How Can Words Describe?
|Beyond the DSM-5|
Much of what we can understand about other people's emotional states is in the ear, eye and even tongue of the beholder.
Yiddish, the language of my grandparents, is a particularly “feeling” language. The language was spoken in the home by Jews of Western Europe. Ladino, the dialect for Sephardic Jews, scattered throughout the Mediterranean after expulsion from Spain due to the Inquisition, is an admix of Hebrew, Spanish, Arabic, Turkish and other languages.
The Yiddish tongue evolved to include an amalgam of Hebrew, Aramaic, German, Polish and a bissel of the Romance languages as the ancient Hebrews, who were destined to roam the Diaspora from the time of the Babylonian exile until the mid-20th century, acquired the words and accompanying gestures to express a rich range of human emotions—from long-suffering to ecstatic.
Take verklempt, made famous in a Saturday Night Live skit, “Coffee Talk,” with Mike Myers and Co. A word meaning “Overcome with emotion!” even sounds dramatic. Or hear somebody kvetch, complaining as if they’re trekking over mountains in pinchy high heels.
For a broader, yet more nuanced appreciation of how other languages have grown up around feelings, the infographic above shows the rich variations of emotional experiencing evidenced in a host of other languages. Each could contribute to the ways we understand ourselves--and each other.
What is missing in translation is how much expressions of emotion demonstrate the national/linguistic character of the peoples who speak any given language. And how much the rest of us are missing out on by not being able to express our feelings with precision.
Beyond generic constellations —
Why would a Japanese mother, for example, use language that expresses the emotion between "bittersweet", "painful" and "wistful"? Were there generations of Japanese women whose cherished children broke their hearts? Do not mothers in all cultures feel such maternal heartsickness at times?
On the other end of the emotional color wheel, a key aspect of cheerfulness in Danish is hygee, a feeling of comfort and coziness; enjoying food and drink with friends and family. Are Americans too busy to distinguish general good cheer from the joys of intimacy? Or is that experience of too much closeness a thing of the rosy past, when (according to my nonagenarian mother) families would hang out nightly on the front porch sipping lemonade and greeting neighbors strolling down the street? Does such general bonhomie then contribute to a trust that makes people comfortable leaving the front door unlocked?
Umami and Gedempt by Any Other Name Would Taste as Yummy
Is it any wonder that, in almost every language there are expressions for food that hit the taste buds with a burst of emotion?
Sweet, sour, salty, bitter – the words that describe the combination of tastes the celebrated French chef Escoffier discovered plying his culinary trade that go beyond any of those individual sensations on the tongue to make something greater in the sum than in their parts: umami. So it goes with gedempt, a Yiddish word for something “slow-stewed and falling apart”, like a brisket so tender and tasty the meat peels away from the fork. Is it any wonder that Escoffier’s 19th century “invention” of veal stock was the basis for a recipe known to every Yiddishe mamma from the Pale to the Bronx?
And is it any mystery that words like sweet, sour, salty and bitter – flavorings and tastes that materialize merely in the mind of the taster – also are used to describe our emotions? And that, when it comes to describing utter deliciousness, words alone are a weak substitute for the experience of tasting?
Leashing Emotion to Unleash Expression
The stories we tell others, in any language, may seem pale in the face of intense emotions where words do not even suffice to express. In large part, our ability to express how we feel depends on empathy — the ability of another to feel and relate to what I feel. In the emotional retelling of our stories – our joys, fears, shames, love – seems to come from a deep human impulse to share, and one that most connects to others whose recounting of similar, even universal stories may often reassure us that we are not alone, thus bring healing and health to our hearts, words alone cannot express.
Emotion is a whole body experience. Felt in the mind, body and heart, we are emotional beings. Between our feelings, our words, ourselves and others lies a universe.
Yet, if we speak out of anger, fear, or even ecstasy, we are less apt to make ourselves understood. Psychologists and neuroscientists alike confirm that we are not in control of our rational minds. In the throes of intensity, it is difficult to have the presence of mind to understand ourselves, much less convey to others what is going on.
Think first, talk later.
An Escoffier contemporary, the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, reveals the secret to connecting from heart to heart in The Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”Speak from the heart, as the saying goes, and your story, no matter the limits of language, will touch other hearts receptive to the feeling.