Saturday, January 1, 2011

Language and Emotion -- Writer's Poke #281

Dalai Lama has noted that the Tibetan language does not have a word for "guilt." This seems very strange to me, as "guilt" is a very common emotion felt in the English-speaking world.

Can it be that Tibetan people don't feel guilt, or do they feel some emotion like guilt, but simply attribute a different word to what they're feeling? And if the attribution is different, is the feeling itself different?  In other words: Does language create reality?

The common assumption would be that we create words to fill a void, a need. If a language doesn't include a specific word, then that would seem to indicate that no void exists. The Tibetans apparently never felt the need to create a word for the emotion of guilt.

In The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker suggests that "We are verbivores, a species that lives on words." According to Pinker, "language is above all a medium in which we express our thoughts and feelings." But if we don't have a word that expresses what we're feeling, do we really have the ability to have the feeling in the first place?

To what extent does language create reality?

"Reality is merely an illusion, although a very persistent one." -- Albert Einstein

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