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Happiness: An Analyses of the Term in Different Languages

Happiness: an analyses of the term in different languages

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definitions:

In English:

In a way, happiness (and its antonymous term – unhappiness) are related to the verb to happen, linking them with favourable or unfavourable events taking place outside of us, our state of mind dependent on external factors. In Old English you would wish “good luck” by saying “good hap”.

In Latin, Felicitas means fortune, luck, or more rarely, destiny. (Minois, 2009)

In German, Glück means both happiness and fortune. While its antonym, Unglück, is the state of being sad, unhappy and also means disgrace.

In French we have bonheur and malheur, which follow an identical pattern.

Are we right? Are we sure that happiness comes from what happens to us?
Maybe it’s just a culturally rooted point of view.


What about in Africa? Could African culture give the West a much more interesting perspective?

For instance, the Fante speakers of Ghana describe happiness/excitement literally as “eye-get” (“anigye”) and joy/contentment as “eye-agree/reach” (“anika”), in contrast with shame as “eye-die” (“aniwu”) and guilty as “eye-put” (“anyito” in Dzokoto & Okazaki, 2006)

Suhipelli in Dagbani language (Ghana) can be translated as White heart.

Both languages suggest that Happiness is moving from inside the individual, towards the outside, so it depends on us.

Maybe we should take this possibility into consideration.

Curious to know more?

“Although many theories about the structure of emotion have been developed, none of them seem to adequately explain the African experience. This study examined the folk emotion lexica of two indigenous West African languages. Fifty monolingual Fante speakers and 50 monolingual Dagbani speakers from rural and semirural Ghana participated in focus groups to generate words in their native language that they use to describe experiences that involve emotions. Qualitative analysis of the emotion lexica generated by the focus group participants revealed frequent somatic referencing in the emotion talk of Fante and Dagbani, although there were differences in the specific body parts mentioned in references to various emotional experiences. The ubiquity of somatic referents in the expression of African emotions suggests that future theories of emotion structure may need to incorporate the concept of embodiment.”

“Happiness in the Eye and the Heart: Somatic Referencing in West African Emotion Lexica”, Vivian Afi Dzokoto, Sumie Okazaki,

Happiness in the Eye and the Heart: Somatic Referencing in West African Emotion Lexica
By Shigehiro Oishi, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia

“Several programs of empirical research have also revealed cultural variations in the connotation of happiness. For instance, Lu and Gilmour (2004) found that Americans tend to associate excitement and success with happiness, whereas the Chinese tend to associate peace and calm with happiness. Similarly, Jeanne Tsai and her colleagues found that Taiwanese and Hong Kong Chinese value low-arousal positive affect such as calmness, whereas Americans typically value high-arousal positive affect such as excitement

(Tsai, Knutson, & Fung, 2006). Interestingly, Taiwanese children’s books depicted a mild smile more often than a wide smile, whereas American children’s books depicted a wide smile more often than a mild smile (Tsai, Louie, Chen, & Uchida, 2007). Similarly, Christian texts often use high arousal positive emotions, whereas Buddhist texts often use low arousal positive emotions (Tsai, Miao, & Seppala, 2007). 

Given that American concepts of happiness center on achieving of one’s goals, it makes sense that the resulting emotions are excitement and pride. 

In contrast, given that Chinese conceptions of happiness center on luck, the resulting emotional state might not be excitement but rather akin to gratitude and satisfaction”

By Shigehiro Oishi, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia

How do you express happiness and luck in your language?

Do you differentiate between the two? 

Let us know your thoughts.

If you wish to go deeper on Africa:

Cultural Models of Well-Being Implicit in Four Ghanaian Languages

Folk emotion concepts: Lexicalization of emotional experiences across languages and cultures

By Anna Ogarkova

Happiness in the Eye and the Heart: Somatic Referencing in West African Emotion Lexica

Vivian Afi Dzokoto, Sumie Okazaki

Cultural Models of Well-Being Implicit in Four Ghanaian Languages

Sailing Down the Depths of Te Rehutai

A legendary story was once being told about two islands that were found. These islands together are now known as New Zealand (Aotearoa). The story says that New Zealand was fished from the sea by the fearless demigod, Māui. 

Māui, a bold and clever demigod according to Maori and Polynesian mythology, was born after a miraculous birth and upbringing won the affection of his supernatural parents.

The North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui) legend says that one night, Māui’s four brothers thought to go fishing and leave him behind. He overheard their plans and not liking the idea, he went under the floorboards of his brother’s canoe, covered himself, and waited until they reached a distance away from the shore, then he revealed himself. Māui scraped a charmed fishhook from an ancestors’ jawbone and threw it down deep into the sea, chanting powerful words. The magic worked. He realized that he had caught something, but not like a fish with a normal size. With the help of his brothers, the catch was hurled to the surface of the water. Instead of a fish, they had caught an enormous piece of land, finding out that they had discovered Māui’s fish (Te Ika a Māui) known today as the North Island.

Māui’s brothers began to carve out pieces of the fish which turned out to natural resources like mountains and lakes which you can see on the North Island now. 

Meanwhile, the South Island (Te Waka a Māui) is told to be Māui’s and his brothers’ canoe (waka) that they fished from. They believe that Kaikōura Peninsula on the South Island’s east coast is where the canoe arrived and where Māui stood to draw in the discovered catch.

Who told the legends of New Zealand (Aotearoa)?

The legendary tale of Maui tells a lot about how New Zealand looks like now. Let’s first start by imagining its picture. New Zealand is a country that instantly gives us an image of green-emerald fields, under-the-hill houses of the hobbits, limitless fresh cow’s milk, a breathtaking home for international match races, and a dominant English-speaking nation.

However, little did we know that this unique place has a long-running history with indigenous groups, who survived a great journey to keep a well-preserved and breathing culture, traditions, mythology, and language.

We’re talking about the indigenous people, who shielded and passed the culture and legends we now learned about mainland New Zealand, the Māori. 

Māori originally came from Eastern Polynesia conquering voyages through the pacific waves using their watercraft known as Waka roughly between 1320 and 1350. Upon settling, the indigenous group rose their own beliefs, customs, arts and crafts, and language. 

Being in total isolation from invaders and foreigners for centuries, they were able to grow and establish a civilization along with its unbreakable cultural heritage and trademark.

The Language Māori

Māori people formed their language labeling with the same name, Māori, also known as Te Reo Māori which means “the language”. It was recognized as an official language of New Zealand declared in 1987. Māori is further being spoken actively by 474,000 speakers based on statistics by NZ. stats in 2018. Considering it was three years ago, we strongly believe that the digits have heightened up. 

Since now more than ever, with media types expanding in various sorts, the language is benefiting from that by directly unfolding more awareness about the Māori language and in return, gaining an effortless exposure.

Here is a graph by Waikato Regional Council showing how the Māori-speaking population is varying over the years.

In every living language, there’s always an influence by the other languages their speakers hear. In Māori’s case, English was its primary influencer. It was the major source of borrowed words that were adjusted to be in harmony with Māori usage. They adapted and evolved to become adjacent to its setting, making this language so resilient.

On the contrary, the English language in New Zealand was also evolving and borrowing words from Māori or Polynesian languages. Some of these words are taboo (tapu), kit (kete), Kiwi (a New Zealander), and even the word Mana commonly used in video games was derived from Māori which means life force or life essence. 

This modern era gave an overwhelming voice for the language of Māori. Within a century, events that highlight the language and its exposure ascended. Māori even acquired the spot in Guinness World of Records for the longest place name in the world:

Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu”  It’s a 305-meter hill near Porangahau, south of Waipukurau in southern Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. 

Photo credits to:

Another happening that gives Māori a chance to be encountered is during America’s Cup by Prada in Auckland that is happening this month of March.

“Auckland is a place of mana (life essence), with a living, breathing Māori culture that reflects the deep connection of our tangata whenua (indigenous peoples) to the land. We hope you leave with a lasting impression of the warmth of our welcome and depth of our manaakitanga (embrace).” – America’s Cup by Prada 

This year is going to be a magnificent match as the Team New Zealand has overcome Luna Rossa scoring 5-3 in the first-to-seven series of America’s Cup, as of March 15. 

“Te Rehutai”

Team New Zealand’s boat has undergone a massive change last year with it shifting to a new focus particularly on aerodynamics.

Changing their boat means giving a new name. Thus, Team New Zealand decided to name her “Te Rehutai”, which means the “spirit of the ocean”. But there’s a deeper side within its literal meaning.

Taiaha Hawke from Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, an Auckland-based native of subtribe (Māori hapū) in New Zealand, gave a further explanation of the name’s meaning which is: “where the essence of the ocean invigorates and energizes our strength and determination”.

Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei gave the blessing to Emirates Team New Zealand boat with the name “Te Rehutai” christened by Lady Margaret Tindall.

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“Te Rehutai” – Emirates Team New Zealand’s New Boat

“We looked at following the lineage of the dolphin and the hawk, but we wanted something that took us back a little further to the Waitemata and A-class boats that used to sail on it… just a bit more meaning for Auckland and New Zealand,” Team NZ boss Grant Dalton says to Newshub.

There’s an inseparable connection between the Māori and aquatic life; intrinsic poetic magic of the language found its greatest foundations with stories about the waters along with them, always sung or chanted. 

One of these poems is “Te Riwaru” by James Cowan. Te Riwaru is a famous canoe built by Rata, well-known in mythology whose ventures are the subject of traditions all over Polynesia. 

My great canoe,
How speeds to shore my long canoe,
Light as the fleecy cloud above
That bears to Tauranga my love.
My carved canoe
Te Riwaru.
O dear canoe!
That featly o’er the waters flew
From Arorangi, Island home
Far in old Kiwa’s ocean foam;
The paddles in the toiling hands—
How plunge they at Hautu’s commands!
My own canoe
My Riwaru.
Oh urge along
My brave canoe,
O viewless powers of earth and air,
O Uru, list, O Ngangana!
Drive on with lightning stroke and free,
O’erwhelm with storm our enemy;
Oh swiftly paddle, swift and true,
Our proud canoe
Te Ri-wa-ru!


Another event that stands out – the Māori Language Week (Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori). Since 1975, New Zealand celebrates a dedicated time to acknowledge and celebrate this enchanting language which usually runs during September. It’s also a reminder to use Māori phrases more for daily regular functions: a simple act that will keep the language’s heart beating. 

Te Reo Māori is undergoing a resurgence. It’s a language that has been persisted by the people of Māori, who, are continuously fighting to protect the language’s spirit, thus holding the sense of their identity. The language carries strength within itself, therefore carrying out to its speakers this hereditary trait naturally.