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The Language of Emotions

All humans are able to make the same sounds. However, each language has its own particular way of employing them. Just as each language follows different grammatical rules, it also uses different sounds to express emotion, though some may seem more similar than others. Depending on our mother tongue, some sounds will be more or less familiar and more or less difficult to pronounce and recognize.

Going back to the idea that each language describes a different cultural reality, one wonders what happens with sounds that express emotions without recognizable words. That is, those non-verbal vocalizations that are more than simple sounds and that we use to communicate feelings or intensions. Can we recognize emotional states through non-verbal vocalizations between languages?

Although these are not defined by lexical rules, and in many cases are easily recognized, such as a cry or laughter, what can be said about the sounds that express happiness, disgust, fear and surprise? (Just to name a few).

A study was published by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, where two separate populations were compared, namely, Americans and an indigenous tribal group known as the Himba people. Some very curious observations were made in terms of the perception of emotionally driven sounds across cultures. What follows is a transcript of an interview which shows just how different our perceptions can be:




VEDANTAM: …How did Americans hear that?


GENDRON: Most Americans heard it as scared, afraid, shocked or frustrated.


VEDANTAM: And what about the Himba, Lisa?


BARRETT: The Himba would say this person is crying about a death, this person is screaming in pain.


VEDANTAM: Pain and grief, not fear or shock.

Where Americans heard fear or frustration, the Himba tribe heard pain and suffering. Thus, it was concluded that some complex emotions (e.g., pride) may be difficult to identify because they denote certain cultural nuances, but that vocalizations of basic emotions (e.g., sadness, anger and surprise) are easily recognizable. The good news, then, is that even if you don’t know a language, you can still understand the emotions and intentions of people, and vice versa, without a translator.