Psychology Has Been Greatly Enriched By Concepts From Non-English Languages (And Why It Should Engage Cross-Culturally Even More) 

“My project proposes that the field can engage with non-English ideas and practices in a much more inclusive and systematic way”

By guest blogger Tim Lomas

The novelist David Foster Wallace famously told a story of two young fish swimming in the sea, whereby an older fish glides by and asks, “how’s the water?”, to which they look at each other in puzzlement and say, “What’s water?” The central point of the parable is that we are constantly immersed in contexts to which we give little thought or consideration, but which nevertheless influence us profoundly. Among the most powerful of such contexts is language. A century of research on the linguistic relativity hypothesis (LHR; also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) has shown that the language we speak profoundly affects our experience and understanding of life, impacting everything from our perception of time and space to the construction of our self-identity.

What might the implications of the LHR be for psychology itself? As a science, the field generally aims to be neutral and objective, and to discover universal truths about the human mind. Yet it is surely consequential that the field mostly conducts its business in English, this being the default language in international journals and conferences. For instance, if a phenomenon has not been identified in English – even if it has in other languages – it is unlikely to be a topic of concern, and may not even “exist” for English-speaking scholars at all.

One way that the field has sought to address this limitation is by “borrowing” words from other languages and cultures.  To ascertain the extent of this cross-cultural borrowing, I analysed a sample of words in psychology and recently published my results in the Journal of Positive Psychology. 

I focused on my own specialism of wellbeing and in particular on a seminal article from positive psychology, published in American Psychologist in 2000 by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which inaugurated this emergent field. My approach was to identify the etymology of every word in the main text of the article using the online etymology dictionary 

My findings reveal the diverse etymological roots of psychology, and of English more broadly. Of the 1333 distinct lexemes (words and their variants) in the article, ‘native’ English words – belonging either to the Germanic languages from which English emerged, or originating as neologisms in English itself – comprise only 39.4 per cent of the sample. Thus, over 60 per cent of the article’s words are loanwords, borrowed from other languages at some point in the development of English. This is higher than analyses of the percentage of borrowed words in English for other categories of phenomena, such as religion and belief (41 per cent), clothing and grooming (39), the body (14), spatial relations (14) and sense perception (11), and in English as a whole (estimated at between 32 and 41 per cent).

In the American Psychologist text, the largest contributor of loan words is Latin (44.5 per cent) – which frequently arrived via French following the Norman conquest of 1066 – followed by French itself (7 per cent) and Greek (7 per cent), with the remainder provided by modern German (0.7 per cent), Old Norse (0.5 per cent), Italian (0.4 per cent), and Arabic, Dutch, and Scottish (all 0.1 per cent). Moreover, of the words treated as English in origin, 52.1 per cent are neologisms created from other languages (mainly Latin and Greek). If such words were also deemed loanwords (or at least, loan adaptations), the number of borrowed words rises to 70 per cent.

One may wonder why psychology has borrowed so many words. Sometimes borrowing reflects the importation of new psychological theories and practices. One example is “psychoanalysis” (coined by Freud as psychische analyse, before being rendered in French as psychoanalyse then Anglicised in 1906). Other borrowed words articulate phenomena of which English speakers may already have known but not yet named or conceptualised, hence the ready adoption of terms to allow such vocalisation. For instance, behaviours we would identify as altruistic presumably occurred throughout the centuries. However, the term “altruism” was not coined until the 1830s – in French as altruisme by the philosopher August Comte, based on autrui, meaning of or to others – and soon after entered English. 

By borrowing words from other languages, psychology and our understanding of life become more nuanced and enriched. In that respect, psychology would surely do well to go further, and more consciously and actively engage with non-English languages and cultures. Indeed, this is one aim of my own lexicographic project, which involves collecting “untranslatable” words relating to wellbeing (i.e., words without an exact equivalent in English). This is an evolving and collaborative work-in-progress, which currently includes nearly 1200 words, around half of which are crowd-sourced suggestions to my website.

A key premise of the project is that the augmentation of English over the centuries has been a haphazard and arbitrary process – shaped especially by conceptual innovation in the “classical” world (particularly Greece around the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, and the Roman empire between the 1st and 5th centuries), and by the vicissitudes of geopolitical power (notably the invasion by Germanic tribes in the 5th century, and the Norman conquest in the 11th century). By contrast, English – and psychology too therefore – has largely overlooked the conceptual and lexical innovations made in more distant cultures. There are exceptions though, such as the fruitful engagement by psychology with mindfulness, derived from a Buddhist concept and practice known in Pāli as sati, which illustrates the great value of this kind of cross-cultural engagement. 

My project therefore proposes that the field can engage with non-English ideas and practices in a much more inclusive and systematic way (including, of course, through collaboration and co-production with scholars from the cultures in question). Through this and other such endeavours, we can continue to add to the melting pot of ideas, helping the field to continue to develop over the years ahead.

Etymologies of well-being: Exploring the non-English roots of English words used in positive psychology

Post written by Dr Tim Lomas (@drtimlomas) for the BPS Research Digest. Tim is a lecturer in positive psychology, at the University of East London, trying to drive the field forward into new, uncharted territory … His previous books include Translating Happiness, A Cross-Cultural Lexicon Of Wellbeing, and The Happiness Dictionary, Words From Around The World To Help Us Live a Richer Life.

7 thoughts on “Psychology Has Been Greatly Enriched By Concepts From Non-English Languages (And Why It Should Engage Cross-Culturally Even More) ”

  1. Very interesting project. Yes! There are so many words that don’t have the same meaning when they’re translated to others cultures. For example in my language, Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese, the word SAUDADE doesn’t have the same meaning and content as in English as MISSING something or someone. It’s meaning is so much more than just missing. Surely there should have words in English too when they’re translated to Portuguese. Congratulations for the project. It will contribute to a better understanding among the cultural aspects.

  2. A great post! One rarely comes across a mention of linguistic relativity, much less a mention that indicates the author actually knows what he is talking about.

    The only thing I might add is the issue of WEIRD societies (Western, Educated, Industrial. Rich, and Democratic). Relevant to the topic at hand, one could note that almost all social science research has been done with the WEIRDest of WEIRD populations, mostly white middle class Americans in college.

    Making English-speaking psychological research more open to and inclusive of non-English words is a good start. It would move us toward greater balance and hopefully greater understanding.

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