Emotions in Language

Have you ever teared up when someone asks in a tender voice how you’re doing? Or wondered how one conversation can make or break your day, changing your mood completely? How does a comedian make people laugh by using only their words?

Language is inherently emotional. We understand the world around us in multiple ways, all of which depend on words to describe them: our internal feelings or sensations (affect), our external feelings or sensations (exteroceptive sensations), and our past experiences (context)[1]. We use different words with different nuances and different contexts, along with different grammatical or linguistic principles to bring our full understanding to an experience, whether we’ve experienced it or not:

“Red sky at night, sailors’ delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.”

“Loop it, swoop it, pull.”

“When a door closes, a window opens.”

Now, it doesn’t matter if you’re a weather-obsessed sailor, a child learning how to tie their shoes, or someone saying a clichéd phrase: thanks to society, we’re all likely to know these phrases (dependent upon generational, socio-economical, and educational differences, of course) and they’re likely to stir up some kind of emotion. “Warning” might bring a sense of trepidation or dread. “Pull” might bring some excitement. And the final one may bring a sense of complacency or hope, depending on our situation. We know it’s not a literal concept (how creepy would that be), yet we understand the meaning beyond the nouns, verbs, and prepositions.

Let’s move into another example: think of a song from a really happy time. Sing the lyrics to yourself. How do you feel? What about thinking about a favorite book or poem? Do you have one that conjures up a powerful emotion? I do.

“i carry your heart / (i carry it in my heart) / i am never without it / (anywhere i go, you go, my dear / and whatever is done by only me is your doing, my darling)”[2]

I’ve directed the above poem to be read at a funeral and also at my wedding, and it always conjures up some powerful mixed emotions: sadness, melancholy, grief, joy, hope, love. These emotions don’t belong to memories of one event over another; they are as complex as the words on the page. Words help us make sense of our emotions as we pass from one phase of life into another, choosing which memories to keep, which experiences to forget, and which emotions to hold onto.

Time for another cliché: words have power, and that power comes from the emotions our words evoke. “I have a dream” conjures up an image and feeling so powerful, it spurned generations to fight, and continue to fight, for equal human rights.

It used to be that emotion was seen as nothing more than a tool used in language, though now research shows that these two concepts are more and more intertwined.[3][4] We have language to help make sense of our emotions, and our emotions form a large part of who we are: our personalities, how we interact with the world and each other, and how we see ourselves fitting into all of this.

So the next time you’re writing your sales report, social media posts, marketing material, or responding to a heady email, think of this: words can reassure, incense, placate, exasperate, excite, comfort, or delight its readers. What sort of emotions will you invoke?

[1] “Basic Elements of the Mind”, NHS. Article here.
[2] [i carry your heart with me[i carry it in my heart]) by e.e. cummings
[3] “Emotion in Language”, NHS. Article here.
[4] “Language and Emotion”, Wilce. Book here.


Megan Miller
Megan Miller
As one enamored with deep thinking and deep conversations, Megan Miller shares her findings and experiences as a word nerd and language lover worldwide. With more than 2 decades of Spanish under her belt, Megan has experienced firsthand the benefits of bilingualism. Megan is the founder and owner of Aprovechar Language Solutions, a translation and Spanish/English language coaching business that focuses on mindset, habit, and real-world examples to improve people’s confidence and comfortability in speaking and communicating. When she’s not coaching or translating, Megan uses her communication skills as an IT Project Manager to produce technological solutions and likes to travel and bake in her free time

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  1. Words have great power, they can transform moods, they can transfer knowledge and teachings, they can influence decisions and behaviors, they can arouse emotions and stimulate actions.
    We should always strive to recover the use of sensory terms and carefully choose the color of the words, the shades capable of painting a vivid image that materializes in the perception of the listener or reader. Go through the texts to identify the meaningless parts and replace them with a language full of sensations. A precious help comes from metaphors, which allow a symbolic transposition of images by replacing a term with a figurative one. It is useful to apply yourself in the search for new words to use whenever possible: focus on everyday experiences to identify the sensations felt and describe them with words so as to memorize them and keep them ready for use.

  2. Excellent article. As humans we are emotional beings. Words, tone and attitude matter. Reminds me of a statement Kimberly Davis wrote: While messy and inconvenient, we human beings can’t truly “leave our emotions at the door” and smart leaders know how to recognize, honor and defuse the heightened emotions in the workplace. They lead through the lens of humanity. Kimberly Davis, Brave Leadership

  3. Megan, This is a pause and reflect poem. I think when I was still in the business world my language and thought process was always in conflict. Part of me a poet and writer, the other side of me a business man. Since I retired I spend more time embracing the quiet and can often when my dog and I walk the forest go hours without talking and I spend more time listening to the forest, a language without words.

    • The best language is the one nature speaks (Pocahontas helped teach me that with “Colors of the Wind”). I actually started blogging again back in 2014ish, when I was writing technical requirements and IT documentation all day – all that writing made me want to go deeper, and write more creatively again. The corporate structure may dictate our mannerisms in one way, but nature and writing always provides a re-centering experience.

    • I totally agree, Kimberly! Finding the right word to express an emotion gives me the same sensation as that first bite of artisan chocolate – it’s absolutely divine, but doesn’t happen as often as I’d like!

      So often, logic and emotion can be at odds with each other, but there’s actually a lot of opportunity for them to work together. Writing something straight from the heart is a personal release, and has the chance to make or break someone’s day. Words are powerful, indeed 🙂

  4. For some reason, as I read the beginning of the article I thought it was going toward using words to convey warmth and care right now, to provide comfort to others because it’s so important now more than ever. In a way, it did go there, though indirectly.

    Good, thoughtful stuff here, Megan, thank you!

  5. Your poem really resonated with me, Megan. I am carrying my father around.

    Would I carry my husband around while he still lives and breathes? Or my mother? I don’t know. To attribute all my doings to them, I would feel takes something away from the all of us. Why should they be held responsible for my follies? But as you see, whether I agree or not, emotion was involved.

    It is said that people who live in a different language than the one they were brought up, are less emotional because their feelings are not hardwired with the names for same feelings. In juggling two or more languages constantly, blood has to flow around neocortex. I don’t know if you feel that way or if you were brought up biligual in which case hardwiring will happen in both languages?

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the poem, Charlotte! It’s one of my favorites, and the only poem I’ve ever printed and carried around in a frame from apartment to house to house.

      I wasn’t brought up bilingually in the traditional sense: when I first started to learn Spanish, it was a floodgate of emotion for me, and suddenly, the world made more sense. I attribute the emotion to the feeling first, and then have to search for the right emotive word to attribute to the feeling in order to make sense of it all, and I’ve found that I’m much more comfortable being emotional in Spanish than English (a bit ironic, I suppose, to not feel as comfortable in my native language).

  6. Megan — As I was reading your piece, I was thinking about a book I am s l o w l y making my way through: Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. The author, who is of mixed Australian aborigines heritage makes the point that his people have no written words, which is why he struggles sometimes with the printed word to explain their thinking. Their world is entirely oral except for pictures, which represent objects. I’m curious if emotion plays differently in an oral vs written culture such as ours.

    Good article, Made me think!

    • Jeff, “I’m curious if emotion plays differently in an oral vs written culture such as ours.”

      My son always advise me to read out loud what I have written. That is because I am used to writing “academic”, a language that should be banished from the world: passive clauses; tons of references; generally abysmal syntax.

      How much do you remember of what you read? In languages with oral traditions, things worth remembering has to link to emotions to be locked in. And my totally unqualified guess is that less effort is spent on locking in the kind of garbage we fill our heads with daily – strongly emotional, but not in any way productive for the survival of the species.

    • Please imagine a short fist pump here, Charlotte — I absolutely love this! The stronger the emotion, the more high-definition the memory. I always like to imagine I’m taking off my “consultant hat” where “synergy”, “follow up” or “friendly reminder” are part of my lexicon, and putting on my “natural writer hat” where we discuss emotions, happenings, or the things that make us human.

    • Charlotte — You may be more right than you think. Neuro-educational research shows that for students to process any instruction, it first has to get past their mental filtering device, and to do that, it has to have an emotional content. Only then will the brain send it to the pre-frontal cortex.

    • Thanks, Jeff! I can absolutely understand their point of view – so much of my language is sensing, feeling, stumbling around the keyboard; I forget to put the label on it. (Blame my 8th grade computer teacher who had us do typing exercises without looking at the keyboard). Now, when I write anything with feeling, I tend to close my eyes, point my head back, and search for the right words that match my feelings, senses, or simply that butterfly effect that dances around in my stomach when I’m onto something with feeling.