Emotion Concepts in Russian-English Bilinguals’ Narratives

Aneta Pavlenko, Temple University

Wierzbicka (1992) argues that emotions are differently conceptualized in Russian and English. In Russian, experiences comparable to ‘joy’, ‘sadness’ or ‘anger’ are conceptualized as inner activities in which one engages more or less voluntarily. As a result, they involve duration and are often designated by verbs (e.g. radovatsia/to rejoyce, to be actively happy, joyful). In contrast, in English emotions are conceptualized as passive states caused by external and/or past causes. As a result, they are more commonly expressed by adjectives and pseudo-participles, such as ‘worried’, ‘sad’, or ‘disgusted’. Pavlenko’s (2002) study of emotion narratives supported Wierzbicka’s claims, showing that American narrators favored adjectives, while Russian narrators favored verbs, in particular imperfective and reflexive emotion verbs which stressed the processual aspect of the experience.

The present study examines the emotion lexicon of 60 Russian-English bilinguals, all of whom acquired English between the ages of 13 and 19, upon arrival in the US. By the time of the study the participants had spent between 3 and 8 years in the US, interacting in Russian and English on the daily basis, with the predominance of English. The participants watched a 3 minute-long film, with a soundtrack but no dialogue. The film portrayed a woman receiving and reading an upsetting letter, the roommate who reads the same letter without permission, and finally the reaction of the woman whose letter was being read. Thirty participants recalled the film in Russian, and thirty in English. Subsequently, a life-story interview was elicited from them in the other language by a bilingual researcher.

The analysis of the collected narratives and life story interviews revealed the influence of the L2 English on lexicalization of emotions in L1 Russian. Some bilingual speakers substituted verbs for adjectives in their Russian narratives, incorporating perception copulas and change-of-state verbs. For example, in contexts where Russian speakers would use action verbs, such as rasserdit’sia (= to [get] angry) or rasstroit’sia (= to [get] upset), bilinguals opted for change-of-state verbs stat’ (perfective)/stanovit’sia (imperfective) (= to become) with emotion adjectives, producing utterances such as “ona stala eshche bolee rasstroennaia” (= she (NOM) became even more upset (NOM)). While in English such an utterance is fully grammatical, in Russian the verb stanovit’sia is typically preceded by a pronoun in a Dative case and followed by an adverb, e.g. ei stalo grustno (literally: to her (DAT) it became sad). In a less common construction, the verb stanovit’sia subcategorizes for adjectives in Instrumental case, e.g., ona stala grustnoi (= she (NOM) became sad (INST)). Yet the participants appropriated the English construction, Pronoun (NOM) + verb + Adj (NOM), producing instances of morphosyntactic transfer of subcategorization constraints. The findings of the study suggest that second language socialization in adulthood may lead to changes in representations in the mental lexicon.

Pavlenko, A. 2002. Emotions and the body in Russian and English. Pragmatics and Cognition, 10, 1-2, 201-236.

Wierzbicka, A. 1992. Semantics, culture, and cognition: Universal human concepts in culture-specific configurations. Oxford University Press.