What's In A Grunt — Or A Sigh, Or A Sob? Depends On Where You Hear It

New research suggests that different cultures do not hear the same emotions when they hear the same sounds. The "emotional grammar" of language is instead shaped by culture and local circumstances.

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From NPR news this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Hear a laugh, you know someone's happy. Hear a sob, you know someone is sad. Or are they? It's been thought that no matter where you live in the world, people express emotions using the same repertoire of sounds. But NPR's social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, reports on new research on how emotions are expressed and understood around the globe.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: For a long time, scientists have assumed there is a universal grammar when it comes to emotional sound. Languages differ, cultures differ, but emotional sounds carry the same meaning everywhere you go. There's good evidence for this theory. Studies have shown that if you ask people to say whether this sound comes from a person who's happy or sad...


VEDANTAM: ...People all over the world will tell you the emotion being expressed is sadness. If you ask if this woman is eating something delicious or something disgusting...


VEDANTAM: ...People will probably say she's eating something yummy.

Lisa Barrett, a psychologist at Northeastern University, told me these experiments led to this widely held conclusion.

LISA BARRETT: The assumption is that you can listen to someone's voice and you can know exactly how they're feeling and that this is a universal ability.

VEDANTAM: Barrett decided to test the assumption in a new way. The past experiments I described gave people categories to choose from just like I did. I told you one sound was happy or sad, the other sound was satisfied or disgusted. You just picked one of two choices.

In some new research, Barrett asked a deceptively simple question - what happens if you don't give people multiple choices? What if you just play the sounds and ask them to tell you what they hear? If the grammar of emotional sounds is hardwired and universal, than people from very different parts of the world should hear the sounds in identical ways. If the grammar of emotional sounds is learned and culturally derived, then people from different cultures might arrive at completely different conclusions. And Barrett says it does matter which is right.

BARRETT: Every textbook - really every textbook that is published in the Western world reports that there are certain categories of emotion which are universally expressed and universally perceived all around the world.

VEDANTAM: So Barrett and her colleague, Maria Gendron, ran a test using volunteers in Boston and volunteers from the Himba tribe in a remote part of Namibia. They played them a series of different sounds.


VEDANTAM: I asked Maria Gendron to tell me what the volunteers in Boston heard and Lisa Barrett to tell me what the Himba volunteers heard.

MARIA GENDRON: Most Americans labeled it as disgusted, grossed out, yucky.

BARRETT: The Himba heard sounds like this as - this person feels bad, this person has a problem. They would also say things like, this person is crying, this person is screaming, this person is sick, this person is experiencing wonder - is in a state of wonder. So they were really all over the map with this.

VEDANTAM: In other words, the volunteers from the different cultures heard very different emotions. What about the other sounds?

The sound of fear...


VEDANTAM: ...How did Americans hear that?

GENDRON: Most Americans heard it as scared, afraid, shocked or frustrated.

VEDANTAM: And what about the Himba, Lisa?

BARRETT: The Himba would say this person is crying about a death, this person is screaming in pain.

VEDANTAM: Pain and grief, not fear or shock. What about sadness, or rather I should say, what about the sound we associate with sadness?


GENDRON: So most Americans heard that sound as sadness. Some Americans also gave a more general response - upset.

VEDANTAM: And Lisa, how did the Himba hear that sound?

BARRETT: The Himba heard that sound as laughing, coughing, sometimes crying.

VEDANTAM: In fact, of all the sounds that the researchers played for the volunteers in Boston and in Namibia, there was only one sound that the Americans and the Himba heard in more or less identical ways.


BARRETT: The category for happiness, which is expressed as smiling and laughing, may actually be universal.

VEDANTAM: So it looks like an open answer test might be better than multiple-choice for discovering where our understanding of emotional sounds comes from. But like all new research agendas, this one needs to be repeated by other scientists to see if it holds up. But in the meantime if you're traveling overseas, remember that people around you might not hear...


VEDANTAM: ...And...


VEDANTAM: ...And...


VEDANTAM: ...Quite the way that you intend. On the other hand, one sound might translate perfectly wherever you go.


VEDANTAM: Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

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