Trees, beers and tickling: a glossary of joy

Don’t worry, be happy: five ‘unique’ words of joy from the Positive Lexicography project.

A psychologist has created a list of words from around the world that relate to ‘wellbeing’. He hopes that it will enrich our emotional states. Can language really influence us in this way?

Have you ever noticed the beauty of sunlight as it filters through the leaves of a forest canopy?

No? Maybe you have, but only subconsciously. Then again, there is a chance that you think of it regularly – especially if you speak Japanese.

The Japanese have a word for this particular phenomenon: komorebi. You can find it in the Positive Lexicography, an online glossary compiled by psychologist Tim Lomas. The words are taken from languages across the world. The principle: they all relate to a state of wellbeing, and they are all ‘untranslatable’.

Lomas was inspired by a chance encounter with a Finnish word. At a psychology conference, he attended a talk on the term sisu, which the Finns use to describe a kind of ‘determination in the face of adversity’. There must be others like it, thought Lomas: words which describe positive sensations, but which have no counterpart in other tongues.

Intrigued, he began to scour dictionaries. So far he has found hundreds of words, from utepils – Norwegian for ‘a beer that is enjoyed outside’ – to gigil, a Tagalog term for the urge to tickle a loved one. By comparing these words, Lomas aims to shed light on the different values of the world’s cultures. Moreover, he hopes to ‘enrich [our] experiences of wellbeing’ by introducing us to new perspectives on joy.

The notion that words can influence ideas is nothing new. A century ago, the American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf argued that one’s language shapes and limits the way one understands the world. A famous example is the Pirahã people of Brazil, whose language has no numbers: when researchers tried to teach them to count, they had trouble learning.

Yet the precise relationship between language and thought is hotly debated. Over the decades, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – or linguistic relativity, as it is often called – has been expanded, criticised, rejected and revived. What do people believe today? And can the Positive Lexicography really teach us new ways to be happy?

It's the thought that counts

There is no way your language defines what thoughts you are capable of having, say some. If it did, how could you ever learn new words, or another language? The Japanese have the word komorebi because, for whatever reason, they often think about sunlight in forests – not the other way around. Language is a mirror of society, not a blueprint for it.

Language may not limit our thoughts, comes the reply, but it does have some influence. To take the same example: the word komorebi gives the Japanese a shortcut to speak about sunlight in forests, so they do. As a result, they pay more attention to its unique beauty. If we borrow the word, maybe we will too.

You Decide

  1. Which language would you most like to learn, and why?
  2. Do you think in terms of words, abstract ideas, or both?

Activities

  1. Browse the Positive Lexicography (see Become An Expert), and pick your five favourite words. Write five example sentences (in English), each using one of the words.
  2. Without looking them up, write a one-sentence definition for each of these words: happiness, beauty, determination, positive, enjoy.

Some People Say...

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should we learn these new words? Doesn’t English have enough as it is?
English certainly has a very rich vocabulary. But the point of Lomas’s project isn’t just to learn some more words: it’s to show how languages describe the world in different ways, and ask why this is the case. Whether language shapes thought or merely reflects it, this is a fascinating question.
Are some languages better than others?
Scholars have toyed with this idea over the centuries. The German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt argued that ‘inflecting’ languages – including German – were superior to others, which explained the global dominance of the nations who spoke them. Now, most agree that while some languages are especially good at expressing certain ideas, no language is intrinsically ‘better’.

Word Watch

Komorebi
The word literally means ‘tree-leak-sun’.
Tagalog
A language that is widely spoken in the Philippines. It is the native tongue of the Tagalog people, whose name means ‘river-dwellers’.
Pirahã people
A hunter-gatherer tribe of a few hundred people who live deep in the Amazon rainforest. Their language has no words for precise numbers – only for the rough concepts of ‘small amount’ and ‘large amount’.
Trouble learning
In one exercise, the researchers laid out a line of items on a table – batteries, say – and asked the Pirahã to make an identical second line. With numbers above three, they struggled. Yet it remains unclear whether this is because they are incapable of understanding numbers, because they simply cannot be bothered to learn, or a bit of both.
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
Partly due to ambiguities in Sapir’s and Whorf’s writings, their hypothesis has been interpreted in various ways. Some take it to mean that language imposes strict limits on what one can conceive of. Others, that it merely influences the sorts of things one tends to think about.

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