The morphology of ‘I love you’

What if the definitions of the most basic emotions such as love, hate or sadness were not universal?

A study carried out by psychology experts from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, in collaboration with scientists from the Max Planck Institute and the National University of Australia, investigated linguistic patterns from 2,474 languages from around the world. It concluded that the conceptualisation of the most basic emotions such as pain, rage, sadness and joy is different depending on the language. To test this hypothesis a database of inter-linguistic connections at the Max Planck Institute was used to catalogue and compare the different nuances of the terms used for the same concept in different countries.

Seemingly, grammar and pronunciation are not the only things to change. The nuances of each definition in each language also vary. As was seen in a previous study on colours, the categorisation also varied from one language to the other.

Charles Darwin theorised about the existence of ‘primary universal emotions’;, that acted as a source for the development of other emotions. To this we must add the nuances that each
culture might offer in the definition of these emotions.

An example is the Japanese culture, where saying ‘I love you’ in the context of a couple is not an expression that is taken lightly. The Japanese only use these words on very specific occasions. The custom of using it in a family context does not exist. The speakers of this language wait until they find the proper recipient and moment.

In the case of Latin America the complete opposite happens. ‘Te amo’, generally considered to be a deep expression of love, is more widely used than ‘te quiero’, which literally means ‘I want you’ and is considered a lighter expression. Its use is also less restricted than in Japanese society. This is due to a cultural predisposition that elevates the importance of the emotions. In this regard, in Latin America ‘I love you’ is expressed with the greatest emotional intensity attributable to the emotion.

The way we experience emotions is far from universal, with their value and definitions being
determined not only by words, but also by biological evolution.

So, when we consider whether emotions such as love are really universal, the answer is, in fact, no.

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