The way humans conceptualise emotions such as anger, fear, joy and sadness may vary across different languages, researchers have said.
A new study, which included data from more than 2,000 languages, suggests there is “significant variation” in how emotions are expressed across cultures.
As an example, the researchers said the word “surprise” is closely associated with “fear” in some of the languages spoken in the Pacific Islands, while those in south-east Asia equate the same word with concepts like “hope” and “want”.
Joshua Jackson, a PhD student at the University of North Carolina and lead author on the study, said: “The emotion ‘surprise’ is particularly helpful for understanding this study.
“Given that one language family has negative associations with the word and another has positive associations, you can imagine how speakers of these different languages might respond to people jumping from behind furniture or out of a dark room and shouting ‘Surprise!’.”
The team from the University of North Carolina in the US and the Max Planck Institute in Germany used a method known as “colexification” to identify semantic patterns in a sample of 2,474 languages.
The process involved analysing words that had more than one meaning.
The researchers found that languages across the globe described emotions differently, despite being equated in translation dictionaries.
For example, Persians in Iran use the word “aenduh” to express both the concepts of “grief” and “regret”, while in Dargwa, which is spoken in the Russian republic Dagestan, the word “dard” is used to indicate “grief” as well as “anxiety”.
Writing in the journal Science, the researchers noted: “Persian speakers may therefore understand ‘grief’ as an emotion more similar to ‘regret’, whereas Dargwa speakers may understand ‘grief’ as more similar to ‘anxiety’.
In addition, the team found that geography played a role in emotional expression across different cultures, with language groups located closer to one another sharing more similar views of emotion compared with faraway language clusters.
Mr Jackson said: “This difference is likely because of historical contact and communications among nearby groups, which has led to a stronger shared understanding of emotions.”
However, the team found that all languages were able to distinguish emotions primarily based on whether they are pleasant or unpleasant to experience, regardless of geography.
According to the researchers, the findings suggest that “universal elements of emotion experience may stem from biological evolution”.
Mr Jackson said: “In such a diverse sample, I was surprised to see how universally languages distinguished pleasant emotions from unpleasant emotions.”