Exploring “happiness” and “pain” across languages and cultures

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This chapter argues that the cross-linguistic study of subjective experience as expressed, described and construed in language cannot be set on a sound footing without the aid of a systematic and non-Anglocentric approach to lexical semantic analysis. This conclusion follows from two facts, one theoretical and one empirical. The first is the crucial role of language in accessing and communicating about feelings. The second is the demonstrated existence of substantial, culture-related differences between the meanings of emotional expressions in the languages of the world. We contend that the NSM approach to semantic and cultural analysis (Wierzbicka 1996; Gladkova 2010; Levisen 2012; Goddard 2011; Goddard and Wierzbicka 2014a; Wong 2014; among other works) provides the necessary conceptual and analytical framework to come to grips with these facts. This is demonstrated in practice by the studies of “happiness-like” and “pain-like” expressions across eight languages, undertaken in the present volume. At the same time as probing the precise meanings of these expressions, the authors provide extensive cultural contextualization, showing in some detail how the meanings they are analyzing are truly “cultural meanings”. The project exemplified by the volume can also be read as a linguistically-anchored contribution to cultural psychology (Shweder 2004, 2003), the quest to understand and appreciate the mental life of others in a full spirit of psychological pluralism.


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