Locating Emotion in Our Language and Bodies

Claire Litt //

Street art on a wall in Florence, Italy. 2017.

Practically speaking, heartbreak is nonsensical. We know the heart is a muscle, and that muscles do not break—they tear. Yet no despondent lover has ever laid prostrate on their bed complaining of heart tears. Though it is a muscle, the heart breaks as a bone—and the fact that we say so informs our subjective experience of the pain.

Although emotion is universal to the human experience, the inconsistency of where and how the experience of it has been physically felt is proven by the diverse bodily parts in which it has been historically harboured. The ways in which language mediates humans’ understanding of their experience of reality has been a topic of scholarly inquiry since the linguistic turn in the early twentieth century. In the 1930s and 40s, linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf put forward a theory of linguistic relativity (also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), which suggested that language greatly influences humans’ perceptions of reality. Our world-views are guided by the language we have at our disposal to describe our experiences. When, in the 1970s, the linguistic turn entered into historical scholarship, scholars began to unpack words’ meanings and expose them for what they were—not unbiased signifiers, but loaded with history and nuances that were often not directly reflective of the realities they claimed to express. Historians have been challenged to conceive of how words, with their many antiquated meanings that have since fallen to the wayside, created humans’ past realities—and how the changing usage and meanings of words over time gestured toward the ever-changing nature of those realities. Taking heartbreak as an example, it becomes clear that in any given era the language used to corporealize emotional pain informed the experience of it. 

Heartbreak did not exist before the mid-nineteenth century. A Google Ngram charts heartbreak’s rapid ascent into regular English usage starting in the 1850s. Before then, amorously challenged or otherwise downtrodden, luckless individuals named melancholy as their primary complaint. The condition was believed to result from an improper balance of the four humours that comprised the body according to Galenic theory, the prevalent medical schema of the early modern era. Robert Burton, whose life-long depression led him to author a book on the subject, The Anatomy of Melancholy, lamented the pain in his heart, due to “those black fumes that make it smart” (39). Black bile, a dry and cold humour equated to dark earth, was believed to cause sadness and depression. Black bile not only affected the heart but was also charged with clouding the mind and making the body sedentary and listless.

Excess humours also affected individuals’ other organs with detrimental effects to their character. The Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth charged cowards with being “lily-livered,” a reference perhaps to the organ’s hindrance by the cold phlegmatic humour (5.3.17). Cowardice is now more likely described as someone “weak of heart.” In the modern day, the heart is metaphorically overburdened, imagined as the seat not only of all emotions but virtues, too.

In what appears to be an inverse correlation to the increase in the use of “heartbreak,” the use of the words “humours” and “melancholy” dramatically fell over the nineteenth century. No longer did a rejected lover feel vaporous black fumes filling their heart; instead, they felt it break. The newly-established dominance of modern medical sciences and its ever-empirical world view had no patience for the debunked “physick” to which the symptoms of our despondent lover were previously ascribed. Modern medicine overturned melancholy, by which the body and the emotional life of the soul that occupied it were empirically linked, to focus solely on the mechanical operations of the body and its parts.

Perhaps it has only been recently, with increased emphasis by physicians on mental health, that the emotions have begun to be medicalized again—and that we begin to imagine the displacement of the emotions from the heart into this new organ. Whereas emotions once existed in vaporous and fluid forms as the four humours that moved through the body, and then moved to the heart at the turn of the nineteenth century, they now appear to be have been relocated to the brain. And how do they exist there? Whereas the vaporous infusion of organs’ humours or the visceral cracking of the heart leads us to believe that humans are helplessly at the whim of our emotions, the scientists, in their unyieldingly clinical fashion, now inform us that isn’t true. The neuroscientists tell us that not only can they confirm that our emotions reside in our brains, but, pointing to decades of studies and using new scientific words, they claim our emotions are our brains’ own creations (Barrett), giving us an entirely new perspective through which to experience them.

Works Cited:

Democritus Jr.. The Anatomy of Melancholy. Produced by Karl Hagen, D.Moynihan and Distributed Proofreaders. Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10800/10800-h/10800-h.htm.

“Linguistic turn.” Oxford Reference. Date of access 11 Nov. 2020, <https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100107530&gt;

“Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.” Oxford Reference. Date of access 11 Nov. 2020, <https://www-oed-com.proxy.queensu.ca/view/Entry/170830?isAdvanced=true&result=10&rskey=Mk0Vrr&&gt;

“You Aren’t at the Mercy of Your Emotions — Your Brain Creates Them.” Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, TedTalk, 23 Jan. 2018, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gks6ceq4eQ. (Accessed Friday Nov. 13 2020).

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