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Positive experiential cartography: Mapping wellbeing through the analysis of untranslatable words



This presentation introduces the idea of 'positive experiential cartography.' This describes a process of mapping the dimensions of wellbeing through an analysis of so-called untranslatable words, sourced from across the world's languages. The premise of this theory is that linguistic systems are essentially maps that enable people to appraise and navigate their experiential world. However, different languages map the world in different ways, which generates cultural variation in the way people experience and conceptualise life. These differences are revealed most starkly by so-called 'untranslatable' words, i.e., which lack an exact translation in another language. However, far from being problematic, such words can be very useful from a psychological perspective. In particular, it can be argued that such words denote 'regions' of the experiential world that a given language (e.g., English) has for some reason overlooked or not charted in any particular detail. Consequently, by engaging with such words, our understanding and appreciation of the world may be enriched accordingly. Tim recently conducted an analysis of 2016 such words, which he published this year in the Journal of Positive Psychology - [Lomas, T. (2016). Towards a positive cross-cultural lexicography: Enriching our emotional landscape through 216 'untranslatable' words pertaining to wellbeing. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(5), 546-558] - with the aim of creating a positive cross-cultural 'lexicography. This presentation builds on this work by advancing a new theory regarding the significance and value of such words, namely that these can help positive psychology refine and augment its conceptual 'map' of wellbeing.
Positive Experiential
Exploring the value
of untranslatable words
June 2017
Dr. Tim Lomas
1: My lexicographic project
2: A theory of language
A positive cross-cultural
Collecting untranslatable words
216 words initially
Analysed using grounded theory
Development of thematic structure
Suggestions to
Now nearly 1000 words
Creating a ‘map’ of wellbeing
A map of wellbeing
A theory of language
Experiential cartography
A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct,
it has a similar structure to the territory, which
accounts for its usefulness,” Alfred Korzybski
Words are like maps….
Four common principles
Dimensionality principle
Experiential ‘state-space’ =
External world
Internal world
State-space has n dimensions
Feeling = valence, intensity, duration,
frequency, significance, etc.
Boundary principle
Segment the world
Boundaries constructed
Influenced by culture (Sapir-Whorf)
Shapes perception & experience
Granularity principle
Capacity to ‘zoom in
Increasing differentiation
Level of detail remains constant
Principle of learning generally
Guidance principle
Understand familiar regions
Refined map of the area
Journey to new regions
Revealing new terrain
Untranslatable words
Lack ‘exact’ equivalent in English
Fill ‘lexical gaps’
Delineate uncharted regions of state-space
Psychological significance
Articulate familiar phenomena
Discover unfamiliar phenomena
Different forms of untranslatability
Words circumscribing state-space
Overlap-based untranslatability
Specificity-based untranslatability
Generality-based untranslatability
Enhancing psychology
Borrowing words
Fill lexical gaps
Embrace as loanwords
Different types
Enhancing field
Enrich nomological network
Develop new research questions and practices
Thank you for listening!
Lomas, T. (2016). Towards a positive cross-cultural
lexicography: Enriching our emotional landscape through
216 ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to wellbeing. The
Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(5), 546-558.
Lomas, T. (2018). Translating Happiness: A Cross-Cultural
Lexicon of Wellbeing. Boston: MIT Press
Any questions…?
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