows I need the German verschlimmbesserung, a reminder of the worsening that often comes with attempts at improvement. And I suspect I would feel less muddled and guilty if I remembered that it is normal to feel what the Japanese call Arigata-meiwaku, resenting the need to feel grateful when someone has complicated my life by doing me a favor I never wanted done in the first place. Italians call the attempt to resurrect and fix an unworkable relationship cavoli riscaldati (reheated cabbage), which seems an excellent disincentive. And I am in increasing need of German’s Torschlusspanik (literally, gate-closing), a word that names the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages.

If such words existed in our native language, tickling our brains on a regular basis, would we be wiser? I think we might. (Look how gratifying it is when someone puts your feelings into just the right words, or how awful it is to be misquoted.)

We would certainly find subtle emotional states easier to recognize. Even hearing the word “chair” helped people identify images of chairs while distracted by flashing lights. Hearing the wrong label, maybe “kangaroo” or “eyeglasses,” sharply cut their chances. “Language,” the researchers concluded, “can boost otherwise unseen objects into visual awareness.”

In another study, people with semantic dementia, unable to remember the meanings of the words “anger,” “disgust,” “fear,” or “sadness,” perceived the corresponding facial expressions as merely unpleasant. So do two-year-olds, but by age seven, children usually know what those words mean, and so they can easily distinguish the various emotions.

A surprise, though: applying a word label is not always helpful. If you are struggling with a math problem sadistically designed to make you feel anger or shame, and you are asked to monitor and report what you are feeling, your heart rate and blood pressure will shoot up. But if you are not asked to monitor and report what you are feeling, your cardiac condition will be measurably better, and your body will show signs more consistent with active coping. Labeling a negative emotional experience—that practice I have cultivated for years—can intensify it.

This feels important. The next time I feel anxious and overwhelmed and need to say so, I will reach for a different label. Stimulated, excited, hopeful, or challenged would all be valid ways to interpret (or spin) a faster heartbeat, sweaty palms, and speculations about the future—and they sound so much better. When I am scared, saying the word will only heighten the fear, tying this instance to every other scary thing I have ever felt or confronted. Yet what I feel, in my brain and my gut, could also be perceived as extra alertness, vigilance, readiness, an awareness of how much I love whatever might be threatened.

Dutch psychologist Betja Mesquita writes that native speakers of Luganda “use the same word, okusunguwala, for anger and sadness.” Ugandans point out that the language does distinguish between the two meanings, but no matter—what captures my attention is the possibility. If Americans equated sadness and anger, seeing them as two facets of the same state, would we embrace anger with the same zeal? Or would anger cease to feel powerful? What if, every time something makes us mad, we substitute “scared” or “sad.” Is that more honest? Less exciting? How much power do our words wield?

My question turns out to be the hinge of a longstanding argument in linguistics. Some see language as the glue, binding our abstract emotional categories to our actual, embodied experiences and physical perceptions. Because we know the word “fear,” we feel it when we are standing in a dark alley (external sensations) with our heart pounding (internal sensations). The word supports the concept that lets us assemble all those sensations into a single, meaningful reality.

Yet I do not need the word “fear” to feel scared.

I do not need the Scottish word tartle to hesitate in panic because we are about to introduce someone and have forgotten their name.

I do not need the Norwegian word friluftsliv to decide to enjoy time outdoors even in the harshest weather.

Even when language does shape our emotions, meaning can be drained from these words (and thus energy from the emotions). When the ancient Greeks felt enthusiasm (enthousiasmós), their language defined the feeling as being “in god,” en theos, inspired by divine energy.

We just feel kinda positive.

I play with that, saying aloud that I feel enthusiastic about something. Sounds a little Pollyanna, a little meh. Then I say I feel “ecstatic,” and the experience comes alive again.

We might as well play around, because no matter how long the linguists argue, no single theory will capture the intricate interweaving of language and emotion. Yes, some emotions are universal and basic, but others seem to be culturally specific. Some emotions have words behind them; others remain vague, felt, and we need poets and novelists to explore them. Our emotional lives are influenced by our culture and our relationships, but they are also influenced by our innate temperament, our biology, our brain chemistry, and the current situation. Words can help us recognize, manage, cool, and explain what we are feeling, but they can also intensify it, adding conceptual layers to what began as only a fast pulse and a bit of breathlessness.

The next time I wonder what I am feeling, maybe I should take my actual pulse. What is my body feeling? How should I interpret that? Will a label help, and if so, what label will help the most? Because I suspect I jump too quickly to the same old conclusions.

Might as well use whatever power those words possess.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.