If you're a foreigner eavesdropping on a conversation in Estonian, how do you tell what mood the speakers are in? It turns out your interpretation of whether the Estonians are happy, sad, angry, or in the most common state in Estonia, the elusive "normal," depends on your nationality.
How do people who don't speak Estonian understand the emotions expressed in it? Rene Altrov from the University of Tartu, conducted a series of tests as part of her PhD research on people with different nationalities and cultural experiences to find that out. She concluded that geographic and cultural closeness play a surprisingly small role: of her sample size, it was the Finns who struggled the most with understanding emotions expressed in Estonian.
Her tests aimed to determine how foreigners perceive joy, anger, sadness and neutrality in Estonian. People were simply asked to listen to sentences in Estonian and determine which of the four emotions were expressed in each.
Altrov's research showed that people from the neighboring countries fail to notice when people speaking in Estonian express joy, putting it down as neutral speech. "The same applies to anger - that too sounds neutral to them," Altrov said. Oddly enough, Italians managed to tell the emotions apart much better. It could be down to the fact that Estonian and Italian have acoustic similarities.
Neutral speech in Estonian was, on the other hand, considered angry by Latvians and Russians, and joyful by Italians and Finns. "We've looked into it and found that neutral talk in Estonian tends to be quite intensive - it's loud and high-pitched. This is different in Russia, where angry speech is intense-sounding, and then come sadness, joy, and finally neutral speech. In Estonian it's the other way around - neutral speech, anger, joy and only then sadness."
The latter is the most universal of the basic emotions studied, hence best recognized across languages and cultures.
Perhaps the most surprising find was that the Finnish, who are very close to Estonians in geographic, cultural and linguistic terms, had the hardest time recognizing the emotions expressed by Estonian-speakers. Latvian test subjects too often struggled to identify Estonian emotions by vocal expression alone, confirming the hypothesis that the recognition of emotions is culturally bound.
Altrov also studied what happens if emotions are conveyed in one's second language, focusing on ethnic Russians living in Estonia. They were able to recognize all Estonian emotions with an accuracy of more than 50 percent, while there was no significant difference between people who spoke Estonian as a first and second language with regard to anger or sadness. But for joy and neutrality, the difference was significant: Russian-speakers displayed a lower accuracy of recognition than ethnic Estonians and confused joy with neutrality.
All this implies that one learns to decode culture-specific expressions of emotions in the course of social interactions. Therefore, understanding emotions is largely dependent on whether a person lives in the culture where the language is spoken.
In addition, the decoding of emotions also depends on the gender and the age of a person. For example, Altrov pointed out that the word "normaalne" (normal) in Estonian, which baffles many foreigners and older locals alike, especially when used to describe one's state of affairs, is interpreted differently by adults and younger people. Whereas Estonian-speakers who were over 30 years old saw it as positive expression, the under-30s said it was neutral.
Editor: M. Oll