Have you ever woken up in the morning dreading the day, already ill-tempered? There’s a Greek word for that.
Or have you ever felt reluctant of accepting help from someone because it might be bothersome to them? There’s also a term for that in Thailand.
The words we use to articulate feelings or a mix of emotions vary across languages, nuanced by culture and at times, are untranslatable. In spite of its global dominance, English can at times be inadequate.
My first language is Kapampangan, an ethnodialect of a province (Pampanga) in the Philippines, the second is Tagalog (or Filipino). I spoke Kapampangan at home and Tagalog in school where I first learned how to speak English. Years of education in English combined with the prominence of Western literature and media sharpened my tongue and soon, I was writing in English better than the two dialects I grew up with.
My thoughts are always in Kapampangan and Tagalog though, to this day.
Snippets of Tagalog are everywhere around me — at the hospital I work at where half of the workforce is Filipino, at the newly opened Seafood City in South San Francisco, at Serramonte Mall where you could see families and groups of retirees, on BART, in the streets as Filipino nannies push strollers of blonde babies.
While I revel in literature mostly written in American English, there are some words in Tagalog that are literally without translation. Words like kilig, the feeling you get when you’re extremely happy/nervous/excited butterflies-in-your-stomach type of emotion but still, not quite, used in romantic situations.
And then there’s also tampo, a state of being lightly crossed by another, and that to be out of it or over it requires some kinds of amends. Maybe a movie, some flowers, or a heartfelt apology. It lies somewhere in between anger and indifference.
Being able to convey emotions accurately is a big deal, so you can imagine me fumbling at attempts of describing how much kilig I was feeling when I met my partner, or after an episode of the Filipino series OTWOL.
Turns out, emodiversity, or having a variety and abundance of emotions and being able to name them can improve our overall mental and emotional well-being. In a report published by the Journal of Experimental Psychology Emodiversity and the Emotional Ecosystem, Jordi Quiodbach and Jane Gruber did two cross-sectional studies across more than 37,000 respondents.
Experiencing many different specific emotional states (e.g. anger, shame and sadness) may have more adaptive value than experiencing fewer and/or more global states (e.g. feeling bad), as these specific emotions provide richer information about which behavior in one’s repertoire is more suited for dealing with a given affective situation.
Learning about emodiversity calls for a Japanese word, which denotes an imagined space you take for yourself to arrange mental (or physical) clutter.
I first heard about yoyuu when I read about it an issue of Kinfolk magazine, and I am reminded of its meaning and use when I was going through Quoidbach’s report.
…reporting a wide variety of emotions might also be a sign of a self-aware and authentic life; such emotional self-awareness and authenticity have been repeatedly linked to health and well-being.
In addition to untranslatable Tagalog words and words like yoyuu, I’ve come across several non-English words that express an array of emotions uncommon in American culture.
The word connotes a “feeling of longing, melancholy or nostalgia that is characteristic of the Brazilian temperament.” Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo calls it “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.”
I came across a word that purportedly sums up the Swedish psyche: lagom. Translated to “just the right amount” or “in moderation,” a piece from Slate.com notes that it could be misunderstood as indifference. The Swedes appreciate equality and modesty above all things, whether they’re referring to personalities or the way they brew their coffee.
At Jörgen’s, instead of filling the emptiness, we wait patiently until everyone has their coffee before easing back into conversation. And even when we break the silence, there is a profoundly understated tone to our interactions. The guests at Jörgen’s studio are remarkably accomplished musicians who play in high-profile Swedish orchestras, but no one talks about that until asked. No one talks over someone else. Everyone speaks three or four languages fluently but dismisses their skill. Dressed in worn out jeans, single-color shirts or blouses and sock-clad feet, they could not look more ordinary. (Slate.com)
The word dor is a little similar to saudade, characterized by a “visceral, bittersweet yearning central to the shared Romanian cultural identity.” Rooted in the emotions felt by Romanian shepherds away from home for a few months, it “recalls the memory of cherished experiences and gives emotional significance to life.”
This Arabic slang is usually heard in conversations in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine which refers to a romantic sentiment between lovers — of wanting to die first before they do, because you wouldn’t know how to deal with their death if they were to pass first.
With a profound need to reveal emotions we can’t always define, we can be assured of the richness of language that transcends English. While far from being definitive, Quiodbach’s report on emodiversity helps us understand the necessity of describing our emotions — whether in public or intimately with just ourselves. This practice develops our emotional and mental acuity, enabling us to be better partners, friends and leaders.
It helps to know that acknowledging our emotions (whether it’s anger, shame or sadness) can actually help us become better people.
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.