Humanemotions_Wierzbicka-1 - A NNAWIERZBICKA Australian...

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ANNA WIERZBICKA Australian National University Human Emotions: Universal or Culture-Specific? The search for ‘yndamental human emotions” has been seriously impeded by the absence of a culture-independent semantic metalanguage. The author proposes a metalanguage based on a pos- tulated set oftlniversal semantic primitives, and shows how language-specifi meanings of emotion terms can be captured and how rigorous cross-cultural comparisons of emotion tern can be achieved. S POINTED OUT IN A RECENT ARTICLE by Ben Blount (1984: 130), “The past decade A has witnessed, in contrast to earlier periods, an emorescence of interest in emotions.” Some scholars proclaim the birth of a new science-a science of emotions (see, e.g., Iz- ard’s statements quoted in Trotter 1983). One of the most interesting and provocative ideas that have been put forward in the relevant literature is the possibility of identifying a set of fundamental human emotions, universal, discrete, and presumably innate; and that in fact a set of this kind has already been identified. According to Izard and Buechler (1980:168), the fundamental emotions are (1) interest, (2) joy, (3) surprise, (4) sadness, (5) anger, (6) disgust, (7) contempt, (8) fear, (9) shame/shyness, and (10) guilt. I experience a certain unease when reading claims of this kind. If lists such as the one above are supposed to enumerate universal human emotions, how is it that these emo- tions are all so neatly identified by means of English words? For example, Polish does not have a word corresponding exactly to the English word disgust. What if the psychologists working on the “fundamental human emotions” happened to be native speakers of Polish rather than English? Would it still have occurred to them to include “disgust” on their list? And Australian Aboriginal language Gidjingali does not seem to distinguish lexically “fear” from “shame,” subsuming feelings kindred to those identified by the English wordsfear and shame under one lexical item (Hiatt 1978: 185). If the researchers happened to be native speakers of Gidjingali rather than English, would it still have occurred to them to claim that fear and shame are both fundamental human emotions, discrete and clearly separated from each other? English terms of emotion constitute a folk taxonomy, not an objective, culture-free an- alytical framework, so obviously we cannot assume that English words such as disgust, fear, or shame are clues to universal human concepts, or to basic psychological realities. It is not my purpose to argue against the “assumption of the innateness and univer- sality ofthe fundamental emotions” (Izard 1969:260) or against the thesis that “the emo- tions [presumably, the “fundamental” ones-A. W.] have innately stored neural pro- grams, universally understood expressions, and common experiential qualities” (Izard 1977:18). The search for fundamental emotions, innate and universal, is akin to the search for fundamental concepts (“semantic primitives”), similarly innate and universal,
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This note was uploaded on 12/20/2010 for the course ANTH 1110 taught by Professor Tomwilson during the Fall '10 term at York University.

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Humanemotions_Wierzbicka-1 - A NNAWIERZBICKA Australian...

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