Language and emotions are closely linked. The words you use determine how you feel, just as much as how you feel affects your words.

The ability to “see the world through different eyes” can be, variously, uplifting; a release; inspirational; empowering; motivating… and a whole lot more. But we can never really do it, because ‘different eyes’ is a metaphor. We are stuck with the eyes we have. Maybe it would be more accurate and helpful to say “seeing the world through different senses; not everyone can ‘see’, but even clear sight is limited by what goes on behind the eyes.

When it comes to our feelings, the words we use to describe them affects how we experience them.  

And it appears that our senses are in turn influenced by the words we use to describe our experience. When it comes to emotions, the vocabulary we use to describe them is associated with how we recognise and manage our feelings.

For example, take anger management. Teaching people to recognise and give names to their different levels of emotional arousal has been shown to improve their ability to manage their feelings and avoid outbursts.

This is a standard step in anger management programmes; if you only have one word – ‘stress’ for example, to describe how you feel when you are upset, you can neither convey to others how you feel nor anticipate and manage your own feelings very well. When everything is bundled together under one heading (stress), how can you distinguish between, say, feeling irritable, feeling scared, or feeling very angry?

New words new views

To apply this to different emotions, we’ve all know moments when the words we have are insufficient to capture the nuances of a particular experience. We usually manage by cobbling something together, but it often leaves us with the feeling that something is missing. Conversely, when you get the right word it’s most satisfying.

This is part of our universal experience – hence the rise in interest in concepts like ‘hygge‘ from danish, or the now commonplace ‘schadenfreude‘, imported from german, or ‘je ne sais quoi‘, from french. Such words and expressions show the link between language and emotions.

The vocabulary of experience

If having a wider vocabulary to explain experience can be liberating because a) it allows to capture a feeling more precisely; b) it means you can talk about it to others. Perhaps more subtlely and compellingly, it also connects us to others; if there’s a word for it, we are not alone in our experience. Language and emotion

Language and emotions

If you’ve followed this so far, you’ll probably be pleased to know that someone is doing something bridge the gap between our language and how we experience our emotions. Tim Lomas at the University of East London has started the Positive Lexicography Project. He aims to capture the many flavours of good feelings found across the world, in the hope that we might start to incorporate them all into our daily lives.

Read about your Utranslateable Emotions