Saturday, December 2, 2017

Does a Rose in Another Language Smell Just as Sweet?

This Blog Was Written By 
Raven Jared Janoski 

 Discovering the barrier between language and emotion: How does the way we speak influence the way we understand and think about emotion 

As an English speaker I have always been under the impression that to speak the English language is to have a certain privilege. Next to Mandarin (native speakers: 1.2 billion) and Spanish (400 million), English is the third most common language spoken, with about 360 million native English speakers. In 2016-2017 I spent the year traveling through Europe, India, Guatemala and Mexico, and as an English speaker, I was hardly ever “inconvenienced” by not speaking the native language of whatever country I was in. English spreads far and wide, in total, nearly 1 billion people speak English either natively, as a second language, or as a foreign language. So wherever you may end up, most likely you’ll find someone who speaks English there. When it comes to communication with other people, to speak English is definitely an advantage, and to know only a little, can go a long way when out in the world. While this is true, to communicate with oneself is an entirely different terrain. 

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states that language influences the way that we think, and can even shape our culture, and worldly outlook. But it is also believed that language dictates the way we think, for instance: I wouldn’t know how to differentiate between red and vermillion if I did not know the word ‘vermillion’. While a debated topic, it is something to think about when contemplating how we interpret the world, and more specifically, how we interpret emotion. I will share with you an journey of emotion that I have embarked on, and two words that I have discovered this past year, words that I have helped me to classify emotions that I already had, but did not have the means to describe. 

The first is "liget". It is a word shared by the headhunting Ilongot people of the Philippines, and if you have read or listened to the NPR segment on this matter (Invisibilia: A Man Finds an Explosive Emotion Locked in a Word)**, you will understand the gravity of this word, and the pure emotion that is locked inside of it. This is where English has failed me, because we do not have such a word that reflects the emotion that anthropologists have come to define as “high voltage”. English’s reach, and its ability to allow me to communicate with the billion people who can speak and understand it, although bridges a gap in understanding one another, does nothing to help me to describe an emotion such as liget, and understand this emotion within myself. In the segment by NPR, the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo described that he initially believed liget to be an adjective for a person who was very productive or full of energy, but after the indigenous peoples described that they felt liget after the death of a beloved tribesman, he began to question this description. It was only after the death of his wife, Shelly, that he could fully grasp liget, and how the same electric feeling that could run through someone and give them the stamina to hunt and trek the forest with tact and energy, could also be the same as the electricity of pain, energy and frustration that one feels after the loss of a loved one. 
After the death of my mother, I read this article and something clicked within me. I knew this word because I too had felt it, and it was nothing like the “stages of grief” that I was supposed to be experiencing. Liget allowed me to step into an emotion that I had, but had previously not been able to define. Liget allowed me to dissect more feelings that have no words in English, but I knew that I was experiencing. Liget helped me, like Renato Rolando, to heal and move forward. 

After my experience with Liget, I felt a sort of weight lift from my chest, and I had a new idea of a destination to a place of stability and happiness, but I did not quite know how to get there. There were two experiences in my travels that allowed me to understand a new idea that I had been missing, a new concept of emotion locked in the English language, and a road map to this new place with a Danish word. 
When I was travelling Europe, I got lost when I was in Hungary because I boarded the wrong train. When I disembarked I had no idea where I was or how I was supposed to get to my next destination. It was a particularly frigid October night and a sense of panic struck me while I walked though a town I didn’t recognize. Because I could communicate easily with English, I was able to ask for directions, and get another train the next morning. English allowed me to book a hotel room and a train ticket, it gave me a sense of security and calmness and a way out of my situation. On the train the next day however, I was struck with a feeling of such homesickness I had never felt. In the 12 hours I spent riding to Switzerland I began to think of where it was exactly I wanted to get to. I wanted to get to place of happiness in the wake of this tumultuous grief I was feeling. I couldn’t quite explain what it was, but in my sketchbook I drew the faces of loved ones, my favorite places, an especially comfy wingback chair in my room, a mug of hot tea, and other things that made me feel safe and warm, secure and happy. This was my destination, but there was still something missing that I could not describe. 
Months later, I found myself on a white sandy beach in Mexico -  I was having a conversation with a family member, discussing our shared grief, and I explained to her how I was feeling. I vocalized that I was happy, and I have wonderful moments of happiness, but for some reason something is missing, there is a big chunk of happiness missing, but I could not find the right words to describe it. That’s when I realized the distinction between happiness and joy. I had been feeling happy, but joy was still absent, and I was hell bent on finding it. 

My destination had gotten slightly more clear since this discussion, but I still did not have a word that would encapsulate where I wanted to be, until I found hygge. Hygge, (pronounced hoo-ga) I discovered when reading The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, by Meik Wiking, who is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark. This book opened my eyes to a wider state of mind when it comes to interpreting happiness, and would allow another piece of myself to fall back into place. 
Hygge is similar to what Canadians refer to as “hominess”, “koselig” in Norway, and “gezelligeid” in The Netherlands. Hygge has allowed me to pinpoint my destination, and understand the place of joy I wanted to live in. It is a place that is family togetherness, the warmth of a fire, the feeling of a night of the first snow or when the first dots of fireflies light the air. Hygge is tactile in the aesthetic aspect; it is dark wood and old books as well as baking pies and building a fire in a wood stove. But Hygge is also emotional, it is the feeling of comfort and security and joy all wrapped up into one. What I came to discover, is that hygge is not just a word that describes comfort; it is a way of living. The Dutch have an entire culture formed around hygge, and have many variations of the word to describe different aspects of its meaning.

1. Hyggekrog- “A nook of a kitchen or living room where one can sit and have a hyggelig time.”*
2. Hyggebukser- “That one pair of pants you would never wear in public but are so comfortable that they are likely to be, secretly, your favorites.”*
3. Hyggestund- “A moment of hygge.”*
4. Hyggesnak- “Chitchat or cozy conversation that doesn’t touch on controversial issues.”*

The list goes on; hygge is such an important part of Danish culture, one that definitely shapes their worldview, and in the eyes of Meik Wiking, and many other Danes I’m sure, is essential to why they are considered the happiest people on earth. 

Were Sapir and Whorf correct in their hypothesis? In my own personal experience I can say that the English language has helped and restricted me in many ways. While English has allowed me a key to communication, it has in some aspects created a deficit in understanding thoughts and emotions that are not described in my native language. In this sense, their hypothesis is right and wrong.  Yes, English has shaped me, and contributes heavily to the culture I grew up in, but it did not restrict me from feeling liget or hygge, it just has not given me the words to describe these feelings. Words are powerful beings, and it is only right that they should be given this credit. It matters how we describe ourselves, our emotions, our ways of life, because it can shed light on our differences, but more importantly, in our similarities. 


* Wiking, Meik. The little book of hygge: Danish secrets to happy living. William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2017.


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