Language and emotions

Every now and again, my Twitter timeline contains reference to a feelings wheel. There are many versions of it (here is a link to the best 25 of them, apparently) all aiming to help me identify my emotions. Every time I see one, I despair. So, here is a rough guide a language and emotions. But if there is one blogpost in which I would like to keep saying that things are really more complex, it is this one. This is also why it’s a long post.

This post has two parts, one about vocabulary which is assumed to refer to emotionality, the other about reading emotions off text. Before I go on, I would like to make a reservation. I would like to stress that this is a blog post, so what I am about to write can be nuanced no end. I have written about emotions and language in my book “Men and the Language of Emotions”, so, a more extensive and nuanced account can be found there.

Have a look then at the feelings wheel I linked above:




Let me start with a quick run through some of the words which, apparently, refer to my emotional states. Consider the following words (in brackets you will find the ‘inner emotion’ related to them):

  • inferior (sad)
  • sexy (joyful)
  • stupid (sad)
  • intelligent (powerful)
  • weak (scared)

I could go on, but, to be honest, it’s hard. I am half-laughing, half-fuming. I guess, if ‘stupid’ refers to emotionality, my emotion toward this feeling wheel is stupidity. In other words, it is difficult to take it seriously.

Before I tell you why, I’d like to say that I do understand that you can put all these adjectives after the verb ‘feel’ and, I suspect, this is how the wheel of feeling has been created. In other words, I can say ‘I feel stupid’ and that, apparently, makes it an ‘emotion’ which, incidentally, is (deep down) about feeling sad. Needless to say, the authors of the wheel seem not to understand that I can say ‘I feel stupid’ with a stupid grin on my face which would drag ‘stupid’ all the way to ‘feeling joyful’. Similarly, I can say ‘I feel intelligent, shall I hide it?’, which doesn’t really compute in the wheel.

Alas, they also seem not to understand that I can say, for example:

  • I feel dirty, I need a shower.
  • I feel hot, shall we open the window?
  • I feel generous, I’m not going to punch you.

And these are utterances that I would be very hard pushed to take as referring to emotionality, emotions or anything like that. Incidentally, I am not going to comment about the simplistic distinction of negative and positive emotions, because I made the point too many times.

But this is just the beginning and things are more problematic than that. Consider that if ‘feeling inferior’ is about emotionality, you have just made the ‘inferior person’ responsible for their inferiority. Inferiority is in them. And then there is ‘weak’ which apparently is to do with fear. And as someone with experience of CFS, I would like to say x*$#%$^*^ to the author of the wheel. I cannot translate this because it’s a polite academic blog, but I so completely reject weakness as reflecting fear that I cannot write about it anymore. Can you see two fingers sticking up? Finally, I would also like to write a couple of sentences about ‘sexy’ as an emotion which, apparently, is about being joyful, but the idea is so stupid that I am not going to legitimise it with a comment.

So, that’s the first part of this post. It’s time to reverse the perspective and look at the problem the other way. What kind of emotions can you read off the text? Over and over again, I keep saying that you cannot simply read emotions off the text, over and over again psychology happily reads emotions off the text, which is quite irritating. And so, I want to write a few words about the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count approach to language and emotions. I think it is the most comprehensive approach to reading emotions off text and I think it’s quite representative of the discipline. And for them things are simple.

Basically, you can assign emotions to words, as is explained for example, in the article on psychological meaning of words. I must admit that I don’t really know what a ‘psychological meaning’ is, but not to worry, in the article all is explained.  And so, if you see words like ‘love’, ‘nice’, or ‘sweet’, you obviously have to do with positive emotions, while if you see words like ‘hurt, ‘ugly’, ‘nasty’, you will undoubtedly see negative emotions. You can go further and see that if you’re looking for anger you look for words like ‘hate’, ‘kill’, or ‘annoyed’, and, on the other hand, if you look for sadness, you will (obviously) look for ‘crying’, ‘grief’, ‘sad’. The simplicity of this takes my breath away. Obviously.

But then, I’m not a psychologist (for the most part), and I started wondering….What about if I say:

  • I hate your stupid love.
  • When I saw her, after so many years, I was just crying.
  • Yeah, it’s really nice, just plain stupid.
  • I love you so much, it hurts.

Somehow, the LIWC system doesn’t seem to compute these things, which, I grant you, are perhaps not the typical, obvious things to say, but they are not off the wall, either. So, what I am expressing in the first utterance? The LIWC suggests is anger, I suggest that it’s anything but, just like I suggest that ‘love’ refers to hardly anything positive. I would suggest that ‘hurt’ in the last example has nothing to do with negativity, just like ‘crying’ in the second one nothing to do with sadness. I really can go on offering more suggestions and more examples, but I think, I’ve made my point.

Why is it a problem? Well, it’s a problem because language does not consist of words only. To be honest, I have this wish…I would like to get psychologists to write: LANGUAGE DOES NOT CONSIST OF WORDS ONLY a thousand times. Not only are words parts of larger structures, but, surprisingly, they are also used in a context. And this context is so funny that it can just about invalidate what you say on the surface. Because you have a grin on you face, for example.

But there are more problems, I’m afraid. Let’s imagine I say:

  • Oh, shit!!

in a particular context of, for example, dropping an egg on the kitchen floor as I was preparing to boil it soft. I just would like to say that I am unlikely to say that because, when on my own, I tend to swear in Polish. In any case, in the LIWC approach, the word will be classified as a swearword and that’s it. And I would suggest that the expletive is so much more and the ‘so much more’ includes emotionality.

There is an ulterior motive in my example, though. I tend to use the example when asking psychologists or medics about emotions. What emotion am I expressing? Obviously, they say that it’s anger (Polish actually has two words for anger ‘gniew’ and ‘złość’, both translatable with English ‘anger’, which makes things more difficult). I tend to deny and when asked, I say that it’s an emotion expressed by ‘shit!’ in this particular context. Unfortunately, LIWC can’t process it, either, and I don’t really want to label what I was feeling.

Don’t you find that it’s only psy-people who care about the label for what you felt?

But all that is still easy. Let me give you an example from my book on men and emotions. One of the informants said (it’s my translation from Polish):

  • I would do something. I pace to and fro in the flat. No idea which way to turn. Where to go? Where will I go?!

The snippet is part of a longer narrative of an unemployed man trying to find a job after being made redundant, except he is unsuccessful, so he stays at home not knowing what to do. I think (and argued in the book) that his narrative is full of emotionality. I think it brings the imagery of a caged animal not being able to leave the cage/flat. The problem with it is that there are no ‘anger’ words, even better, there are no words which are stereotypically associated with emotionality. How do you read the emotions then?

Here is another little fragment which I quote in the book (again in translation):

  • When you are unemployed, you dream of blackness. Not a coffee, a woman, just blackness. You wake up at 5 in the morning in blackness. I have work now and I still wake up in blackness, because I know this fucking state. I know how it hurts

I think there is little doubt that this fragment is very emotionally charged, too. But where are the ‘emotion words’? LIWC would not even notice the emotionality of such fragments. Why? Because LIWC for some un-understandable reason keeps focusing on words.

And the ‘dictionary’, I’m sorry to say, requires no less than a huge leap faith to assume that it all makes sense. You can challenge just about all the classifications suggested. For example, to take a somewhat obvious example, the author suggests that when you see  ‘OK’, you simply see  assent. And I suggest that either I don’t speak English or the author of the dictionary should get out more. When I say ‘OK’, I use it to disagree as often as to agree. Go figure.

So let me finish. Language is not only words. Language is not only words. Language is not only words. Language is not only words. Language is not only words. Language is not only words. Language is not only words. Language is not only words.



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