Mainstream psychology can be considered relatively Western-centric, as reflected in the fact that its discourse and theorising is mainly in English, influencing how it conceptualises its subject matter. However, English itself is a complex product of multiple cultural influences, including the widespread borrowing of words from other languages. To shed light on this issue, this paper conducted an etymological analysis of a sample of words in psychology-focusing as a case study on a seminal article in positive psychology. The analysis identified 1333 lexemes, of which more than 60% can be regarded as loanwords (i.e., borrowed from other languages). The analysis shows the great cultural influences that have combined to form English, and hence psychology, yet also the extent to which this influence has been limited to certain cultures. The paper thus illustrates how psychology has benefitted from insights forged in other languages, but moreover how it might continue to do so through more systematic and comprehensive forms of cross-cultural engagement.
Mainstream psychology can be regarded as largely Western-centric, with its concepts and priorities biased towards Western ways of thinking and understanding. Consequently, the field would benefit from greater cross-cultural awareness and engagement. To that end, this article offers one means of engagement, the study of “untranslatable” words (i.e., terms without an exact equivalent in another language, in our case English). A key function of language is that it offers a “map” that allows us to understand and navigate the world. In that respect, such words point to cultural variation in the maps we use, and even to variation in the actual territory mapped. The paper concludes with suggestions for why and how psychology could benefit from engaging with such words.
The West is usually portrayed as relatively individualistic. It is further argued that this tendency has influenced academia, leading to an underappreciation of the importance of prosociality. In the interest of exploring this topic, an enquiry was conducted into conceptualisations of prosociality across the world’s cultures. This enquiry focused on so-called untranslatable words, i.e., which lack an exact translation into another language (in this case, English). Through a quasi-systematic search of academic and grey literature, together with additional data collection, over 200 relevant terms were located. An adapted form of grounded theory identified five dimensions: socialising/congregating; morals/ethics; compassion/kindness; interaction/communication; and communality. The analysis sheds light on the dynamics of prosociality, as understood by cultures across the globe. Moreover, the roster of terms featured have the potential to enrich the nomological network in psychology, allowing for a richer conceptualisation of the social dimensions of human functioning.
The notion of spirituality is increasingly prominent in academic and cultural discourse alike. However, it remains a nebulous concept, capable of diverse interpretations, particularly cross-culturally. In the interest of exploring this diversity, yet also with the aim of identifying common themes, an enquiry was conducted into conceptualizations of spirituality across cultures. Specifically, the enquiry focused on so-called untranslatable words, i.e., which lack an exact equivalent in another language (in this case, English). Through a quasi-systematic search, together with conceptual snowballing, over 200 relevant terms were located. A grounded theory analysis identified three key dimensions: the sacred, contemplative practice, and self-transcendence. Based on these, a conceptualization of spirituality was formulated that may be valid cross-culturally, namely: engagement with the sacred, usually through contemplative practice, with the ultimate aim of self-transcendence.
Linguists have often remarked upon the polysemous nature of love, whereby the term encompasses a wide diversity of emotional relationships. Several typologies have been constructed to account for this diversity. However, these tend to be restricted in scope, and fail to fully represent the range of experiences signified by the term ‘love’ in discourse. In the interest of generating an expanded typology of love, encompassing its varied forms, an enquiry was conducted into relevant concepts found across the world's cultures, focusing on so-called untranslatable words. Through a quasi-systematic search of published and internet sources, 609 relevant words were identified. These were organised through a version of grounded theory into 14 categories, representing 14 different forms or ‘flavours’ of love. The result is an expanded theoretical treatment of love, allowing us to better appreciate the nuances of this most cherished and yet polysemous of concepts.
Although the notion of virtue is increasingly prominent in psychology, the way it has been studied and conceptualised has been relatively Western-centric, and does not fully account for variations in how it has been understood cross-culturally. As such, an enquiry was conducted into ideas relating to virtue found across the world’s cultures, focusing specifically on so-called untranslatable words. Through a quasi-systematic search of academic and grey literature, together with conceptual snowballing and crowd-sourced suggestions, over 200 relevant terms were located. An adapted grounded theory analysis identified five themes which together provide an insight into the “roots” of virtue (i.e., the main sources from which it appears to spring): virtue itself (the concept of it); considerateness (caring about it); wisdom (knowing what it consists of); agency (managing to be/do it); and skill (mastery of the preceding elements). The results help shed further light on the potential dynamics of this important phenomenon.
Although wellbeing tends to be associated with positive affect, theorists have suggested it might also involve more ambivalent emotions. Scholars have further argued that although such emotions are somewhat overlooked in Western societies, other cultures are more attuned to them. In the interest of exploring the value of ambivalent emotions, an enquiry was conducted into relevant concepts found across the world’s cultures, focusing specifically on so-called untranslatable words. Through a quasi-systematic search of academic and grey literature, together with conceptual snowballing, 30 relevant terms were located. A process of grounded theory analysis identified five main themes: hope, longing, pathos, appreciation of imperfection, and sensitivity to mystery. The analysis highlights the need for a more expansive conception of wellbeing, going beyond an exclusive identification with positively valenced emotions to incorporate more complex and ambivalent processes.
Lomas, T. (2017). The spectrum of positive affect: A cross-cultural lexical analysis. International Journal of Wellbeing, 7(3), 1-18. doi: 10.5502/ijw.v7i3.608
Although wellbeing tends to be associated with positive affect, the phenomenological terrain in this regard is often poorly differentiated. In the interest of bringing further granularity to this area, an enquiry was conducted into relevant concepts found across the world’s cultures, focusing specifically on so-called untranslatable words. Through a quasi-systematic search of academic and grey literature, together with conceptual snowballing, 134 relevant terms have been located so far (with the process of enquiry ongoing). Through a process of grounded theory analysis, seven main themes were identified: peace/calm; contentment/satisfaction; cosiness/homeliness; savouring/appreciation; revelry/fun; joy/euphoria; and bliss nirvāṇa. The analysis highlights the need for a more expansive and granular conceptualisation of positive affect, one that recognises the depth and breadth of the subjective terrain that it covers.
Frisson. What a strange word. It evokes that peculiar intermingling of excitement and fear that can attend momentous events. The spark of electricity when you lock eyes with someone who is yet unknown to you, but who might just be ‘the one.’ The queasy sensation of anxious adrenaline when a big news story breaks. The fearful joy as you plunge downhill on a vertiginous rollercoaster. The word ‘thrill’ perhaps comes close. But not quite. As such, realising that all near-equivalents in English are imperfect, we gladly alight upon the French loanword. And as we do, our existence feels just a little richer and more nuanced...
Lomas, T. (2016). Towards a positive cross-cultural lexicography: Enriching our emotional landscape through 216 ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to wellbeing. The Journal of Positive Psychology. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2015.1127993
Although much attention has been paid to culture-specific psychopathologies, there have been no comparable attempts to chart positive mental states that may be particular to certain cultures. This paper outlines the beginnings of a positive cross-cultural lexicography of ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to well-being, culled from across the world’s languages. A quasi-systematic search uncovered 216 such terms. Using grounded theory, these words were organised into three categories: feelings (comprising positive and complex feelings); relationships (comprising intimacy and pro-sociality) and character (comprising personal resources and spirituality). The paper has two main aims. First, it aims to provide a window onto cultural differences in constructions of well-being, thereby enriching our understanding of well-being. Second, a more ambitious aim is that this lexicon may help expand the emotional vocabulary of English speakers (and indeed speakers of all languages), and consequently enrich their experiences of well-being. The paper concludes by setting out a research agenda to pursue these aims further.
Merino, D., Velázquez, M., & Lomas, T. (2019). An exploration of the Spanish cultural term rasmia: A combination of eagerness, strength, activeness, courage, tenacity and gracefulness. Journal of Happiness Studies. doi: 10.1007/s10902-019-00104-y
Since much of the empirical work within Positive Psychology has taken place in English-speaking Western countries, there is concern that the resulting concepts and theories of well-being reflect a bias towards Western (and more specifically English influenced) ways of thinking. However, efforts are underway in the field to enhance its intercultural sensitivity, including in relation to studying cross-cultural diversity in emotional experience and understanding. In that respect, the current article focuses on the notion of rasmia, a Spanish term denoting drive and tenacity in achieving a goal. The research aims to explore the beliefs and conceptions that Spanish people have regarding rasmia. An on-line survey of Spanish residents revealed that rasmia was defined as incorporating eagerness, strength, activeness, courage, tenacity and gracefulness. A second study, conducted in order to determine the degree of agreement with this definition, showed an 80% of agreement. The results highlight the value of engaging with non-English concepts like rasmia.