© M. Besemeres, А. Wierzbicka, 2009

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M. Besemeres, А. Wierzbicka

The article deals with the role of the language in the interpretation of emotions, their adequate perception and comprehension in a foreign language. The existence of «cognitive scenarios» helps the recipients to perceive and interpret the emotions in both native and foreign languages in the process of bilingual communication.

Key words: emotion, emotional scripts, cognitive components, cognition, culture, verbalization, natural semantic metalanguage.


We want to take as a starting-point of this article a short passage from V.I. Shakhovskij’s [16] recent work:

Emotional processes get fixed by means of a psychological mechanism which reflects them in the semantics of words used for verbalizing emotional relations. A reflection of an accumulated experience of certain emotional states finds its locus in the semantic structures of the corresponding words...

This passage corresponds to our own view expressed in earlier publications (eg.: [4; 5; 18;

19]). Emotional processes are fluid and elusive but there are some mechanisms which crystallize them and give them a fixed contour by ‘registering’ them in the meaning of words.

Furthermore, a generalized form of certain emotional states, ‘registered’ in the semantic structure of emotion words, reflects accumulated experience - and not only individual experience of individual persons, but also collective experience of the members of a society or speech community. It is astonishing how little attention psychological studies of emotion have given in the past to the rich source of information about human emotions

which lies in the semantic structure of emotion words. This may be beginning to change but the change is slow and the resistance to it very strong.

The predominant attitude to emotion among researchers for whom psychology is the home discipline can be summarized like this: we are not interested in words, we are interested in emotions. Yet we have no access to other people’s emotions except through words. Whatever can be measured in a laboratory is not emotional experience but some neuro-physiological correlates of experience. Anything that we can find out reliably and accurately about other people’s subjective experience (how they feel) must be mediated by words. Of course, we can also make conjectures about other people’s feelings on the basis of their facial expressions, gestures, and voice. But quite apart from the sincerity or otherwise of such nonverbal emotional expression, if feelings are not expressed in words by the experiencer him or herself, other people are bound to impose on what they see or hear their own interpretation, which may or may not correspond to the experiencer’s own perception of how they feel. Ultimately, no one can be a better judge of how a person feels than this person him or herself. Even if a person cannot articulate his or her feelings fully, no external observer can do it more reliably and more faithfully.

Even a dog knows better how it feels than its master, no matter how empathetic and articulate this master may be (not to mention a psychologist in a lab taking measurements of the dog’s blood pressure and other bodily reactions). The main

reason why we can’t find out a lot about a dog’s feelings is that the dog is incapable of giving us a verbalized self-report.

Thus, our detailed knowledge about other people’s feelings requires those other people’s self-reports, and these reports require words [13]. Of course we don’t assume that people always fully understand their own feelings or that the cognitive scenarios underlying those feelings are always transparent to the experiencers themselves. Still, it would be an illusion to think that we can understand well how people feel without talking to them. As Barrett [2, p. 74] puts it, «if we want to know whether a person is experiencing an emotion we have to ask them». This is not to forget that in some cultures, such as Japanese culture, nonverbal communication of feelings may be valued over the expression of feelings through words; the term ‘ishindenshin’, or heart-to-heart communication, reflects this value. We may be right when we think we know how others feel even if they don’t say anything. But we cannot know for sure that we are right. Furthermore, words themselves carry in them a record of how earlier generations of speakers of a given language have thought about their feelings. If we can find out what exactly such words mean we will also find out something of how the speakers understood their own feelings.

The emotion lexicon of a given language offers the researcher a kind of collective selfreport. For example, the untranslatable Russian words gore, toska, perezivat’, unyvat’, grustit’ and volnovat’sja all ‘report’, so to speak, on how many Russian speakers have felt in the past, or at least how they thought they felt. But if that’s how they thought they felt then to an extent that’s how they really felt, because how we feel is bound up with how we think. Depending on the interpretation we put on our ‘objective’ situation we experience this situation differently. Since the interpretation we put on our situation is usually suggested to us by the words of our native language, somebody who thinks in categories like ‘gore’ and ‘toska’ is likely to feel differently from someone who thinks in categories like ‘grief,

‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’. As Barrett et al [3, p. 328] argue, «words ground category acquisition and function like conceptual glue for the members of a category.» This means that in effect words create for the speaker conceptual categories, and

in the case of emotion terms, the conceptual categories created by emotion terms are likely to influence how people will actually feel.

The point we want to emphasize here is that the Russian words gore and toska have no semantic equivalents in English, and that the English words grief, anxiety and depression have no semantic equivalents in Russian. Thus, both these sets of expressions reflect different cultural experience - different ways of thinking about one’s feelings and consequently, different ways of feeling. As emphasized by the psychologist Jerome Bruner [6], language-specific «experience-near» concepts enter people’s self-understanding and shape their subjective experience: «It is in terms of folk psychological categories that we experience ourselves and others. It is <...> folk psychology <...> that provides the very means by which culture shapes human beings to its requirements» [ibid, p. 15].

Culture, cognition, emotion and language, in this conception, form an inseparable whole. For example, the untranslatable Russian words toska, gore, volnovat’sja and perezivat’ reflect Russian speakers’ self-understanding. They also promote thinking about one’s experience in terms of cognitive scenarios embedded in these words. They both reflect and create a certain emotional culture which is unlike any other. Ways of thinking, speaking and feeling linked with these words are inextricably bound together. They are also (for Russian speakers) guidelines for interpreting other people and thus form a part of what Shakhovskij [16] (building on J. Apresjan’s [1] notion of «naivnaja kartina mira», «a naive map of the world») calls «emocional’naja kartina mira», roughly speaking, an ‘emotional map of the world’.

Language- and culture-specific concepts of this kind guide people’s interpretation of the (human) world, and they may also guide their behaviour. They provide models for how to think and how to feel, as well as implicit suggestions for what to do in certain situations, and how to behave. As Bruner says, such concepts (embedded in words) «provide the very means by which culture shapes human beings to its requirements». It is largely (though of course not exclusively) by means of such words that a particular culture transmits its «emotional scripts» [20; 21] to new generations and perpetuates and shapes attitudes, values and interpersonal relations.



Contemporary psychology, like present-day science in general, is dominated by English, and it is common practice for scholars to write about human emotions using English emotion terms, as if these English words could give us an accurate, objective and culture-independent perspective on human emotional experience in general. The justification usually offered for this practice is that English emotion terms can be used as «scientific concepts», independent of ordinary English usage. In fact, such «scientific concepts», which Anglophone scholars derive, unwittingly, from their native language, preclude, rather than facilitate, a culture-independent perspective: in reality, any discussion of human emotions which relies on English emotion terms is necessarily Anglocentric [21].

This does not mean that it is impossible to talk about human emotions in English without an Anglocentric bias. As dozens of descriptive studies in the «NSM» framework (see below) have demonstrated, it is entirely possible to do so - if instead of relying on English emotion terms, all of

which are language- and culture-specific, one relies on a methodology based on universal human concepts. This methodology, developed and tested extensively over many years, is known as «NSM» (from «Natural Semantic Metalanguage»).

The Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) is a mini-language which corresponds to the intersection - the common core - of all languages. This intersection of all languages has been discovered empirically, through extensive cross-linguistic studies undertaken by many scholars over many years [11;

20]. Describing languages and cultures in NSM, and through NSM, means describing them in terms of simple and universal human concepts, which can be found as words (or word-like elements) in all languages (see Table I). This applies to emotions as much as to any other domain: by using NSM, we can explore human emotions from a universal point of view, independent of any particular languages and cultures. (For references, see the NSM homepage: www.une.edu.au/bcss/linguistics/nsm/).

We have quoted earlier Barrett et al’s [3, p. 328] statement that «words ground category acquisition and function like conceptual glue for the members of a category», which echoes John Locke’s observation that although «it be the mind

Universal human concepts - English exponents *


KIND, PART relational substantives


ONE, TWO, SOME, ALL, MUCH/MANY quantifiers

GOOD, BAD evaluators

BIG, SMALL descriptors

THINK, KNOW, WANT , FEEL, SEE, HEAR mental predicates


DO, HAPPEN, MOVE, TOUCH action, events, movement, contact

BE (somewhere), there is, have, be (someone/something) location, existence, possession, specification

LIVE, DIE life and death

when/time, now, before, after, a long time, a short TIME, FOR SOME TIME, MOMENT time

where/place, here, above, below, far, near, side, inside space

NOT, MAYBE, CAN, BECAUSE, IF logical concepts

VERY, MORE intensifier, augmentor

LIKE similarity

* 1. Primes exist as the meanings of lexical units (not at the level of lexemes). 2. Exponents of primes may be words, bound morphemes, or phrasemes. 3. They can be formally complex. 4. They can have different morphosyntactic properties, including word-class, in different languages. 5. They can have combinatorial variants (allolexes). 6. Each prime has well-specified syntactic (combinatorial) properties.

that makes the collection [of the different components, A.W.], it is the name which is as it were the knot that ties them fast together» [15, p. 10]. This is why to understand human categorization (including the categorization of emotions) we need to understand, inter alia, the meaning of words which give human categories their conceptual unity. But to be able to articulate the meaning of words, including emotion terms, we need a stable, rigorous, and culture-independent semantic methodology. The NSM theory provides such a methodology, and shows (through an extensive body of descriptive work, see the NSM homepage: www.une.edu.au/bcss/ linguistics/nsm/) how this methodology can be used for explicating the meaning of emotion terms in any natural language, as well as for analyzing subjective feelings which are not lexically encoded.


3.1. Accessing subjective experience

Autobiographical writing by bilinguals offers a rare insight into the relationship between languages and emotions. Cognitive psychologist Merlin Donald’s comments about fiction are no less apposite where autobiographical literature is concerned:

The best writers have pushed the subjective exploration of the mind much further than would be permissible in clinical... psychology. [Their] portrayals of it... are possibly the most authoritative descriptions we have. <...> [S]uch testimony constitutes our primary ethological database [9, p. 78-85].

The methodology adopted in this article combines the insights into the cultural meanings of emotions drawn from cultural psychology [14] and the semantics of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage, with evaluative literary analysis. We read autobiographical literature as a representation of emotional experience which provides, potentially, no less valid a perspective on emotions than the data analyzed in experimental and other kinds of empirical research.

In this section, we will illustrate the inextricable ties between words, ‘emotional scripts’ and culture-specific ways of thinking and

feeling by means of the Polish word zal - not just as a word in the dictionary but as a frame of interpretation and a signpost operating in people’s lives.

First, one of the authors, Mary Besemeres, discusses some personal experiences of ‘zal’ and the light these shed on cultural differences in ways of relating to people found between Polish-language culture and that of (Australian) English. Next, we offer explications in NSM of the meanings of the Polish zal and the English grudge.

3.2. Zal1 - the testimony of a bicultural bilingual

A concept that comes into my relationships with Polish people particularly forcefully is the feeling captured by the word zal. Zal has a range of connected meanings in Polish, including an emotion similar to sorrow (discussed in the next segment), and another one closer to regret, but the one I have in mind here is the feeling that someone has towards a person they feel close to, who they think has wronged them - a feeling that’s likely to lead to a wyrzut or a strong reproach. People say: Mam zal do niej, ‘I have zal towards her’, or on ma do mnie zal, ‘he has zal towards me’. Because the feeling can be ongoing, it resembles the English phrase ‘to bear a grudge’, but whereas ‘grudge’ in English sounds unreasonable, in Polish, to feel zal towards another person is considered natural, and the word doesn’t imply anything negative about the person feeling it.

I’ve encountered this feeling very often with my Polish relatives, and with Polish Australians who are close to our family. The most characteristic aspect of the feeling is that it appears to arise when people think that you have not been sufficiently warm towards them. The criterion of warmth, at least in my experience, has often been readiness to spend a lot of time with the people in question or with others who matter to them, even when there are good reasons why you can’t. At the end of a short visit to Poland when my sister and I were in our late teens, my aunt complained to my mother that Clare and I hadn’t spent enough time with one of our cousins, and yet we’d seen some of the children of my mother’s friends

(who were friends of ours). The fact that we found the cousin in question difficult -something that my mother tried gently to explain - and that we’d actually spent more time with her than with our friends, whom we saw only very briefly, was no excuse. To Ciocia (‘Auntie’), rodzina (family) is paramount, and the claims of friends can’t compete. To be fair, I know she would not hesitate to put herself out to help any of us if she knew we needed it. At the time, however, I found Ciocia’s expression of zal directed against us both painful and annoying. It seemed unfair, but I was sorry when I heard the description my mother gave of her sister’s wide blue eyes looking surprised and pained at the news that her nieces didn’t find her child easy to be with.

A close family friend of ours in Canberra, whom we also call ‘Ciocia’, often makes it clear to us that she feels zal for our failure to see her more often. When I lived in Canberra I tended to feel, similarly, a sense of the injustice of her zal - didn’t she know that we were all busy, that we couldn’t always make it to dinners that she had organised? When she’d start to say something to me that expressed her zal, I would try to change the subject and inwardly shrug off her complaint, while reassuring her of our affection by putting my arm around her. When I have mentioned episodes like these to Australian friends, their perception has often been that the Polish person has been trying to manipulate me emotionally, resorting to ‘emotional blackmail’. While I know what they’re talking about, I don’t feel that’s the case. I know my Polish relatives don’t see their feeling of zal as anything but justified and I don’t think they are even unconsciously trying to manipulate me. The ‘emotional blackmail’ explanation seems to me to distort what’s going on, to impose a cultural vision from the outside, though it’s one that I’m familiar with. It presupposes that we are all separate, that people should not try to exert pressure on others by making them feel bad; the phrase ‘guilt trip’ conveys a similar idea.

At an intellectual level, the notion that selves are ‘relational’ has had a significant impact in the humanities - interestingly, influenced by Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin among others - and it’s a conception of identity that I personally welcome.

But in my daily conversations with people at university, relationships continue to be talked about in ways that affirm people’s right not to be ‘pressured’; ways of speaking that I’m sympathetic to and yet can’t help but see as culturally specific. When I’m with Polish people, part of me is liable to react with irritation to the zal that I can see I’ve caused. But another part is susceptible to feeling guilty. It’s a peculiar way in which I feel, culturally, that I’m both Polish and Australian.

3.3. Comparing the Polish ‘zal’ (zal1) with the English ‘grudge’

To explicate the Polish zal (zal1) through NSM, we will first analyze the cognitive scenario which provides the conceptual touchstone for this emotion. The starting point of this scenario is the assumption that there is a lasting emotional connection between the two p e o p l e i n v o l v e d . T h e ex p er i en c e r ‘ fe e l s something good’ towards the target person, assumes that the target person knows this, and thinks - or at least has thought up to this point -that the feeling is mutual.

Accordingly, the experiencer has counted on the target person not to do, knowingly, anything that would be painful to him or her (to the experiencer). But now this expectation has been broken: the target person has done something that one would never have expected them to do because this something goes against our wishes and is painful to us.

As a result of this un-met expectation, based on an on-going relationship, one ‘feels something very bad,’ and in a sense, wants to feel like this for some time. Or, rather, wants to think about the target person for some time, re-playing in one’s mind the cognitive scenario conducive to the bad feeling and thus causing this bad feeling to last for some time.

In an NSM explication, all these interrelated components of meaning can be portrayed as follows:


On (X) ma do niej (Y) zal.

‘X has zal towards Y

a) when this someone (X) thinks about this other someone (Y) this someone feels something bad

b) X feels like this because X thinks like this about Y:

c) «this someone knows that I feel something good towards this someone

d) I thought that this someone felt something good towards me

e) because of this, I thought that this someone didn’t want me to feel something bad

f) now I know that this someone did something

g) this someone knew that I didn’t want this someone to do something like this

h) because of this, I did not think that this someone would do something like this»

i) X feels like this for some time because X thinks like this for some time

j) X wants to feel like this for some time

Turning now to the English grudge, we will start with a dictionary definition [8]:

If you have a grudge against someone, you have very unfriendly feelings towards them because they have upset you or harmed you, especially feelings that last fro a longer time than is reasonable, e.g., ...someone with a grudge against him... I hope you don’t bear me any grudge... He would hold a grudge for years.

One clear difference between grudge and zal is that grudge does not imply any affection (lasting good feelings) on the part of the experiencer: there is no question here of a betrayed relationship (in the eyes of the experiencer).

Here, too, an expectation is unfulfilled: one would not have expected the other person to do what they did because one assumes this other person could know that by doing what they did they would be going against our wishes and causing bad feelings on our part. But this expectation is not linked with an emotional relationship between the two partners.

Furthermore, there is a difference here in the time frame implied. As the examples from Collins Cobuild indicate, people hold grudges for a long time, and are reluctant to let go of them. In the case of zal, too, people tend to hold on to their injured feelings - but in this case, it is ‘for some time’ rather than ‘for a long time’. There is an invited inference there that the affectionate relationship between the two parties will survive the painful episode of ‘zaV. There is no such inference in the case of grudge, of course,

because there is no implication of an affectionate relationship in the first place.


Someone (X) has a grudge against someone else (Y)

a) when this someone (X) thinks about this other someone (Y) this someone feels something bad

b) X feels like this because X thinks like this about Y:

c) «this someone did some things (Z)

d) this is bad

e) this someone could know that I didn’t want this someone to do something like this

f) this someone could know that if this someone did it I would feel something bad because of this

g) because of this, I didn’t think that this someone would do something like this»

h) X feels like this for a long time because X thinks like this for a long time

i) X wants to think like this for a long



We will now examine a second, in a sense more basic meaning of zal, a feeling closer to the English sorrow than grudge, which figures centrally in a recent Australian memoir, The Sparrow Garden [17]. The author is Peter Skrzynecki, a son of Polish and Ukrainian immigrants to Australia. Skrzynecki’s parents, deported to Germany to forced labour camps during World War II, met in a Displaced Persons’ camp after the war, and migrated to Australia in 1949, when Peter was four. The Sparrow Garden evokes Skrzynecki’s years as a migrant child in working-class suburbs in the city of Sydney, but the underlying theme of the narrative is the enduring closeness and strength of his bond with his parents. The language of their household appears to have been Polish; Skrzynecki’s mother, Kornelia Woloszczuk, was from the Ukraine, but brought her son up speaking the language she shared with her Polish husband 1. A Polish word that encapsulates both Skrzynecki’s parents’ sense of exile in Australia and his own sense of loss after their deaths 2 appears several times in the memoir. Writing of his emotions in the wake

of his mother’s death, Skrzynecki uses the Polish word «zal», translating its meaning through images of his physical state, while suggesting the concept’s fundamental untranslatability into English. He is filled with zal at the end of a visit to his parents’ now vacant house, the home he grew up in:

The voice in my head says, «You’re going away again», and a feeling like nothing else on earth comes over me, a heaviness, a laboured breathing, slow, as if each breath might be my last, the physical experience of the word zal. It sounds like the house is speaking to me (10).

The same word appears in his account, towards the end of the book, of his delayed response to his father’s death:

Something had been happening inside me; I can’t say exactly when it entered my blood, but a terrible longing, zal, was building up in me, pulling me slowly but surely back to my father’s death. I began to miss him like I hadn’t missed him in the three weeks since he’d died. My body was hit with spasms as I walked, like I was having stomach cramps. I would sob, but the tears just wouldn’t break (216).

What strikes us in these passages, as Polish-speaking readers, is Skrzynecki’s forceful rendition of the sense of heaviness that characteristically accompanies the feeling of zal. This heaviness seems to be related to the fact that zal in this sense entails a loss. Grammatically, zal takes the genitive and implies an object of one’s feeling, «zal mi czegos:», «I [feel] zal for/about something». Unlike grief in English, zal is not used exclusively, or even mainly, about the loss of a beloved person through death. It can be used about something as small as the loss of an object of sentimental value like a photograph or book, no less than about bereavement. This shows that in Polish, zal is thought of as an ordinary, omnipresent aspect of life, and yet, as Skrzynecki’s memoir reveals, it is, potentially, a powerful feeling. The range of zaVs possible uses suggests that in Polish it is culturally acceptable to express strong feeling over the loss of something that in English would not warrant the use of a strong emotion word. The difference between zal and grief, then, points to different cultural attitudes to emotional expression reflected in Polish and English.

Of his zal for his father, Skrzynecki writes that it is «a terrible longing» building up in him. «Longing» is not part of the basic meaning of zal in Polish 3, unless in the sense that feeling zal, one wishes deeply («longs») that something were otherwise than as it is. But it is perhaps a word that helps to translate zal into English, because it implies something stronger than «be sorry for» or «be sorry about», which could be used to translate zal in some contexts, eg. «I’m sorry for him» (zal mi go). Doroszewski’s Polish Dictionary quotes uses of the word which bear out the force of the emotion in Polish: «serce krwawi, pgka, sciska sig z zalu», ‘the heart bleeds, bursts, contracts with zal’, and «zal ogarnia», ‘zal overwhelms’. These resonate with Skrzynecki’s depiction of the «spasms» and «cramps» that assail him when he feels zal for his father.

In a passage about his parents’ feelings of loss at having left Poland and the Ukraine, Skrzynecki attempts to capture how zal differs from English words for emotions that might seem related, such as grief, sadness and sorrow:

I failed to understand my parents’ reluctance to accept the ocean as something beautiful, and in those early years of our migration I also failed to understand a deeper and more poignant reason to be drawn into associations with their exile; it had to do with their loss, with the word zal. Literally, it means «sadness» or «sorrow» or «grief», but it has a depth to it that no English word can capture, certainly not in three letters. Anglo-Australians, especially literary critics and academics, often confuse it with sentimentality and a lack of irony in the work of European immigrants, failing to understand the deep psychological and emotional issues in the heart of the immigrant. In doing so, they reveal their own ignorance of the state of being of Europeans and sometimes display an inner fear of being demonstrative themselves, of exhibiting their own feelings, especially men, in public.

Zal is more than a description of a physical feeling; it is a heartfelt reaction, carrying the notion of profound loss and yearning at the same time; it belongs to the language of the spirit or the soul, to an Absolute that is intangible (33-34).

This passage suggests the distinctive meaning of zal, while also conveying an impression of Australian attitudes to emotions as experienced by the child of non-English-speaking immigrants. Contrary to what

Skrzynecki writes, as we have seen in the case of grief, zal does not «literally» translate as grief, sadness or sorrow. Whereas sadness can be unspecified, as in the phrase, «I feel sad, I don’t know why», zal implies a concrete loss and a known cause. Importantly, sorrow in English is slightly archaic and literary, where zal is contemporary and colloquial; while sorrow can be used about an aspect of experience with which one lives in an ongoing way (eg. a family member’s illness), zal relates to a concrete loss that occurred in the past.

The word zal appears to be a central part of Skrzynecki’s parents’ immigrant experience as he understands it. His comment that Anglo-Australians - «especially critics» -misunderstand the emotions expressed by European immigrants no doubt springs from experiences of having his evocation of such feelings in his poetry dismissed as sentimental 4. It seems to imply that Anglo-Australians are, by virtue of their lack of knowledge of concepts like zal, less in touch with their true feelings than (East) Europeans. Skrzynecki is sympathetic to Polish expressiveness and critical of what he sees as the «repressive» potential of Anglophone styles of speech. He portrays the use of zal as evidence of an emotional richness in Polish language and culture and a lack in English language/ Australian culture. His awareness of the cultural dimension of zaVs untranslatability appears intuitive rather than analytical.

As the uses of it in The Sparrow Garden demonstrate, zal is not simply an emotion concept that is expressed somewhat differently in English as sadness, grief or sorrow. It is a category of emotion not recognized in English, and to that extent it is absent from Anglo-Australian culture, whether or not non-Polish-speaking Australians feel it (something hard to either prove or disprove). Without reflecting in depth on the cultural contexts that inform these differing emotion concepts, Skrzynecki’s writing conveys both the meaning and the untranslatability of zal through images, at times with intense lyricism. The very fact that the word recurs so often in his memoir points to how significant it is, in Skrzynecki’s sense of his parents’ lives, and in his own personal narrative.




In this section, we will compare the meaning of zal (in the sense of zal2) with the three English words which Skrzynecki uses to translate it: sadness, sorrow, and grief. We will start with an explication of zal.

X feels zal2

a) X feels something because X thinks something

b) sometimes people think like this

c) some time ago, something good was happening to me for some time

d) I felt something very good because of this at that time

e) this very good thing is not happening to me anymore

f) I want this same thing to be happening to me now

g) I know that it can’t be like this anymore

h) X feels something like people can feel when they think like this

Skrzynecki compares zal (in the sense which we are calling zal2) with the English words sadness, sorrow and grief, but he sees clearly that none of these concepts mean the same as lal. To see how the three English concepts differ from the Polish zal (zal2), we can examine the cognitive scenarios associated with these three concepts one by one.

The prototypical cognitive scenario associated with the concept sad involves an awareness that «something bad has happened» (not necessarily to me) and an acceptance of the fact that one can’t do anything about it. More precisely, this scenario can be represented as follows:

Sad (X was sad)

a) X felt something like people can feel when they think like this:

b)»I know that something bad happened

c) I don’t want things like this to happen

d) I can’t think like this: I will do something because of it now

e) I know that I can’t do anything»

f) when this someone thinks this this someone feels something bad

Consider, for example, the following passage from a wife’s account of the last stages of her husband’s illness:

Sometimes we’d talk about the early years of our marriage, and his hopes for the boys, and how awful it was that he’d gotten sick. We’d cry because we didn’t know how we’d manage without one another. It sounds sad, and it was, but it was a lot better than yelling at each other, as we’d been doing [7, p. 47].

The wife acknowledges that something bad has happened and she expresses something like regret at what has happened, but she accepts that she can’t do anything about it now (unlike at an earlier stage when both she and her husband were angry and unaccepting).

Turning now to sorrow, we will first note that it is very different in meaning from the adjective sorry, and is personal («something very bad happened to ME»), not impersonal like sadness (something bad happened). It is more «intense» than sadness («something VERY bad happened to me»). It can be caused by a past event (somebody’s death, some other great loss), but if so then it is not focussed on that past event as such. Rather, it implies a long term state (possibly resulting from a past event, or from a past discovery of a long-term condition (e.g. childlessness or an incurable disease of one’s child or spouse). If the experiencer focuses on the past event as such, however, then one would speak of a tragedy rather than of a sorrow. Sorrow may have its roots in the past, but the stress is on the on-going, long-term state. The fact that there is something irreparable about sorrow links it with grief, to which we will turn shortly. Sorrow and grief are also linked by the experiencer’s dwelling on the painful subject; but in the case of grief and grieving the experiencer intentionally focuses on the painful subject («I want to think about this»), whereas in the case of sorrow there is, rather, an inability to forget («I can’t not think about this»).

Sorrow (Xfelt sorrow):

a) X felt something because X thought something

b) X thinks like this:

c) «something very bad is happening to me

d) I don’t want this to be happening

e) I can’t think like this: ‘I will do something because of this ’

f) I know that I can’t do anything

g) I can’t not think about this»

h) when this someone thinks this this someone feels something very bad

i) X felt something like this

j) because X thought something like this

The combination of intensity, long-term suffering, and a semi-accepting attitude, makes sorrow a somewhat old-fashioned emotion. In the modern Anglo emotional culture, sorrow has largely given way to the milder, less painful, and more transient sadness. More intense painful experiences are linked in the present-day English lexicon with the word grief, whose current range of use is narrower than it used to be in older English.

Prototypically, griefis now linked with death, although it can also be extended to other situations when one «loses» a person who was «like a part of me». By a further extension, grief can be attributed to a person who «loses» something (rather than someone) that was «like a part of me»: one’s capacity for work, physical mobility, sight, and so on.

Although it is often said in the literature on emotions that sadness is caused by a «loss», in fact the metaphor of «loss» is much more appropriate for grief. Sadness can be caused by events which don’t affect us personally and which don’t make us «lose» anyone or anything. Grief, however, can indeed be said (metaphorically) to be occasioned by a «loss», more specifically, by the «loss» of a person («someone was like a part of me», «something happened to this someone», «because of this this someone can’t be like a part of me any more»). At the moment, the experiencer is absorbed by thoughts of the painful event («I want to think about this»), almost to the exclusion of everything else («I can’t think about other things now»). One is fully absorbed by the thoughts of one’s bereavement, and one is neither able nor willing to direct one’s thoughts to anything else.

Grief (X felt grief):

a) X felt something because X thought something

b) sometimes someone thinks like this:

c) «something very bad happened to me (a short time before now)

d) someone was like a part of me

e) something happened to this someone

f) because of this this someone cannot be like a part of me any more

h) I want to think about this

i) I can’t think about other things now»

j) when this someone thinks this this someone feels something very bad

k) X felt something like this because X thought something like this

The first cognitive component of this definition («something very bad happened to me») is similar to that of sorrow in being «personal» (TO ME), intense (VERY bad), and past (HAPPENED). Unlike sorrow, however, grief is not (prototypically) a long-term state. Typically, it is caused by a recent event («something happened a short time before now»), it is more likely to express itself in actions (if only crying), and, unlike sorrow, it is not associated with the thoughts «I can’t think like this: ‘I will do something because of this’», «I can’t do anything», which may lead in the direction of resignation. In this lack of any signs of resignation or acceptance grief is closer to despair than to sorrow.

Skrzynecki’s sense that a profound loss is involved in ial can be linked with the ideas spelled out in components (c), (d), (e) and (g): some time before, something good was happening to me - I felt something very good because of this - this good thing is not happening to me anymore - I know that it can’t be like this anymore. The sense of ‘yearning’ is associated with wanting something very much and yet knowing this something is unattainable.

This is one of the key differences between zal (zal 2) and sadness or its Polish equivalent smutek. When one is ‘sad’, or ‘smutny’, one doesn’t think «I want this to happen», let alone «I very much want it to happen»; one accepts, so to speak, that the situation is what it is. In the case of zal (zal2), however, the realization that one can’t bring about the situation as it once was does not eradicate the desire from one’s heart. This leads to the emotional state which Skrzynecki in his commentary links with the word yearning.

Skrzynecki’s mention of «profound loss» brings to mind folk songs known in Polish as «dumki ukraicskie» ‘Ukrainian dumki ’, that is, songs such as the following popular Polish/ Ukrainian one:

Zal, zal za dziewczynq, za zielonq Ukraine...

‘zal, zal, after the girl, after the green Ukraine... ’

We have translated the preposition za in the lines above as ‘after’ to reflect the nostalgic

implications of the phrase zal za combined with a noun in the instrumental case. A more idiomatic English translation would of course use a preposition other than after, but other prepositions would obscure the past-oriented, nostalgic implications of the Polish grammar.

Clearly, this meaning of zal is comparable to that of the English loss when loss is used as an emotion term («a sense of loss»). But zal (zal2) differs from loss in the emotional sense of the word in its component of what Skrzynecki refers to as ‘yearning’. ‘Loss' is more painful than ‘sadness’ but it doesn’t imply an ongoing counter-factual ‘wanting’ implicit in zal (zal2).


This article has two main themes, and two main conclusions. The first theme is the role of language in the interpretation of emotions, and the second one, the role of bilingual experience as a source of insight, understanding, and evidence.

We have argued that language enters the very structure of emotions, and that to understand the ‘cognitive scenarios’ which give the speakers of a language a guide to their own emotions and those of other people. We have also argued that to reveal the role of different languages in providing speakers with such guides the researchers need to have a metalanguage different from their own native language so that they don’t impose on people from other ‘linguacultures’ their own understandings and assumptions. Through the analyses presented in this paper, we have tried to show that such a culture-independent medium of description and elucidation is available in the «natural semantic metalanguage» (NSM) which has been extensively tested across many semantic domains, including, in particular, the field of emotions.

Furthermore, we have argued that an invaluable - and neglected - source of insight into human emotions is available in the testimonies of bilingual and bicultural writers, and especially in autobiographical or semi-autobiographical accounts of people living with two (or more) different languages and cultures.

In this paper, we have discussed in detail two autobiographical accounts focussing on ‘Polish’ emotions crystallized in the two meanings

of the untranslatable Polish word zal. The first of these two accounts explores the experience of one of the two authors of the present paper, Mary Besemeres, and the other, that of the Polish Australian poet Peter Skrzynecki. Both these accounts are combined here with an NSM-based semantic analysis of the concepts encoded in the word zal (zalj and zal2), as well as similar analyses of the closest English counterparts of zal, that is, grudge, sadness, sorrow and grief, and we have shown that these analyses support, complement and articulate in an analytical way introspective insights coming from subjective transcultural experience.


1 Skrzynecki does not quote any Ukrainian words used by his mother, but recalls the longing she sometimes expressed for the land of her childhood, inaccessible to his imagination as a small boy in Australia.

2 Skrzynecki’s father, Feliks, died in 1994, his mother in 1997.

3 No Polish word similar to «longing» is listed among the several meanings of zal adduced in Doroszewski’s Polish Dictionary, but as we show in our explication of zal, its meaning does include a component of wanting what one can no longer have, which is close the English words longing and yearning.

4 It should be noted that Skrzynecki has won many awards for his writing. The power of the voice he gives to European immigrants in poems like those included in Immigrant Chronicle has in fact been recognized by Australian audiences, although this does not invalidate his point that emotions like zal are often read as sentimental by Anglo-Australians.


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М. Бесемерес, А. Вежбицка

В статье рассматривается роль языка в интерпретации эмоций и их адекватном межкуль-турном восприятии и понимании. Существование «когнитивных сценариев» позволяет реципиентам осознать свои собственные и чужие эмоции и облегчить обмен эмоциями между людьми в межкультурном общении.

Ключевые слова: эмоции, эмоциональные скрипты, когнитивные компоненты, когниции, культура, номинация, национальный семантический метаязык.