Happiness, Linguistically Speaking

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I’m a hopeless romantic. At least when it comes to languages, I am. Or, you know, so I’m told. (Cough) By my, you know, legion of fans. (Cough, cough, cough)

Writing for that rag (thank you, Donnie T.!) otherwise known as The New Yorker, Emily Anthes (@EmilyAnthes) wrote a great article called “The Glossary of Happiness.” I’ve written before on the wonder and magic connected to what I believe is mankind’s greatest invention, language, but in this particular piece by Ms. Anthes, she goes into detail about University of East London’s Tim Lomas (@drtimlomas), a lecturer in positive psychology, and his Positive Lexicography Project.

What in blue balls is a “lexicography project”? As always, reader, that is a fine and dandy question full of vim and vigour.

In a nut-filled nutshell, Mr. Lomas began compiling a dictionary last year of terms from languages other than English – and with a stress on languages from non-Western ideas and experiences – that have interesting words to describe some positive act, belief, event, or state of mind. The aim is to “develop a more cross-cultural view of well-being.”

Let me highlight some of my favourite inclusions that have made the final cut.

ilunga (Tshiluba): being ready to forgive a first time, tolerate a second time, but never a third time

mamihlapinatapei (Yagán) a look between people that expresses unspoken but mutual desire

tarab (Arabic) musically induced ecstasy or enchantment

queesting: (Dutch) to allow a lover access to one’s bed for chitchat (ha ha ha…chitchat…will have to explore what “chitchat” means in Dutch)

utepils (Norwegian) a beer that is enjoyed outside . . . particularly on the first hot day of the year (Note: How we as Canadians don’t have a word like this is shameful. We should languish and rot like a rotten tomato for such an oversight. The only terms I can think of that are relatively close are “patio season” or, apropos of this weekend, “May two-four”)

However, Mr. Lomas isn’t just doing this because putting together dictionaries is obviously a fun, funny and funly pastime. He’s more concerned about linguistic relativity, which “posits that language itself – the specific tongue that we happen to speak – shapes our thoughts and perceptions.” As Ms. Anthes writes:

Those who believe in linguistic determinism, the strictest version, might argue that a culture that lacks a term for a certain emotion—a particular shade of joy or flavor of love—cannot recognize or experience it at all. Lomas, like many modern linguists, rejects that idea, but believes that language affects thought in more modest ways. Studying a culture’s emotional vocabulary, he said, may provide a window into how its people see the world.

Thus, the conservative high priests of linguistic determination might say that because the Japanese don’t really have a word like “love” – as in “I love you” – and instead use the word daisuki (大好き) – as in “I like you” – that they are unable to experience this feeling the same way we do in countries like Australia, Canada, Fiji and the U.S., for example.

(As a sidebar, this is exactly what so fascinated me and formed the core theme of a short story of mine called “The Language of Love.”)

On the flip side of the proverbial coin, there is no direct translation from Korean to English for the word han (한), a derivative from Chinese (恨), and which refers to deep, deep, deep suffering/regret/resentment. It is, in my opinion, the most important word to describe ethnic Korean culture on the Korean Peninsula, but we simply don’t have a single word to wrap this one up in and tie neatly with a bow on top.

Does that mean that I, as a native English speaker from the Great White North, cannot understand this feeling or experience of han? After spending a quarter of my life living in Korea, I’d say no, I really don’t. I know pain, I know suffering, I know loss, but I don’t feel han the same way a Korean born and raised in Mokpo, for example, does.

Alternatively, that same go-getter from Mokpo cannot linguistically understand the way in which I “love” because our noun/verb version of this word is so malleable that in English we can “love” our spouse, our parents, a piece of gum, philosophy, TV shows, God, cold winter nights, and warm summer days. In Korean, you only get to use sarang (사랑) as a noun and saranghada (사랑하다) as a verb with sentient beings, and usually just with human beings at that.

So, is happiness tied to our ability to express this emotion linguistically? Saint Bonaventure is famous for once saying, “amor est magis cognitivus quam cognition,” which translates roughly into “We know things better through love than through knowledge.”

Perhaps the Kenyans don’t have as many words for “snow” as do the Inuit of Nunavut, but I’m pretty sure they’re sensible enough to know that it’s probably not a good idea to sleep on top of any kind of snow without some kind of shelter. At the same time, I’m not a Buddhist, I’m not ethnically Korean, and 한국어 is not my first language, but this deep into the ballgame otherwise known as life I sure as s*** know what sorrow and regret feel like when blended together like a tornado, even if we don’t have the perfect word in English to convey this emotion.


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