Emotion

Emotion And The Irish Language

What is emotion? Quite bluntly emotion is one of those terms that stubbornly defends against attempts at definition. Even though most people think they know what emotion is, when asked to define it they find it very difficult to do so.

The word ‘emotion’ comes from Latin and means ‘to move’ or ‘to stir up’ and in spite of the absence of a precise definition the word is used by mental health professionals to refer to a group of feelings that are evoked when important things happen to us. In general emotions are gut-reactions as opposed to intellectual appraisals and they tend to arise when a situation is meaningful. They are strong mental states which are generally either positive or negative, but not always so.

When it comes to emotion and language it is interesting to note that some languages do not have a term for emotion. It is also interesting to note that in the languages that do have a term for emotion that the language itself plays a powerful role in in both emotion experience and perception. It does this because language acts as a scaffold for emotions. It supports the conceptual knowledge used by us to make meaning of sensations from the body that we refer to as emotion. There is not universality however when it comes to making sense of these sensations. In a study of almost 2,500 languages from all over the world researchers found that words such as anger, joy etc. used to describe emotions could have very different meanings depending on which category of language they originated from.

In Ireland our native language, Gaeilge or Irish, is part of the Goidelic group of Celtic languages. The Irish language has a curious idiosyncrasy when it comes to emotion which could play a key part in emotional regulation and perhaps even emotional intelligence.

Emotion

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In circumstances where we can be a slave to our emotions or where we can be in the driving seat with regard to their management, emotional regulation refers to the latter. Emotional intelligence, on the other hand (otherwise known as Emotional Quotient or EQ), is a bit broader and refers to our ability to identify, understand and manage our emotions as well as the emotions of others. Whereas emotional regulation can be learned, emotional intelligence can be developed they have a common denominator in the form of the ability to managing emotion. Typically the first step to managing emotion is to identify whatever emotion is being experienced. This is where language kicks in.

In the English language, for example, when experiencing the emotion happiness, we might identify the experience by saying the words “I am happy.” All well and good, all innocuous one might think because being happy is seen as a sought-after state but also potentially self-defeating. The potential problem here is the identification with the emotion i.e. ‘I am (the emotion).’ At both conscious and subconscious levels, we are basically telling ourselves that we are the emotion. When it comes to so-called negative emotions such as fear, when we use the words “I am frightened” we are associating our body and mind with the state of fear, and we are identifying with the physical and psychological sensations associated with fear. We are it; it is us. Such an intimate identification with any difficult emotion can create difficulty with managing it in real time and with the concept of managing it in the future. It can create an experience of entrapment and powerlessness which can in turn lead to secondary emotions such as fear of fear.

The Irish language has a different perspective on what an emotion is. The words for emotion in the Irish language are ‘tocht’ and ‘mothúchán’ but when it comes to experiencing an emotion it appears that our Irish-speaking forebearers, unlike us, their predominantly English-speaking descendants, perceived emotions as being different from and external to the body and to who they were. For our forebearers emotions were on people and not in people. This is a crucial distinction and one which could radically change how emotions, particularly so-called negative emotions, are perceived and managed today. If emotions are transitory entities that are not intrinsically linked with the essence of our being, and if we acknowledge and accept this, it can be a game-changer for managing them.

‘Tá imní orm’ is the Irish for ‘I am anxious.’ The literal translation is ‘there is anxiety on me.’ If there is anxiety on me, the anxiety is separate to who I am. Likewise ‘tháinig brón orthu’ is the Irish for ‘They became sad’ but in literal terms it means ‘sadness came upon them’ suggesting that just as the emotion called sadness came upon them from wherever it did that it will at some stage leave and return to wherever it came from.

From the perspective of regulating somewhat difficult emotions such as sadness and anxiety this changed perspective suggests that if we refrain from telling ourselves that ‘I am anxious’ or ‘I am sad’ and refrain from identifying in our entirety with the emotion at conscious and subconscious levels and perhaps see the emotion as a short term visitor which basically lands upon us every now and again, as our Irish speaking forebearers appear to have done, that our relationship with difficult emotions could be a lot healthier than it tends to be.

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2 Replies to “Emotion – Might the Irish Language Hold A Clue?”

  1. Go raibh maith agaibh as an alt seo. This idea of different approaches to expressing emotions in language came to me when teaching 6th class children Irish and explaining to them, as you said in the article, that in Irish we say our feelings are on us. I always found that it was a much healthier way of using emotional expression in words, indicating that the person still recognises first and foremost who they are a person and as being separate from their emotions which are more temporary. I wonder if our Irish-speaking ancestors were more emotionally resilient and stoic and was it in part because of this.
    It would also be interesting to compare this to other languages, such as with German where emotions are something you can express as having as well as being, (Ich habe ansgt – I have fear, Ich bin wuentend – I am angry).
    Very interesting article!

    1. A very interesting post Laura-Ann. Go raibh maith agat.

      I suspect that the way in which our Irish ancestors seemed to view emotions as basically transitory visitors that descended upon them every so often as opposed to being intrinsic, inescapable, components of their very being made the less pleasant emotions more tolerable and the more pleasant ones a source of curiosity.

      The bigger picture here is probably cultural differences in how emotions are interpreted. Different cultures have different attitudes towards and different ‘guidelines’ for experiencing and expressing emotions. Various languages offer a glimpse into how these different cultures achieve these with the Irish language being particularly emotionally intelligent – for want of a better description – in this regard.

      Our ancestors continue to be an inspiration.

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