We’ve all heard that the Inuit people have countless words for snow. That’s a bit of a misnomer, but the sentiment is powerful all the same: Some cultures have rewritten language itself in order to better express the things most important to them.
It’s an idea explored in this infographic by design student Pei-Ying Lin, which lists 19 emotions that, unless you’re a native speaker of Russian, Japanese, or any number of languages other than English, you’ve probably never heard before.
“My inspiration came from the experience of studying in the UK as a foreign student and having to have conversations with both friends who do not understand Chinese (my mother tongue) and those who do,” Lin tells Co.Design. “So often our conversations will involve looking for a right word to say in either English or Chinese, and unable to find its equivalent in the other language.”
At the core of Lin’s graphic is Parrot’s Emotion Classification, which contains a seemingly nuanced look at over 100 emotions (in English). Not only does Parrot’s list include words like “cheerfulness,” but it also maps their more specific permutations, like “bliss” or “gladness.” So, you know, it seems pretty good–that is, until you read the foreign alternatives that Lin has highlighted in red bubbles. How about the word “Gezelligheid,” which is Dutch for “comfort and coziness of being at home, with friends, with loved ones or general togetherness”? Or maybe you’ll like “hygge,” which is Danish for a similar idea but specific to events of food and drink.
“We tend to use languages in the most economical way–meaning that if there’s a simple word for expressing [a] complicated idea, then we will tend to go for it,” Lin writes. “[But] I think knowing more languages/words allows us to expend our conceptual world. We ‘grow’ with our languages. So it’s not exactly like the hypothesis that ‘Eskimos have more words for snow’ so they can tell more different kinds of snow, but rather, perception and language have an active interaction with each other.“
With that in mind, I couldn’t help but ask Lin if there were any emotions she’d like words for. My favorite was “‘the moment of learning something and feel the expansion of one’s perception scope’ like the moment you suddenly understand ‘infinity’ in mathematics, or the moment of understanding the idea of ‘parallel universe.’”
And I totally know what she means. Because my deficient English vocabulary has always labeled that feeling as “insignificance.”