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