Universal Alphabet of Emotion

This is a note I started drafting at the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute 2022. It describes the potential need for a Universal Alphabet of Emotion, and emerged from a collection of thoughts and experiences, which timeline is as follow:

  • One of the participants, Alex Wolf, presented their project - cards with a "pattern alphabet" for exploring nature, called patternABC, which breaks down into its most basic parts the way nature forms (see Kickstarter here). This was a fascinating demonstration of the usefulness of pattern thinking.
  • Soon after, I stumble upon a tweet by Neuroskeptic sharing a paper about "gheirat", a complex emotion that's ubiquitous in Muslim Middle Eastern cultures, but untranslatable to English.
  • This made me wonder whether there would be a way to universally translate such human emotions that can only be found in specific languages, so other humans could not only understand them, but "feel" them – or at least be able to approximate the feeling based on building blocks from a universal alphabet of emotion.
  • I previously looked into Leibniz's "Alphabet of Human Thought" which goal was to design a universal way to represent ideas by breaking down their component pieces. I'm unclear as to whether this ever came to fruition, but a universal alphabet of emotion would probably have a similar approach.
  • I also thought about studies from Berkeley that look at emotions across cultures. There are the 16 facial expressions most common to emotional situations worldwide (paper), but when I tried to give it the "gheirat test" (trying to break down "gheirat" into a combination of those 16 building blocks) I was surprised to find quite a few missing, including disgust. So I searched for additional studies, and another one seems more complete, with 27 emotions (paper) which seems like a better collection of building blocks, and seems to pass the gheirat test (disgust + anger).
  • A lot of emotions are linked to time. For example, joy + past may describe nostalgia, but joy + future may describe excitement or anticipation (these are rough examples). However, it's interesting how my mind immediately jumped to symbolic representations of time that are very much Western-centric, with a left-to-right model. A presentation at DISI mentioned how cultures don't represent future in the same way, and how for some cultures, everyday notions of time are anchored in topographic properties, e.g. the Yupno people of Papua New Guinea: "For the Yupno the past is always downhill, in the direction of the mouth of the local river. The future, meanwhile, is towards the river’s source, which lies uphill from Gua. This was true regardless of the direction they were facing." (source) In addition, some words, like Sukha in Sanskrit (lasting state of happiness), may require a building block to describe an "eternal" / "long-term" / "infinite" / "lasting" conception of time.

All of this results in a few considerations for the creation of a Universal Alphabet of Emotion:

  1. Must capture all basic building blocks of emotions across cultures - this can be tested by doing something similar to the gheirat test, taking words that don't have a universal translation, and checking whether it can be broken down using the building blocks of the alphabet of emotion.
  2. Must not rely on local symbolism, or at least not in ways that hamper understanding across cultures. (for example, I immediately thought that a whirlpool may be a good symbol for "confusion" but maybe it means something completely different in some cultures)
  3. Must be simple to use. Using symbols that are very easy to write, maybe relying on existing Unicode symbols so they could be typed / easily read by machines as well? Appending a corresponding phoneme to each grapheme, so words could be read out loud? (Japanese phonology could be good candidates as generally easy to pronounce for lots of native speakers of other languages)

Finally, some thoughts as to why such an alphabet may be useful:

  • I don't expect such an alphabet to be widely adopted, but I imagine that in a research context, better translating emotions could lead to better cross-cultural communication, understanding, trust, collaboration, and potentially more universally applicable research output.
  • Maybe some applications when teaching kids how to communicate their emotions? I imagine some actual building blocks or cards that kids could pair together to communicate how they feel.
  • I could see this being helpful in therapeutic context, to help someone express complex emotions when they can't seem to find the right words, or even with people with communication difficulties. (there are probably some existing tools that aim to accomplish similar goals, which would be interesting to look at)

As of the last time this note was edited, this project is at the idea stage, but I always enjoy opportunities for networked thinking and connected creativity, so please reach out if you find the concept of an Universal Alphabet of Emotion interesting and/or have thoughts to contribute!