If an emotion has no name, can you still feel it?

Feb 15, 2012 | Language

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nighteen Eighty-Four the state promotes a stripped down language – “newspeak” to try to control its people. The aim being if you can’t express something, you can’t feel it:

“It was intended that… a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.” i

This is a fictional language of course, but does the language we speak affect our understanding of emotions? If, for example, there is no word for ‘disgust’, can we still feel it?

A recent study by researchers from the MPI for Psycholinguistics and the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropologyii says yes; you don’t need to have words for emotions to understand them.

“Our results show that understanding emotional signals is not based on the words you have in your language to describe emotions,” Sauter says. “Instead, our findings support the view that emotions have evolved as a set of basic human mechanisms, with emotion categories like anger and disgust existing regardless of whether we have words for those feelings.”

So, Big Brother, think on that…


i Excerpt taken from “The Principles of Newspeak” – an appendix to “1984” by George Orwell.
ii To read more on this research, click here.