Volume 10 Number 1-2
  • ISSN 0929-0907
  • E-ISSN: 1569-9943
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Anthropologists and linguists have long been aware that the body is explicitly referred to in conventional description of emotion in languages around the world. There is abundant linguistic data showing expression of emotions in terms of their imagined ‘locus’ in the physical body. The most important methodological issue in the study of emotions is language, for the ways people talk give us access to ‘folk descriptions’ of the emotions. ‘Technical terminology’, whether based on English or otherwise, is not excluded from this ‘folk’ status. It may appear to be safely ‘scientific’ and thus culturally neutral, but in fact it is not: technical English is a variety of English and reflects, to some extent, culture-specific ways of thinking (and categorising) associated with the English language. People — as researchers studying other people, or as people in real-life social association — cannot directly access the emotional experience of others, and language is the usual mode of ‘packaging’ one’s experience so it may be accessible to others. Careful description of linguistic data from as broad as possible a cross-linguistic base is thus an important part of emotion research. All people experience biological events and processes associated with certain thoughts (or, as psychologists say, ‘appraisals’), but there is more to ‘emotion’ than just these physiological phenomena. Speakers of some languages talk about their emotional experiences as if they are located in some internal organ such as ‘the liver’, yet they cannot localise feeling in this physical organ. This phenomenon needs to be understood better, and one of the problems is finding a method of comparison that allows us to compare descriptions from different languages which show apparently great formal and semantic variation. Some simple concepts including feel and body are universal or near-universal, and as such are good candidates for terms of description which may help to eradicate confusion and exoticism from cross-linguistic comparison and semantic typology. Semantic analysis reveals great variation in concepts of emotion across languages and cultures — but such analysis requires a sound and well-founded methodology. While leaving room for different approaches to the task, we suggest that such a methodology can be based on empirically established linguistic universal (or near-universal) concepts, and on ‘cognitive scenarios’ articulated in terms of these concepts. Also, we warn against the danger of exoticism involved in taking all body part references ‘literally’. Above all, we argue that what is needed is a combination of empirical cross-linguistic investigations and a theoretical and methodological awareness, recognising the impossibility of exploring other people’s emotions without keeping language in focus: both as an object and as a tool of study.


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  • Article Type: Research Article
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