Feeling the words

Nature has given us the greatest tool for cultural evolution; language and we have been given language in infinite numbers,” says Rukmini Bhaya Nair,Professor of English and Linguistics at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT),New Delhi.

Written by Mandakini Gahlot | Published:February 22, 2009 1:32 am

IIT professor Rukmini Bhaya Nair researches the language of emotions

Nature has given us the greatest tool for cultural evolution; language and we have been given language in infinite numbers,” says Rukmini Bhaya Nair,Professor of English and Linguistics at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT),New Delhi. A researcher in the field of Literary Darwinism,Nair has over the course of the last few years been closely involved with what she believes is “expanding on one of Darwin’s lesser known but important works”. While the British naturalist is best known for his On the Origin of Species published in 1859,Darwin also published a book called The Expressions of Emotions in Man and Animals in 1872. The book was one of the first in the world to use photos.

“While researching for this book,Darwin sent out an elaborate questionnaire to respondent in 30 countries. Some of the questionnaires were sent to India as well. The questionnaire is a set of photographs— of babies,imbeciles,people grieving—that asks people to identify the 16 basic emotions in human being such as shame,anger,joy,astonishment and so on,” says Nair.

Darwin’s purpose,as Nair explains it,was to show evolutionary similarity across human communities and cultures. He was taken in by the idea that men,women and children of different races express the same emotions “by using the same movements”. Since early 2006,Nair has been using the same questionnaire and asking different groups of people such as dancers and actors to identify the various emotions. “I have been trying to study if there is a language of emotions. While emotions are similar across cultures,I think they are expressed differently. For instance,anger is expressed by people of every race but do they express it by using the same expressions? Moreover,certain gestures could indicate different emotions in different cultures. So,I believe that culture cannot be negated from the expression of emotion,” says Nair.

So,even as Darwin conceded that emotions across cultures varied a little,have they modified over the ages? For instance,Darwin’s findings suggested that Indians express disgust by spitting in someone’s face. Nair’s research attempts to study how such expressions have evolved across culture. In that context,Nair believes her research studies the very Darwinian concept of evolution. “Evolution is not just biological,it’s also social and cultural,” she says.

Her interest in Darwin evolved into an interest in Literary Darwinism—the study of literary criticism in the context of evolution. “There are certain themes in literature which are very Darwinian such as the theme of survival as in Robinson Crusoe,or the theme of acquiring resources or looking at women as resources as is the case in many a classical novel. Even the theme of mating or childbearing highlight Darwinian themes,” says Nair. These themes,Nair says,stand out in Jane Austen texts such as Darwin’s central idea of women looking for partners who are successful or above them on the social ladder— an idea explored in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

A century and a half after the Origin of Species,Darwin’s ideas continue to raise admiration and controversy across the globe. Rukmini Bhaya Nair is among the people who keep returning to his theory.

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