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Emotion Review

Overcoming Anglocentrism in Emotion Research

Anna Wierzbicka
Emotion Review 2009 1: 21
DOI: 10.1177/1754073908097179
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Overcoming Anglocentrism in Emotion Research

Emotion Review
Vol. 1, No. 1 (Jan. 2009) 2123
2009 SAGE Publications and
The International Society
for Research on Emotion
ISSN 1754-0739
DOI: 10.1177/1754073908097179

Anna Wierzbicka
School of Language Studies, The Australian National University, Australia

Since English is not a neutral scientific language for the description of
emotions (or anything else), then the key question is what
(meta)language other than English can be used instead. I draw a distinction between experiential meaning which can only be acquired through
lived experience, and compositional meaning which can be adequately
portrayed in the mini-language of universal human concepts (NSM) developed through wide-ranging cross-linguistic investigations. The article
rejects both the anglocentrism of emotion studies which take English
concepts for granted and the zoocentrism which seeks to reduce human
emotions to mammalian responses, behavioral patterns or neuro-physiological states. It argues that any discourse on emotions not anchored in
universal human concepts is inherently ethnocentric (more often than
not, anglocentric).

anglocentrism, emotional keyboard, emotions and bilingualism, language
in emotion research, the language of thought, NSM methodology

Claudia Strauss writes: The main point of her [Wierzbickas] article, that English is not a neutral scientific language for the description of emotions (or anything else), is very important. This is
indeed the main point. From this main point, however, follows a key question: What (meta)language, other than English, can
be used for the description of emotions (or anything else)?
Strauss says:
Whenever I read Wierzbickas work, I have a sense that a great deal is
lost in NSM translation . . . If a word is learned by association with a
culture-specific experience and in relation to words and expressions of a
particular language, the associated experiences and words are its meaning, and there may be no language- and culture-neutral definition that
can be given of it.

This view resonates with my own experience as a transplanted

bilingual and I have written a good deal on the untranslatability
of cultural-bound experiences (see, in particular, the recent book
co-edited with Mary Besemeres Translating Lives: Living with
Two Languages and Cultures (2007).
The ideal of total translatability of experience would indeed
be unrealistic, but this doesnt mean that anthropology, psychology, and so on have to remain Anglocentric and culturally
English-bound forever.
Strauss writes further that perhaps she [Wierzbicka] does
not expect the NSM translations to be complete; perhaps it is

only supposed to give that part of meaning that is universal.

This is not the case. As the subtitle of my 1992 book Semantics,
Culture and Cognition indicates, NSM explications portray
meanings as culture-specific configurations of universal human
concepts. The full richness and specificity of a unique
Russian meaning like that of the Russian emotion term toska
can be (and has been) portrayed as a unique configuration
of simple universal concepts like feel, want, good, and bad in
NSM publications. What is lost in such translations is the conceptual chunkiness, the integrated and experientially familiar
feel of that toska which to an outsider reading the NSM explication must remain a foreign-sounding analytical construct. But
all the semantic components are there. To put it differently, a
great deal of lived, experiential meaning can be lost, but the
compositional meaning is all thereand that is the best that
we can hope for.
A mini-language based on 63 concepts, which evidence suggests are shared across languages and cultures (along with their
grammar), is the best conceptual lingua franca we have. It is
also the most plausible and most evidence-based approximation
of the universal and innate language of thought.
Strauss suggests that the NSM semantic theory may in fact be
close to Fodor and Pinkers view that humans have an innate language of thought. The idea that human beings have an innate
language of thought (which I called lingua mentalis) was
actually advanced, well before Fodor started to write about it, in
my 1972 book Semantic Primitives. But Fodors idea of the
innate language of thought, with its 50,000 supposedly innate
concepts (including carburettor and bureaucrat), is in fact the
spitting image of the English language. This is a travesty of the
universal language of thought envisaged by such thinkers as St.
Augustine, Boethius, Ockham and Leibniz, and pursued in the
NSM framework from my Semantic Primitives (1972) and Lingua
Mentalis (1980) to Cliff Goddards Cross-Linguistic Semantics
Pinkers concept of language of thought is much closer to
that developed in the NSM framework from 1972 onwards, but
it too is based on English rather than cross-linguistic evidence
(with, e.g., a family of thoroughly English-based causal relationships; see Wierzbicka, 2006, chap. 6).
Strauss asks: What corresponds to the keys of Pinkers
metaphorical universal emotional keyboard if not a small set of
biologically in-built human emotions? First of all, the set of the
63 concepts which show up as distinct word meanings in all languages is, I would say, the universal keyboard of human cognition.

by Ivan
on OctoberThe
15, 2014
Corresponding author: Anna Wierzbicka, School of Language
Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia.


Emotion Review Vol. 1 No. 1

Second, human beings everywhere in the world interpret their

experience in terms of certain recurring configurations of such
concepts, including, in particular, I feel something good, I feel
something bad, and I feel like this. Third, feelings are often categorized, cross-linguistically, with reference to certain recurring
cognitive scenarios, such as the following two (reminiscent of the
Anglophone psychologists fear and shame): something bad
can happen, I dont want it to happen and I dont want people to
think something bad about me (Wierzbicka, 1999).
There are no emotion terms which recur, with the same
meaning, across languages and cultures, and there is no universal keyboard of basic emotions of the kind envisaged by, for
example, Ekman, Izard, and Pinker. There are, on the other
hand, certain recurrent themes. Both these themes, and the
endless culture-specific variation on the themes, can be articulated in a clear, precise, and non-Anglocentric way through the
mini-language of universal semantic primes.
Kristen Lindquist agrees that language has a key role in
human emotions, but follows this by attributing to me the view
that language is merely like icing on the already baked cake
rather than being like an ingredient baked into the cake itself.
In fact, the idea that language is some kind of icing on the
cake is very much at odds with my own experience, analyzed
in many publications, most recently, in Translating Lives:
Living with Two Languages and Cultures.
As emphasized by Bruner (1990), experience-near indigenous concepts enter into peoples life narratives and selfunderstanding and thus shape their subjective experience. (It is in
terms of folk psychological categories that we experience ourselves and others. It is . . . folk psychology . . . that provides the
very means by which culture shapes human beings to its requirements [p. 15]). The testimonies of deep bilinguals, such as
those included in Translating Lives, strongly support this view.
For example, a unique folk-psychological construct such as that
embedded in the Russian word toska provides Russian speakers
with a habitual way of thinking and self-understanding which
shapes their subjective emotional experience. When this concept
is explicated through NSM it can become understandable to
speakers of other languages (including emotion researchers), but
it will not shape their own ways of thinking and feeling.
Incidentally, when Lindquist states that no studies to date
have explicitly tested the hypothesis that language shapes the
experience of emotions in an online fashion, she may be
overestimating the extent to which peoples emotions can be
tested in laboratory studies, and appears to overlook the relevance of the literature on bilingual emotional experience.
Lindquist argues that adopting a constructionist approach
to emotions will give researchers power to ask and answer
interesting and unprecedented questions about the role of language in peoples mental lives. She does not address, however,
the key issue of the metalanguage in which these questions and
answers will be framed. As I see it, shortcuts in technical
English such as hedonic and arousal-based properties are fine
as long as their exact meaning is explained in universal human
concepts (such as feel, good, and bad), but without such
translations they are obscure and suffer from terminological
ethnocentrism (Goddard, 2002).

Thus, one hopes that this is the next step that the adherents of
the constructionist approach to emotions will take: to recognize
that their own discourse, which is not anchored in universal
human concepts, is also linguistically and culturally constructed.
Leonard Katz, a philosopher, doubts that the limited repertoire of NSM primes could be used to explicate mammalian
parental care concepts, age, kin, and gender words, number
words, primates communicative signals, or nonverbal communication, or to build number concepts in the Amazonian language
Pirah. In fact, all these topics have already been explored in
NSM publications. For example, on mammalian parental
care, see Wierzbicka, 1997, chap. 6; on primates, see
Wierzbicka, 1999, chap. 4, 2004; on nonverbal communication,
see Wierzbicka, 1995, 1999, chap. 4; on words like mother and
child, see Goddard, 1998; on Pirah, see Wierzbicka, 2005.1
Two final comments: First, I am all in favor of a unified
framework for the description of cognitive and communicative
resources of different kinds, and I have proposed such a
framework myself (Wierzbicka, 1999, chap. 4, 2004). At the
same time, Katzs insistence on talking about Jesus experience
in Gethsemane in terms of the separation distress of abandoned mammalian young reminds one of what Isaiah Berlin
(1976, p. 23), expounding Vico, characterized as:
the fallacy opposite to that of anthropomorphism, namely the uncritical
assimilation of the human world to the non-humanthe restriction of our
knowledge to those characteristics of men which they share with the nonhuman world; and consequently, the attempt to explain human behaviour
in non-human terms, as some behaviourists and extreme materialists, both
ancient and modern, . . . have urged us to do.

(Katzs claim that the English word loss is a valid universal

category in emotion research because this words oldest
senses . . . fit well the evolutionary danger that shaped the panic
reaction of separated mammalian young combines anglocentrism with zoocentrism.)
Second, I do not disagree with Katzs concluding sentence
about the deep biologically-based structure of emotions,
which after all go deeper in us and in our experiencing and
knowing than language does. But to talk about that deep biologically-based structure of emotions we need a language, and
Katzs faith in his own native language, English, as something
that can be taken for granted and used as a neutral scientific
language, highlights the fact that language goes deeper in us
than Katz recognizes, and that it exerts its power not only over
human emotions, but also over many philosophical and scientific theories. Hence the continued relevance of Edward Sapirs
warning: To a far greater extent than the philosopher has realized, he is likely to become the dupe of his speech-forms,
which is equivalent to saying that the mould of his thought,
which is typically a linguistic mould, is apt to be projected into
his conception of the world (1949, p. 157).


For an updated and expanded NSM analysis of number words see

Goddard (in press), and of age and gender words, Goddard and
Wierzbicka (2007).

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Wierzbicka Overcoming Anglocentrism in Emotion Research 23

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