Sa, 4.02.2023
Please note that the article is more than five years old and belongs to our archive. We do not update the content of the archives, so it may be necessary to consult newer sources.

Envy just 300 words from happiness

Riin Aljas
, teadustoimetuse juhataja
Envy just 300 words from happiness
Facebook LinkedIn Twitter

Fifteen years ago, linguist Ene Vainik asked Estonians about their feelings by asking them to name feelings like one would name fruits. “Cow,” one of the interviewees said after giving the matter some thought. A little later he also remembered “animal” and “meat”. Hot-blooded Estonians indeed.

Thinking back to the story and laughing, Vainik, who now works at the Institute of the Estonian Language (EKI), says that things aren't really that bad when it comes to self-expression of Estonians: people do talk about feelings if necessary and have enough words to describe them.

Vainik recently published a 300-page book of her long years of studies titled “Eesti tunded. Sõnaportreed” (Estonian feelings. Portraits of words) that talks about the birth of “envy”, with whom “love” gets along, what “happiness” used to mean, and how “anger” made Estonians exceptionally creative. The book starts with “envy” and closes with “happiness”. The latter is the most prevalent word describing an emotion in Estonian texts.

Vainik is reluctant to say how many words associated with emotions there are in Estonian as it is not easy to draw a line between words standing for emotions and personal characteristics. It is probably somewhere in the vicinity of 300 – and that is enough. “People manage to talk about feelings; however, I believe there are situations where we could be more accurate in describing them so others would understand us better,” Vainik says.

Vainik wrote her first analysis of emotion words based on conversations with people already back in 2001. She says that people initially remember emotions that are clearly reflected on faces, in behavior, tone of voice and body language: anger, love, happiness, and sadness. Four words is a normal result as a person's short-term memory is capable of dealing with roughly four units.

The great emotion word boom started around 100 years ago in Estonia. Words to describe emotions were in demand already at the end of the 19th century when Estonian developed into a literary language, while the need became greater in the first decades of the 20th century.

A big contributor was the fact that a lot of fiction was being translated into Estonian at the time. Heiti Talvik and Johannes Aavik suffered from a shortage of emotion words when translating French symbolists. Aavik took it upon himself to create some of them, and his “Uute sõnade sõnastik” (Vocabulary of new words) from 1921 listed 190 words associated with feelings more than half of which are still in use today. One of these is “kirg” (passion). It is a dialect word that used to signify a hearth, urge, or lust. An opposite example of a word that has disappeared by today is “jallis” (jealous) that Aavik proposed as the equivalent of the French jalousie.

Literary words are important as even though people initially remembered anger – as such a strong emotion – when talking about feelings, text analysis showed Estonians use words describing positive emotions much more often. Negative feelings are discussed in a more versatile manner and using more words. Estonian has virtually no words to describe neutral emotions. Even Vainik could only recall one: “ükskõiksus” (indifference).

Where do Estonian emotion words come from?

“It surprised me that a lot of words standing for emotions are prehistoric in their origins and go back several thousand years – people had to talk about feelings already back then,” Vainik says. The anger of people in the Iron Age and even Stone Age was described using the same word we use today - “viha”. The initial meaning of the word “viha” was poison – even now we say that hatred can poison a relationship.

“Viha” is not the only word that has come to have a new meaning over time. One such is “lõbu” (fun) that comes from the same stem as “lebama” (lie). What other fun was there to have during the arduous time of slavery, Vainik jokes.

“Mõnu” (pleasure) is a good feeling derived from progress, drive. The same word has stood for a way of singing: a song also progresses and travels, hence the pleasure of singing.

In addition to the age of stems of words, Estonian words for emotions reflect how much our understandings have in common with other languages and cultures. This is especially evident regarding symbolic expressions that point to antique motifs. Emotion words rely heavily on influence from the Bible: anger and love are described as fire or liquid, shame makes us fall through the ground, while guilt is borne like a burden. The Bible also describes blushing out of shame and jumping out of joy. Therefore when we talk and think about feelings, we are relying on Bronze Age observations and beliefs, and that is rather surprising.

Which comes first, a world or a feeling? Does the existence of a word make us feel, or does a feeling create words?

“The so-called linguistic relativity hypothesis suggests that language determines everything we are capable of noticing, talking and thinking about. A milder version of the theory states that language causes us to pay certain things more attention than others as we have words and concepts with which to describe them. I tend to believe more in the latter as we are wont to ignore feelings and phenomena we cannot directly describe,” Vainik explains.

Why is it easier to talk about feelings in a foreign language?

The causal relationship between words and feelings is reflected in the use of language of multilingual people. Even though a corresponding study has not been carried out among Estonia's Russians, international studies show that emotion is regarded differently in one's mother tongue and foreign languages.

The reason for this is that words for emotions come with an emotional charge in cases where they have been first learned in one's mother tongue and in an emotional situation. Names of feelings in other languages on the other hand are memorized just like any other word and come with no emotional charge. Psychologists make use of this difference when communicating with multilingual clients. “In one's mother tongue, emotion words might come with a strong emotional burden or conflagration, while people are able to talk about the same thing in a different language,” Vainik explains.

The way people talk about feelings has changed over time and is subject to fashion. The number of available words for feelings grew abruptly at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The creation of psychology as a scientific discipline helped matters. However, writers came to describe the feelings of their characters differently in the middle of the 20th century: instead of naming emotions, authors now described characters' behavior or way of speaking. Instead of listing emotions like longing, regret, sadness, and despair, feelings now reach the reader through descriptions of events or dialogue. Writers allow their characters to use more curse words and more passionate language in general. The reader is left to conclude what the character feels.

Despite having fewer words for emotions, the need to express feelings in verbal and written communication is still there, while some new words are also appearing. One modern word for emotion is “laikima” (like). The word was suggested by Aavik back in 1921, whereas in his vocabulary it stood for similarity.

Next, Ene Vainik wants to put together a vocabulary of associations. A compendium of one thousand Estonian words that describes typical verbal associations. Everyone can help find associations between words by visiting the institute's website.