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Review of  Emotions in Crosslinguistic Perspective

Reviewer: Serge Sharoff
Book Title: Emotions in Crosslinguistic Perspective
Book Author: Jean Harkins Anna Wierzbicka
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): Amharic
Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 13.991

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Harkins, Jean, and Anna Wierzbicka, ed. (2001) Emotions in
Crosslinguistic Perspective. Mouton de Gruyter, vi+421pp, hardback ISBN
3-11-017064-7, Cognitive Linguistic Research 17
Announced in

Serge Sharoff, Universit�t Bielefeld

The purpose of the book is defined in the introductory chapter written
by the editors Anna Wierzbicka and Jean Harkins. The book is aimed at
studying emotions from the perspective of different cultures and
languages. The attitude contrasts with psychological and neurological
studies on the same topic. Brain scanning studies require
sophisticated equipment, so they are mostly conducted in
English-speaking research environments. This is one of the reasons
why neurological studies typically assume universality of basic
emotions (like anger, fear or shame) following uses of respective
words in English. As for psychological studies, an emotion, say,
anger, significantly varies from person to person, from one situation
to another one, while language gives a conceptual connection
between two disparate emotion experiences by providing the same label
for them. At the same time, the system of labels for emotional
experiences is organized in different ways in different cultures and
languages. Significant differences can be found even in closely
related languages, as, for instance, differences in meanings of anger
in English and �rger in German.

This is the main thread of argumentation offered in the introduction
against the ethnocentric and in favor of the ethnographical approach
to studying emotions, when emotion words are described without
importing categories ''from outside'', but by means of the Natural
Semantic Metalanguage (NSM), which describes meanings of words using
semantic primes, like FEEL, BAD, I, YOU, SOMEONE, SOMETHING, which are
allegedly available in all languages. Readers familiar with previous
works by Wierzbicka will notice that the set of primes (about 60) is
significantly expanded in comparison to her earlier works such as
Lingua Mentalis (Wierzbicka, 1980) with just 13 primitives. The
chapter also defines a methodology, which uses prototype scenarios for
describing emotions. An explication basically consists of four parts:
(1) an emotional formula: X felt something because X thought something;
(2) a prototype scenario: something good happened, I wanted this to happen;
(3) an evaluation: when this person (I) thinks this, this persons feels
something good;
(4) implications of the scenario for the person (X), which is different
from ''I'' in the prototype scenario: X felt something like this,
because X thought something like this.

The explication above stands for ''X was pleased''. The explication for ''X
was delighted'', for instance, differs from it only in the scenario: ''I
know now: something very good happened; I didn't know that this would
happen'' and the evaluation: ''feels something very good''.

The introduction is followed by 11 chapters by various authors who
apply the theoretical principles of the NSM approach to studying
emotion words in various languages. The structure of many chapters
in the book (not all) follows the pattern: an informal discussion of
lexical item(s) to be considered is followed by their explications.

The chapter by Mengistu Amberber considers the applicability of
semantic universals to describing emotion words in Amharic (a Semitic
language). The paper tests 10 hypotheses from (Wierzbicka, 1999),
e.g. ''All languages have a word for FEEL'', ''In all languages, feelings
can be described as good or bad'', ''In all languages, people can
describe feelings via observable bodily symptoms'', etc. The chapter
considers not only strictly lexical, but also grammatical means for
delivering emotions. For instance, the verb azzene is comparable to
''be sad'', but can be translated into English also as be disappointed
or sympathize. The two meanings are distinguished by the syntactic
frame: one preposition (le) is used for expressing compassion
(i.e. sympathy), while another preposition (bb) for expressing
disappointment. The two polysemous meanings are described by two

The chapter by Robert Bugenhagen studies emotion words in Mbula, a
language of Papua New Guinea, in particular, body image expressions in
the Mbula culture. Unlike English, which uses a specialized
vocabulary of abstract terms referring to emotional concepts (angry,
offence, happy), the majority of expressions referring to emotions in
Mbula are related to body parts, which localize the experience,
e.g. eye, liver, stomach, etc. Mata (eye) is the most productive
concept, which is used for many different purposes, for instance, Y
mata-mben (eye night), be angry at Y who does not see things, as if it
were night, or Y iur mata-pa Z (Y puts eye for Z), Y hopes for Z.
However, many examples cited in the paper do not refer to emotions per
se, e.g. awake, unconscious, to lose consciousness.

The chapter by Uwe Durst has an ironical title ''Why Germans don't feel
anger'' and is devoted to studying different words referring to anger
in German: �rger, Wut, Zorn and their derivatives (sich �rgern,
w�tend, zornig). The research is based on uses of respective words in
the Mannheim Corpus, their translations into English and historical
changes in their meanings. The chapter shows that the allegedly basic
emotion expressed by the English word anger has ho direct counterpart
in German, a language close to English both genetically and

The chapter by N.J.Enfield studies facial expression descriptions in
Lao. The chapter is indirectly related to the main topic of the book,
both because it does not use the NSM-style explications and because of
its subject: it contains a discussion of basic emotional expressions
in Lao (without a reference to facial expressions) and facial expressions
themselves, which are often, but not always used for attributing
emotional states. However, the study mirrors the description of body
image expressions in the chapter by Bugenhagen.

The chapter by Cliff Goddard is devoted to analysis of a single word
in Malay: hati, which can be translated into English as ''heart'', the
sensitive part of a person. First, various uses and collocations with
hati are studied (hati is a productive source for various expressions
of emotions). Then, the author considers possibilities for translating
the set of the NSM primes into Malay, so that explications of
respective concepts can be done directly in this language.

The chapter by Jean Harkins studies expressions referring to anger in
Arrernte (a language of Central Australia), as well as in Aboriginal
English, in which certain English words have also acquired new
meanings, for instance, cheeky refers to a serious potential for
violence or harm. She goes in depth about interpersonal dimensions
important in Arrernte for expressing one's anger: the immediate
intention to retaliate, the type of the offender, the desire/lack of it
to communicate to the offender (cf. sulky in English), etc. The
author also considers the possibilities for translating the NSM primes
into Arrernte and uses explications written in Arrernte (unlike the
previous chapter by Goddard, which explications are in English, even
though he provides the set of semantic primes in Malay).

The chapter by Rie Hasada studies two groups of Japanese
sound-symbolic words denoting surprise and restlessness (anxiety,
fear, nervousness). Uses of such words as haQ, gyoQ and dokiQ (all
roughly correspond to startled) are difficult to grasp for a language
learner, yet the correct choice between them is very important for
effective communication. Their explications offered by the author
are: I know something because of this vs. I can't do anything now
because of this vs. I could hear something like this: dokiQ in my
heart (only the core of the explication is quoted). From the
explications, it is clear that each word is used for communicating a
specific meaning, which is not easily lexicalized in English.

The chapter by Pawel Kornacki considers the family of five basic
words, which are used to express anger in Chinese: sheng/qi, nao(huo),
fen and taoyan. Explications proposed by the author help to identify
points of similarity and difference between these words and their
possible translations into English, e.g. controlled vs. uncontrolled
anger, the effect of surprise, manifestation of one's emotions, etc.

The chapter by Irina Levontina and Anna Zalizniak lists more than a
dozen emotion concepts that have not received in-depth treatment in
the already extensive literature on Russian emotions. Several topics
are addressed: various feelings of pleasure, negative feelings (like
toska, obida), interpersonal relationships (e.g. zhalost', rodnoj), as
well as a group of feelings referring to departure from a person or
place (razluka, soskuchit'sja, toska). The authors make an explicit
claim that they do not distinguish in their discussion between words,
concepts they incorporate and fragments of reality they refer to. It
is seems that the attitude is shared by other contributors to the
volume: objects of their descriptions are not clearly articulated
(i.e. it is unclear whether their statements concern words, concepts
or emotional states), cf. the Critical Evaluation section of the
review below.

The chapter by Anna Wierzbicka is devoted to the Polish word przykro
(it roughly corresponds to hurt, offended, sorry). The author tries
to define an explication covering the invariant meaning behind various
uses of the word, which refers to a bad feeling experienced by X; it
can be caused either by someone else's apparent emotional rejection of
X, or by X's own action which may appear to someone else to indicate
X's rejection of them. The chapter also offers explications for the
English words comparable with przykro and for the English idiom ''feel
bad'', which is different in its meaning from ''feel something bad'',
which is extensively used in explications.

The final chapter by Zhengdao Ye considers words referring to sadness
in Chinese: bei, ai and chou, which are often translated as grief,
sadness, sorrow. However, the three words encode significantly
different meanings: sadness as an immediate response to a recent event
in bei, sorrow and compassion prototypicaly caused by someone's death
in ai, and the lasting feeling, when the experiencer lacks forces to
change the situation, in chou. The author also demonstrates
intertranslatability of the NSM primes by providing explication both
in English and Chinese.

The introductory chapter refers to a statement made by Geeraerts
(1999) concerning two methodological extremes of cognitive
linguistics: empiricist vs. idealistic analysis. The NSM approach is
a clear instance of the idealistic analysis: it claims that any word
*has* an invariant meaning, which can be represented by means of a
semantic metalanguage; the concept (idea) behind a word is primary
with respect to its use in communication (empiricist analyses are more
oriented towards communication: they assume that a word is *used* to
realize certain intentions, so the attention of the researcher is
aimed at studying patterns of uses, preferably based on a corpus,
cf. two definitions of usage-based approaches in cognitive (Langacker,
1988) and systemic-functional linguistics (Halliday, Matthiessen,

The stance determines both strong and weak points of the book. On the
one hand, almost all contributions follow the NSM methodology by
constructing explications out of the set of semantic primes defined in
the introduction. Thus, the book provides an example study of how
various phenomena referring to emotions in various cultures can be
treated by decomposing words into semantic primes. On the other hand,
the discussion says relatively little about the actual behavior of
lexical items and about cases in which they are really used. A good
explication reveals something essential for (culture-specific)
concepts designated by lexical items, but it does not embrace the
whole range of their (non-metaphorical) uses. For instance, the
following example from LDOCE:

Tom was delighted at the sensation he was creating.

implies that Tom knew that he created the sensation and wanted to do
it (in contrast to the scenario for delighted, as described in the
introduction and quoted above). Another case is the typical polite

Thanks for the invitation. I'd be delighted to come.

This implies neither that ''something very good happened'' (at most,
this means that I'm pleased with the invitation) nor that ''I didn't
know that this would happen''.

The dependence on intuition and the failure to distinguish between
concepts and uses of words can also lead to factual errors. For
instance, Levontina and Zalizniak study the difference between uses of
two Russian words referring to enjoyment: naslazhdenie and
udovolstvie. The authors claim that the first word belongs to the
''high'' sphere, while the second one to bodily pleasures, so the
combination of udovolstvie with istinnyj (true, also a word from the
''high'' sphere) is impossible, unlike ''istinnoe naslazhdenie''; the
claim is supported by selected examples from Dostoyevsky and Pushkin.
However, the allegedly impossible collocation ''istinnoe udovolstvie''
is *more* frequent than ''istinnoe naslazhdenie'' (5725 vs. 5164
occurrences according to the Yandex count). I think that this does
not undermine the validity of the claim that culture-specific
*concepts* istinnyj and naslazhdenie belong to the ''high'' sphere,
unlike udovolstvie. At the same time, respective words are used for
many different purposes. I think that the difference between their
uses can be summarized by means of the following general pattern:
udovolstvie emphasizes transitory properties of enjoyment of something
happening in the immediate perception, while naslazhdenie emphasizes
more durative feelings. Both words can be used in the same situation.
The choice between them depends on communicative intentions of the
speaker (which aspect of the situation to be emohasized). The quality
istinnyj can be also combined with both words with the purpose to
express the high degree and quality of respective feeling (it provides
a lexical realization of Bon in terms of Mel'chuk's Lexical
Functions). Such errors caused by over-dependence on intuition can be
reduced, only when the analysis is based on representative corpora.
There is also a danger of taking examples from highly figurative
speech, e.g. poetry or psychological novels, which may distort the
picture of real uses of lexical items.

In short, there are theoretical problems with the description of word
meanings by representing them in terms of semantic primes, for
instance: are semantic formulae really meant when people communicate
with each other? (e.g. all explications referring to anger include an
assertion that something bad can happen to the angry person, but this
does not necessarily correspond to the intention of the speaker).
Other problems: how polysemous senses of, say, ''sad'' are represented
(inlcuding sad stories, events, situations, being lonely); what
happens in the case of misunderstanding (how can people fail to refer
unanymously to the Platonic realm of explications?), etc, cf. the
brilliant discussion in (Geeraerts, 1999).

Notwithstanding the theoretical problems, explications are very useful
for practical purposes: as concise and rigorous tools for explicating
the core meanings of certain culture-specific words, for instance, for
explicating differences between uses of haQ, gyoQ and dokiQ in
Japanese (cf. the chapter by Hasada). The explications were helpful
for students of Japanese (as claimed by Hasada) and for me as the
reviewer trying to grasp semantic differences in expressions referring
to surpise in Japanese. Thus, the two approaches (idealistic vs.
empiricist) are not mutually exclusive, but rather complementary both
in terms of their aims and their outcomes.

A minor complaint concerns the choice of submissions for the book.
The chapters vary in the range of phenomena covered in them. Five
chapters are devoted to differences in uses of a group of lexical
items, constituting a semantic subfield, e.g. referring to sadness,
anger, surprise. Four chapters provide an overview of emotional
lexicons in respective languages (Amharic, Lao, Mbula, Russian); while
two chapters concentrate on specific words, which are salient in
respective cultures (hati in Malay and przykro in Polish). When the
complete set of lexical items referring to emotions (and often to
cognitively-based feelings in general) is treated in a relatively
small chapter, the discussion remains cursory: the window into another
culture is too panoramic. When a single lexical item is treated in
detail, one can grasp its meaning, but its relationship to other
concepts in the culture remains obscure: the window into another
culture is too narrow. Out of this reason, the most informative
chapters (at least, for the reviewer) happened to be those devoted to
a group of related lexical items. For instance, three chapters in the
book are devoted to expressions related to anger in, respectivily,
Arrernte, Chinese and German. The cross-cultural perspective offered
in the three chapters provides a lot of information for a contrastive
study. On the one hand, it is a difficult task for editors to level
the analyses offered in papers by various contributors. On the other
hand, if the editors had balanced the contributions, say, dealing with
a semantic subfield, the book would become a classic reference source
in the field of cross-linguistic study of emotional expressions.

Anyway, in spite of minor shortcomings, the book is a valuable
contribution to understanding of emotions in different cultures,
especially, for lesser studied languages.

Geeraerts, Dirk (1999). Idealistic and empiricist tendencies in
cognitive semantics. In T.Jansen and G.Redeker (eds.), Cognitive
Linguistics: Foundations, Scope and Methodology. Berlin: Mouton de
Gruyter. 163-194.

Halliday, M.A.K., Matthiessen, C.M.I.M. (1999). Construing experience
through meaning: a language-based approach to cognition. London:

Langacker, R. (1988). A usage-based model. In Brygida Rudzka-Ostyn
(ed.), Topics in cognitive linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins,
pp. 127-161.

Wierzbicka, Anna (1980). Lingua mentalis: the semantics of natural
language. Sydney: Academic Press.

Wierzbicka, Anna (1999). Emotions across Languages and Cultures.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Serge Sharoff is an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the University of
Bielefeld, Germany. His research interests are in the fields of
corpus studies, cognitive science and computational linguistics.
Currently he works on a corpus-based description of uses of several
word classes (emotions, size adjectives, verbs of motion) in English,
German and Russian. The background for the study is Halliday's
systemic-functional linguistics.