The unspeakable emotions

Unusual or complex emotions can be difficult to describe in English

If you have ever experienced a distinct or unfamiliar feeling that you couldn’t quite name, you might have encountered one of the many emotions for which there are no words in English. Though no language is sophisticated enough to name all human emotions, when it comes to describing our feelings the English language can be a bit limiting.

As an example, in English we have many words for money (cash, pounds, stirling, quid, currency, coins, notes, bob, bucks, grand) and only one word for loneliness.

Yet the loneliness one feels when alone and missing other people might be different from the loneliness someone experiences in a crowded room. And the word ‘sad’ has become almost meaningless through over-use, largely because there are few alternatives to describe this common human feeling.

The more we are able to name a feeling the better we’re able to understand the emotions that shape and motivate our behaviour. Having the right words for emotions is key to self-awareness and when we encounter a nameless emotion, language can let us down. We search for a word and it’s not there. Generally, the more we are able to give shape and meaning to our emotions, the better.

Sometimes, of course, no single word captures exactly how we feel. At these times, we may find ourselves trying to describe an emotion using many words. We may try to compare a feeling to other feelings we’ve had in the past. Or we might try to describe a feeling by explaining what it’s not: ‘I am grieving for him, but it’s not like the grief I felt for my sister.’

For every emotion that has a name in English, there are many emotional experiences that remain nameless.

Not all languages are the same

Though English has not evolved names for many emotions, some languages provide more opportunity for naming our feelings, often by breaking emotions down into their more complex parts. The German language is well-known for having many words for emotions that aren’t easily translated into English. Some good examples of words for emotions in other languages that we don’t have at hand in English include:

forelsket (Norwegian) – the euphoria you feel when you first fall in love

schadenfreude (German) – the pleasure derived from someone else’s pain

pena ajena (Spanish) – the discomfort you feel when watching someone else’s humiliation

yoko meshi (Japanese) – the stressful feelings that arise when trying to speak a foreign language

l’esprit de l’escalier (French) – the realisation of a clever comeback when it’s too late to deliver it

meraki (Greek) – doing something with soul, or with love: putting yourself into what you’re doing

gigil (Filipino) – the urge to squeeze or pinch something that is unbearably cute

cafuné (Brazilian Portuguese) – the act of running your fingers tenderly through someone’s hair with affection

There are many others.

Being able to put words to our feelings is essential to emotional well-being. Often, a significant part of therapy will be about learning to put names to feelings; to give emotions shape and scope so that they can be understood. Without the use of language for self-expression, we would experience endless un-named feelings without always understanding what they mean or where they originate. This could be frightening and confusing.

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