The limits of my language means the limits of my world. – Ludwig Wittgenstein
I am usually lukewarm about the word “happy”, or at least how it’s used in much of the Western world. There was always something about it that bothered me and I didn’t quite know what it was until I read Lisa Feldman Barrett’s highly informative and very engaging book, How Emotions Are Made. She explained that “happy” in Western parlance is “happy happy joy joy” as in, no worries and all is perfect. In the Eastern world, however, the goal is to be content and equanimous rather than happy.
The different cultural perspectives on the emotion “happy”, as well as many others, have helped me a great deal. In one of the courses that I teach, Theory of Knowledge, we have a unit on knowledge and language in which we address the role that language plays in knowledge creation. A really useful activity is to ask students about terminology – anything from slang and colloquialism to idioms and full translations in other languages – that they cannot quite translate into English. It’s enlightening to see how much of what we “know” is contained in our ability to express it. And if our language lacks an idea, can we still know it? Compelling questions.
For example, if you asked me what I was looking for in a partner, I’d rattle off a series of adjectives, two of which are in Yiddish**. Some people would hear this and nod approvingly and others would lose interest as I started looking for the corresponding descriptions in English to convey the meaning. But if I didn’t have these words, would I be as conscious of looking for these attributes?
Even without knowing other languages, anyone who has gone outside of their hometown has likely experienced a moment of confusion when asking for something that goes by a different name elsewhere. “Soda” vs. “pop” for example. In university, a dinnertime game in the first few weeks was “What do you call . . . ” in which we learned different regional colloquialism for such words. For travellers, a similar hostel game is “What does this animal say?”, which I last played around a fire in a freezing family home in northern Vietnam.
Gezellig is a Dutch word that I think should exist in more languages because then perhaps the concept would exist, as per Wittgenstein. I first learned this word from Feldman Barrett’s book and then heard it while talking with a bartender in Amsterdam. This word means cozy and nice, and also refers to time spent with friends. A concept in Singlish is kampong spirit. Kampong is the Malay word for a rural village, so kampong spirit refers to the helpful attitudes people in a certain place exhibit towards each other, whether friends or strangers. I’ve heard my climbing gym described as having a kampong feel, and I do believe it does.
Regardless of the term that best fits, I know how I felt during my family’s Passover seder today. I joined the Saturday evening seder on Sunday morning here in Singapore, which brought together my immediate family and grandparents with some friends and some of their families. I experienced the gamut of emotions over several hours and I was glad to notice and label them. It helps me think. I was also glad (another emotion? different? how?) to be there with everyone. Passover last year was right about the time when Covid took a turn for the worse here and we’re in a very different place this year. I am thankful for that. And without Covid, we would not have had this seder together and I am filled with golden bubbles that we did.
**heymish – used to describe a person (or place) with a cozy, comfortable, non-pretentious attitude or vibe
mensch – used to describe a truly honourable, decent person