Is there a word in English to describe the frustration I feel before my wandering train of thought? – Defining culture-specific emotions

As always, I sit myself down in front of this old computer with the intention of start talking about A and somehow my train of thought just can’t stay in A – in a matter of seconds, it takes a life of its own and starts travelling from D to N, making a stopover in H and even going as far as Z. If I’m lucky, it brings me back to A but not without carrying a heavy load of scrambled thoughts and ideas that I then need to work very hard to make any sense of.

I get excited about many of them, I trash many others but ultimately, I get exasperated by this very testing, independent, self-absorbed entity in my brain that I try want to subdue by any means. And I wonder, is there a term for this emotion in the English language? Or in any other language for that matter? Is there a term that captures the frustration of a writer struggling to restrain a wandering, straying train of thought that refuses to stay in one and only one topic? There should be because I reckon this is an innate, genetically determined predisposition. At least in my case. I have always suffered from it, many of my teachers and supervisors had diagnosed it (and I thank them for their patience and support :))

Runaway Train of Thought

How do I call the emotion I experience when I can’t control my very irritating wandering train of thought?

Anyway… (that’s one of the words I use to try to bring my extremely tangential mind to A and remember where I wanted to start), the question here is whether the aggravation I feel in the case I explained above can be described in a single word in a particular language. Just like whether, as questioned by American essayist Pamela Haag in her article  Relationship words that are not translatable into English , is it possible to find words in the English language that describe emotions such as the Bantu word Ilunga – the willingness to forgive abuse the first time, tolerate it the second but never the third? Or, is it possible to find an English equivalent to the feeling expressed by the Polish words tgsknota (noun) and tgsknic‘ (verb)?.

Anna Wierzbicka’s work on defining emotions in different languages

Australian linguist Anna Wierzbicka has spent many years putting some thought into this and has come to the conclusion that although the above Polish terms have no simple, monolexemic English equivalents, it is possible to explain in English what the relevant feeling is, if one uses semantic primitives to decompose the complex Polish concept(s) into parts whose names do have simple English equivalents:

X tgskni do Y (“X feels ‘tgsknota’  to Y”)  =

X is far away from Y

X thinks of Y

X feels something good toward Y

X wants to be together with Y

X knows he or she cannot be together with Y

X feels something bad because of that.

In her 1986 essay “Human emotions – Universal or culture specific?,” Wierzbicka sees some potential similarities between the Polish tgskni and several English words such as homesickmisspine,  nostalgia, but maintains that they all differ from one another and from the Polish term as well (and I quote her directly just to illustrate the magnitude of her understanding of the different nuances of the terms):

“For example, if a teenage daughter leaves the family home and goes to study in a distant city, her Polish parents would usually tgsknic’, but one could not say that they were homesick for the daughter, that they felt nostalgia for her, and one would hardly say that they were pining  after her. One could say that they missed her, but miss implies much less than tgsknik. One could say to a friend, “We missed you at the meeting,” without wishing to imply that anything remotely similar to pain or suffering was involved; and yet tgsknit does imply something like pain or suffering (in fact, the best gloss I have come across is “the pain of distance”).  The word miss implies neither pain nor distance. For example, one can miss someone who has died (“My  grandmother died recently. You have no idea how much I miss her”).  But one would not use tgsknic’ in a case like this, because tgsknic’ implies a real separation in space. In this respect, tgsknic‘ is related to homesick. But of course homesick implies that the experiencer him or herself has gone far away from the target of the emotion.

The exact similarities and differences between tgsknic’ and homesick can be seen if one compares the explication of the former concept, given earlier with the explication  of the latter, given here:

X is homesick  =

X is far away from his or her home

X thinks of his or her home

X feels something good toward his or her home

X wants to be there

X knows he or she cannot be there at that time

X feels something bad because of that.

Pining differs from tgsknic‘ in its single-mindedness and its, so to speak, debilitating effect:

X is pining after Y  =

X is away from Y

X thinks of Y

X feels something good toward Y

X wants to be with Y

X knows that he or she cannot be with Y

X feels something bad because of that

X can’t think of anything else because of that.

Miss, as a form of emotion, can perhaps be explicated as follows:

X (Jane)  misses Y (Sally) =

Y is not with X

X thinks of Y

X would want to be with Y

X thinks that being with Y would cause him or her to feel something good.

Universal emotion terms?

It seems natural to assume, then, that each language will have it own set of emotion-words that are used to define those emotions that the members of the culture recognise as important to them. We can assume that these language-specific sets overlap and, perhaps, that the closer two cultures are, the greater the overlap between their respective sets of emotion words. But we can also assume that the more distant apart a culture is from another in space and conceptualisation, the harder it would be to share specific emotions. And that is certainly a challenged faced by translators and interpreters and professionals of intercultural communication.

But is it equally natural to assume that there may be a set of fundamental, universal, presumably innate human emotions shared by all regardless of culture-specific idiosyncracies?

According to Izard and Buechler (1980: 168), the fundamental emotions are

( 1)  interest,

(2) joy,

(3) surprise,

(4) sadness,

(5) anger,

(6) disgust,

(7) contempt,

(8) fear,

(9) shame/shyness,

(10) guilt.

I, like Anna Wierzbicka, am not happy when I see English-centred claims of this kind. The fact that the English language seems to be perfectly capable of encapsulating supposedly human universal emotions makes me feel quite uneasy. I look at the list and I have a pretty certain (although I’m in no way able to prove it) that quite a number of ethnic groups will not share the feeling behind the English terms contempt or disgust. Wierzbicka, in fact, explains that the Polish language does not have a word corresponding exactly to the English word disgust or that the Australian Aboriginal language Gidjingali does not seem to distinguish lexically fear from shame.

If Izard and Buechler were Polish or Gidjingali speakers, we might have a different list of “universal emotions”. Ethnocentric research is a risk we are accustomed to, we just need to be able to question it and challenge it when necessary. Producing a list of ten shared human emotions is a pretty big claim and certainly one that needs to be carefully considered.

This ridiculous train of thought of mine, though, is still frustrating the bejesus out of me and I have no word to call it. If you experience the same, in whatever language, and have a name for it, share it, please. 🙂