Even when you can’t understand a single word from the soap opera you’re watching, you still know something important is happening just by looking at the faces of the actors. Sad, confused, angry, or just plain happy—these emotions are easy to identify and, according to a study published in Emotions, a journal of the American Psychological Association, can cut across even the most complicated language barriers.


To confirm this belief, the researchers first had to find out how groups with different languages expressed different emotions and the limitations verbal or non-verbal expression brings.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Psycholinguistics and the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology compared German speakers with Yucatec Maya speakers to find out just how far reaching our understanding of human emotions is. In an article posted on Max-Planck Gessellschaft, Oliver Le Guen, co-author of the study, explained that there is no Yucatec word for disgust. When shown pictures of people who looked disgusted, the Yucatec Maya speakers simply described the photos as people who looked angry. The German speakers, of course, were able to describe the images perfectly since there is such a word as disgust in their vocabulary. Obviously, language prevented the first group from describing the image of disgust in a way that the rest of the world might understand.

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In another experiment, the two groups were shown photographs of subjects with mixed emotions. The photos were digitally manipulated so they would be "equally different." After being shown the picture, the participants were then presented a pair of photos of the same subject but with different emotions. In some pairs, the dominant emotion was the same, while in others, it was different. The groups were then asked about the emotions shown in the photos they had just seen.

"Earlier research has found that people who have different words for two emotions do better on this task when the dominant emotion in the two photographs is different, like when one is mainly angry and the other one is mainly disgusted," said Disa Sauter, one of the authors of the study.

And as predicted, the German group was able to correctly identify the emotions. However, the real test was whether the Yucatec Maya speakers could do just as well or not. Despite not having words for some of the human emotions we're accustomed to, the Yucatec Maya speakers were still able to perform well--proof that emotional signals can cut across language barriers.


(Screencap from Love Actually courtesy of Universal Pictures)

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