Words for emotions like "anger" and "fear" vary in meaning across language families. Researchers have now compared colexifications of emotion words—cases where one word signifies multiple semantically related concepts. By analyzing such words in 2,474 spoken languages, they found variation in emotion conceptualization and evidence of a universal structure in colexification networks.

Among the rich vocabularies many languages have for communicating emotions, many words appear to name similar emotional states. The English word "love," for example, is often translated into Turkish as "sevgi" and into Hungarian as "szerelem." But whether the concept of "love" has the same meaning for speakers of all three languages remains unclear. In the current study published in Science, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and Australian National University have used a new method of comparative linguistics to examine the meaning of emotion concepts around the globe.

J.C. Jackson el al., "Emotion semantics show cultural variation and universal structure across languages of the world," Science (2019).

DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw8160

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.