An Anthropologist Discovers A New Emotion Locked In A Single Word : Shots - Health News When anthropologist Renato Rosaldo went to live with a Philippine tribe that was known for beheading people, he couldn't grasp the emotion that fueled this violence. Then his wife suddenly died.

Invisibilia: A Man Finds An Explosive Emotion Locked In A Word

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


NPR's Invisibilia is back for a third season. The show about the unseen forces that shape human behavior is taking a look at concepts like reality, identity, emotion and how those concepts shape our experience - sounds kind of abstract until you hear the stories and then you feel them. Today, Invisibilia co-host Alix Spiegel has the story of a man who was introduced to an emotional concept that does not exist in America and how he came to understand it.

ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: This is where our story about the discovery of an emotion ends...

RENATO ROSALDO: (Vocalizing).

SPIEGEL: ...With a man howling in a car in California. Where the story starts is here...



SPIEGEL: ...In a remote region of the Philippines a long time ago, 1967. That was the year anthropologist Renato Rosaldo and his wife, Shelly, set off to live with the llongot, an isolated, unresearched tribe that lived deep in the rain forest. Now, it wasn't exactly an accident that the llongot were unstudied and isolated.

ROSALDO: They're known for their headhunting. They'll kill somebody and cut off their head.

SPIEGEL: But Renato and Shelly were undeterred. They knew that headhunting was part of a larger cultural ritual and felt certain that they wouldn't be at risk. So they packed up everything, including an enormous reel-to-reel tape recorder, and moved. And over time, they began one of the more difficult aspects of anthropological work - mapping the territory of the tribe's emotional world.

ROSALDO: That's one of the difficulties with cultural translation. It doesn't map one to one onto our concepts.

SPIEGEL: Still, while no llongot emotion expressed itself exactly the same way as an American emotion, Renato felt confident that he could do his job and translate their emotions...

ROSALDO: They were familiar enough to me, yes.

SPIEGEL: ...All but one.



SPIEGEL: At first, liget looked like a simple feeling. And it had what we would think of as positive connotations. Renato would see a young man, and members of the tribe would tell him that man has liget.

ROSALDO: He can chop down 10 trees from the forest today.

SPIEGEL: But then one night, liget exploded out of that definition. It began innocently. Renato was sitting with some men, and someone asked him if he could play one of the tapes that he'd recorded. The voice of this man began to play.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).

SPIEGEL: ...This man who had been revered and loved but who had recently died.

ROSALDO: The room went suddenly silent, and I saw men's eyes all turned red. And they said turn off the tape. They couldn't stand it. And then they were talking about that this makes makes our hearts feel liget.

SPIEGEL: This is what they told him.

ROSALDO: They need to take a human head and throw it. I was just stunned. I said I've never heard this kind of feeling with this intensity in my life.


SPIEGEL: What exactly was liget? It clearly wasn't just an excess of productive energy. Renato began asking everyone in the village, and from what he could piece together, liget was the communal feeling of being unmoored and out of control. Different things could bring it on - a death or painful reminder of it - but then the feeling would go viral, spreading to everyone in the tribe. One way they expressed the feeling was to gather together and wail. But the primary way that liget was relieved - at least in the tribe's history - was through the communal act of headhunting.


SPIEGEL: Renato says he actually spent years gathering information on liget. But he says he never felt like he actually understood the concept in a real way.

ROSALDO: We were out of our depth.

SPIEGEL: Then came the fall of 1981 when Renato and his wife, Shelly, traveled to a different part of the Philippines. Their second day there, his wife, Shelly, set off with a guide named Conchita to explore.

ROSALDO: Then, the next thing I know, I hear this...



ROSALDO: ...To meet terrifying silence. The village suddenly became very quiet, and then, in walks the guide, Conchita. She said that Shelly had fallen.

SPIEGEL: Conchita led Renato along the trail to the place where Shelly had fallen.

ROSALDO: And they saw Shelly's body. The feeling I had was just almost a cosmic heaving, expanding and contracting, expanding and contracting, expanding and contracting. But it wasn't just me. It was everything around me.

SPIEGEL: That day, crouching next to Shelly's body on the riverbank, he says the seed of an alien emotion he'd never experienced before began to grow inside him.

ROSALDO: Yes, yes.

SPIEGEL: It was muted at first, didn't fully express itself until after, after Renato had flown back to America and arranged the funeral. Then one sunny, California afternoon, when he was driving down a highway in Palo Alto, he couldn't bear the pressure. So he pulled over on the side of the road and this sound came roaring out of him.

ROSALDO: I, out of nowhere, just started howling (vocalizing).

SPIEGEL: He felt this feeling in his body was liget. And he finally had English words for it.

ROSALDO: It's like being in high voltage.

SPIEGEL: High voltage - those are the English words that most closely approximate the feeling of liget.

ROSALDO: Like high voltage was flowing through my body.

SPIEGEL: He says he came to feel that this emotion, liget, it was better for him than the typical way of American grieving. He says he had this new emotion, this new concept. And he was grateful for it.

ROSALDO: Yeah. It was amazing relief. I sought it out. (Vocalizing).

SPIEGEL: Alix Spiegel, NPR News.


EAGLEOWL: (Vocalizing).

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.