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SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

When emotions cannot speak: a pragmatic analysis of cases of alexithymia in English fiction

Zhgun Daria

Professor of the Department of Asian Studies at Catholic University of Daegu

41528, Yuzhnaya Koreya, g. Daegu, ul. 84 gonhang-Ro, 105

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Abstract: The article focuses on the analysis of cases of alexithymia in English fiction in order to reveal their pragmatic potential. Alexithymia is studied from a linguistic perspective and is defined as the inability or difficulty to express emotions verbally. Emotions are viewed as a type of language identity that functions within specific ways to exchange communicative information. Emotions are recognized as social phenomena that are embedded in social contexts. The article strives to provide a novel insight into the study of emotions in the field of linguistics. For the first time, alexithymia is addressed not as a psychological disorder, but as a linguistic attempt to create and increase a pragmatic effect on the reader by implying additional information and emotional and evaluative overtones. Research methods include definition, semantic and pragmatic analyses of emotional and evaluative utterances, expressing or implying alexithymia, and selected from English fiction by the continuous sampling method. The author comes to the conclusion that emotions can still be revealed and comprehended by the reader without being expressed or implied in the text. It is the context that helps to determine the emotion, its intensity and polarity, as well as its pragmatic potential.


emotion, emotional and evaluative utterance, alexithymia, implication, appraisal, pragmatics, pragmatic potential, pragmatic effect, context, English fiction

Once we name something, you said, we can never see it the same way again. All that is unnameable falls away, gets lost, is murdered. You called this the cookie-cutter function of our minds.

[1, p. 8]

Based on the latest linguistic paradigm of anthropocentrism, man stands in the center of all communicative events. Emotions, as an integral part of a person’s life, perform an important role in their language behavior. Indeed, emotional processes oftentimes predetermine and influence human behavior and decision making: it is impossible to talk about thinking, intellect and creativity without considering emotions [2].

One of the key functions of any emotion is their ability to bring about certain effects in one’s social environment. Being naturally social phenomena, emotions regularly occur in social contexts as reactions towards other people. For example, jealousy, embarrassment, shame, guilt, envy, love or hatred require “third parties as causes, targets, or observers in order for these emotions to occur in the first place” [3, p. 3]. Another important aspect of emotions as a social occurrence is their ability to achieve social goals by altering or adjusting one’s relationship and standing within their social group. For instance, sadness is a sign of a person’s vulnerability and desire in support; fear serves as a distancing factor between its experiencer and others; anger is a threatening gesture with the purpose of imposing change upon another person’s behavior or attitude [4, p. 458]. Thus, it is essential to study emotions in social contexts in order to understand their nature.

Any emotion also performs a communicative role. Communication of emotional states includes psychophysiological reactions (face color changes, screams, sighs, crying), phonation (intonation, voice pitch change, pausation, silence) and kinesthetics (specific body postures, gestures, mimicry). An important role in emotional communication is devoted to language.

Apart from the commonsensical statement that language is used to name and describe emotions, it is important to mention that it can constitute, clarify (or complicate) and enhance emotions alongside with evoking new experiences. Putting emotions into words sheds light on what one’s is feeling, and “since our emotions or wishes are not readily detectable by others, it is common to wish to inform others that we have them” [5, p. 78]. Later on verbalization influences the unfolding of the communication and externally induces experiences that would not occur otherwise [6, p. 11].

In addition to simply verbalizing one’s emotions, the speaker tries to produce a reaction in the listener, which brings us to another important aspect of any language behavior – pragmatics. Pragmatics studies the function of a language in a communicative situation. Any word or sentence apart from its primary meaning can imply much more, be it order, warning, complaint or request [7, p. .217-237]. Therefore, words, utterances and sentences possess a pragmatic potential and can create a pragmatic effect.

A lot of examples of rich means of emotional expressions can be found in fiction, which constitutes the resources in the current article. Literary texts are also characterized by a detailed functional manifestation of the pragmatic potential of all language units, including ones denoting emotions. Pragmatics also comes into play when emotions are not verbally expressed.

Being a complex multi-layered phenomenon, language is still poorer than the actual life with its emotional experience and cannot always express or even imply all emotional states. It happens because naming emotions sometimes simply “squeezes” such complex states into a compact word without considering their complicated nature [6, p. 18]. The phenomenon of being unable to express emotions verbally is known as alexithymia.

Coming from the Greek a- (prefix meaning “lack”), lexis (“word”) and thymos (“feelings”), the word “alexithymia” literally means “a lack of words for feelings”. It can also be defined as a deficit in the cognitive processing and regulation of emotion [8, p. 634]. The term is widely used in psychiatry to describe patients who have trouble identifying their feelings and emotions. It is also a condition in which one can feel extremely overwhelmed by emotions that he/she is unable to label or express them. Scientifically, the cause of the phenomenon is believed to be a breakdown in communication between the two cerebral hemispheres that prevents signals from the emotional regions (predominantly in the right) to reach the language areas (predominantly in the left) [9]. Studies also show that alexithymia has two dimensions – cognitive, when a person struggles to identify and verbalize emotions [10, p. 65], and affective, where challenges arise in reacting, actual feeling and imagining [11, p. 1125]. In this article, alexithymia is viewed from the linguistic perspective, i.e. from the inability of people to put their emotions into words.

Fiction demonstrates to be a rich source of cases of alexithymia. All discovered examples can be referred to one of the three groups: 1) when a person understands, but is unable to express the emotion due to its intensity, 2) when a person understands the emotion, but cannot find its linguistic equivalent, and 3) when a person does not understand, and therefore, cannot express the emotion.

In the first case, alexithymia is caused by so-called emotional overwhelm, or the state of being attacked by powerful emotions, which interferes with one’s ability to think and act rationally, and consequently, express their feelings verbally. Let us look at some examples.

(1) Below Heather, the water, black as oil, was still churning with bodies. She wanted to shout down—move, move, I’m going to hit you—but she couldn’t speak. She could hardly breathe. Her lungs felt like they were being pressed between two stones [12, p. 61].

The main character is overwhelmed by a strong emotion that prohibits her from speaking. Several contextual markers (comparison (the water, black as oil), physiological symptoms (She could hardly breathe. Her lungs felt like they were being pressed between two stones)) help reveal that the implied emotion is fear.

(2) I smile even wider. “Because if you had a real girlfriend,” I say, quietly but clearly, so he can hear every word perfectly, “you wouldn’t be hitting on high school girls.” Mr. Daimler sucks in a breath and jerks backward so quickly he almost falls off the desk. People are coming into class, now, chattering and comparing roses, ignoring us. We could be talking about a homework assignment, or a quiz grade. He stares at me, his mouth opening and shutting. No words come out [13, p. 167].

Here the cause of the teacher’s emotion is explicit – his student knows that he flirts with schoolgirls. This allows us to assume that the teacher is experiencing shame and embarrassment. The high intensity of the emotion prevents him from speaking, but is implied in the description of his body language: sucks in a breath and jerks backward so quickly he almost falls off the desk; he stares at me, his mouth opening and shutting. Pragmatic potential of emotional utterances in the passage includes disapproval of such behavior.

(3) “Walk quickly,” I hiss under my breath as we move through the spaces of the textile stalls. “But don’t—” I grab her by the cloak before she goes too far. “Don’t run. You’ll draw attention. Blend into the crowd.” The girl nods and tries to speak, but no words come out. It’s all she can do to tail me like a lionaire cub, never more than two steps behind [14, p. 71].

The girl is overloaded by another strong negative emotion that deprives her of the ability to speak. The context reveals that this emotion is fear (tail me like a lionaire cub, never more than two steps behind).

In the examples above all emotions were implied, but easily understood from the context. Nevertheless, it is also common to express emotions linguistically, yet implying the emotional overwhelm which restricts one from finding the proper words:

(4) “Oh, God, how loathsome it all is! And can I, can I possibly ...No, it’s nonsense, it’s rubbish!” he added resolutely. “And how could such an atrocious thing come into my head? What filthy things my heart is capable of. Yes, filthy above all, disgusting, loathsome, loathsome! - and for a whole month I’ve been ...” But no words, no exclamations could express his agitation [15, p. 18].

The emotion expressed in the passage is agitation:

*agitation – an uneasy state of mind usually over the possibility of an anticipated misfortune or trouble, anxiety;

**anxiety – anticipation of threat or danger [16].

The cause of the appraisal and the emotion is also expressed – the thought of killing an innocent old lady (And how could such an atrocious thing come into my head?). However, several contextual markers (exclamatory sentences, repetition, rhetorical question, ellipsis) imply a very high intensity of the emotion that causes alexithymia. The pragmatic effect of alexithymia in this particular passage includes a possibly lesser judgment of the main character: if Raskolnikov had been able to find the right words and express his emotions, the reader could have disapproved of his behavior due to the lack of compassion.

It is common to make the intensity of emotions and the emotional overwhelm the main reason for cases of alexithymia. Below more examples are provided:

(5) It must have been about three years after I met you that I was told you were going to die in a month’s time. I was so shocked I couldn’t speak. I’d never thought a convenience store would live for only three years [17, p. 131].

(6) Terror screamed through his brain, drowning out logic, hope, everything except the gong-like echo of yet another failure. Dread strangled his words. "Tonight. I just know it.” [18, p. 281].

The second group is comprised of cases when one understands the emotion, but cannot find its linguistic equivalent in their lexicon. In this aspect alexithymia in language is caused by so-called lacunarity that consists in the absence of a verbal equivalent of a specific notion. Lacunarity is common in the sphere of emotions when certain emotions in one language and culture do not have their equivalent in another. Examples include Russian (melancholy towards something that passed), German Torschlusspanik (the fear of coming death), Mexican pena ajena (the embarrassment of watching another person’s humiliation), French l’appel du vide (anxiety caused by the lack of trust instinct, “the call of the void”), or Finnish kaukokaipuu (a feeling of homesickness for a place you have never been to). Below are examples of linguistic lacunarity in terms of alexithymia.

(7) To say that Bilbo’s breath was taken away is no description at all. There are no words left to express his staggerment, since Men changed the language that they learned of elves in the days when all the world was wonderful. Bilbo had heard tell and sing of dragon-hoards before, but the splendour, the lust, the glory of such treasure had never yet come home to him. His heart was filled and pierced with enchantment and with the desire of dwarves; and he gazed motionless, almost forgetting the frightful guardian, at the gold beyond price and count [19, p. 127].

The main character feels staggerment – an emotion, negative connotation of which are revealed in the definition analysis:

*staggerment – shock, rendered helplessness

**shock – astonishment, startlement

***startlement – surprise, alarm [16].

The cause of Bilbo’s staggerment is expressed in the passage – Men changed the language that they learned of elves in the days when all the world was wonderful. However, the full extent of the emotion cannot be demonstrated due to its complexity and intensity. Therefore, the author turns to alexithymia.

There are also several examples where the emotion is understood by its experiencer, but still not expressed or implied:

(8) She couldn’t find big enough words to describe the enormous breadth and depth of her emotions. You hurt me. You really hurt me. How could you hurt me like that? It was so simple in her head but so strangely complex every time she opened her mouth [20, p. 366].

From the explicit cause of the emotion (you hurt me) it can be assumed that the main character is experiencing either sadness, disappointment or even anger. The high degree of these emotions is implied in the context (mainly by adjectives big, enormous) and leads to the lack of words. Pragmatic potential of emotional utterances in the passage includes the author’s desire to leave the reader freedom to determine the main character’s emotions. Perhaps it is done in order to avoid judgement.

(9) I hesitate, a sense of hopelessness washing over me. It’s ridiculous for me to talk to Kent. I have no words to describe how wrong I’ve been about him, about Rob, about everyone. I don’t think I can explain to him how I’ve been changing. And maybe it’s all a lie, anyway. Maybe it’s impossible to change [13, p. 149].

The contextual markers demonstrate that the girl has negative emotions (hesitate, sense of hopelessness washing over me, ridiculous). Yet, the emotion is not named due to its intensity. Pragmatically, it implies the girl's regret of judging and disbelieving Kent.

In some cases linguistic lacunarity can be compensated by description in order to express or imply emotions. Let us analyze a few examples.

(10) She came in. He had never seen her alone in his life, nor, of course, in tears. She was terribly distressed, and no wonder. Angela had been much more to her than an employer. She had been a friend… Miss Miller could not speak at first. She sat there dabbing her eyes with her pocket handkerchief. Then she made an effort. “Pardon me, Mr. Clandon,” she said. He murmured. Of course he understood. It was only natural. He could guess what his wife had meant to her [21].

The emotion of sadness can be revealed from the context. A detailed description of the woman’s state (in tears, terribly distressed, sat there dabbing her eyes with her pocket handkerchief) compensates for her inability to express how she feels verbally.

(11) He no more knew what kind of external stimulus would give him the strength to break off his three-month-old liaison with Lyudmila than he knew what was needed to get him up from his chair. Only for a very short time had he been genuinely in love in that state of mind in which Lyudmila had seemed wreathed in a seductive mist, a state of questing, exalted, almost unearthly emotion, as when music plays at the very moment when one is doing something quite ordinary, such as walking from a table to pay at the bar, and gives an inward dancelike quality to one simple movement, transforming it into a significant and immortal gesture [22, p. 32].

In this passage the emotion is not expressed, but is described as “unearthly”:

*unearthly – fearfully and mysteriously strange;

**strange – abnormal, suspicious [16].

The complexity of the emotion is implied in the description of the character’s struggle to break up with his girlfriend, which leads to his inability to speak. The pragmatic potential includes the author’s desire to leave space for the reader's imagination.

(12) This ambiguous realm in the cleft between the felt and the imagined was my second great discovery under Füsun’s tutelage in the intricate art of exchanging glances. Of course, staring was the only way to communicate when there were no words. Everything that was expressed, everything that was to be understood, though, was deeply rooted in an ambiguity we found entrancing. If I’d been unable to understand something Füsun had meant to say with her look, in time I would come to see that the thing the look meant to express was the look itself. There were, at first, those rare moments when a deep and powerful emotion registered on her face, and, sensing her anger, her determination, and her stormy heart, I would be thrown into confusion, feeling as if the ground had shifted beneath my feet. But later, when something on television evoked the happy memories we shared—for example, a couple kissing as we had once done—and my attempt to catch her eye was met with her looking away, and even turning her head, I would become enraged. Out of such emotion did I master the habit of staring at her insistently, stubbornly, without blinking [23, p. 215].

In this case, staring implies a different array of emotions, coming from both positive and negative spectrums despite the shortage of words. Furthermore, the act of speech is replaced by the exchange of looks between the characters.

The third and last group of examples include cases of “pure” alexithymia, when a person does not comprehend their emotional experience and, as a result, is unable to convey it verbally. Psychologists see the reason behind this phenomenon in the fact that emotions predominantly start as physiological sensations, and it takes some time for them to crystalize [24]. In other words, an emotion may be unidentifiable until the physical activation will be connected to its provocation. Another reason lies in the amalgam of emotions, or the experience of several emotions simultaneously. Such fusion does not allow one to distinguish between them. Let us provide some illustrations.

(13) Stroeve was trying to express a feeling which he had never known before, and he did not know how to put it into common terms [25, p. 191].

The cause of Stroeve’s emotional state is explicit in the sentence – a feeling which he had never known before. Also, the phrase “common terms” implies that the emotion was unique and perhaps not even known to other people:

*common – occurring frequently, widespread, general [16].

(14) A grinning reaper clutched a scythe with bony fingers. “Death,” the man in black said simply. “Yet not for you.” The sixth card. The gunslinger looked at it and felt a strange, crawling anticipation in his guts. The feeling was mixed with horror and joy, and the whole of the emotion was unnamable. It made him feel like throwing up and dancing at the same time [26, p. 302].

The reason for the main character’s alexithymia in the passage results from the fusion of opposite emotions (horror and joy) and unusual physical sensations (a strange, crawling anticipation in his guts). Pragmatic potential of emotional utterances consists in the idea that the thought of death can paralyze and stop one from comprehending their emotions and putting them to words.

(15) Even though there’s no signature, I know it’s from Kent, and for a second something sharp and deep goes through me, something I can’t understand or describe, a blade running up under my ribs and making me almost gasp for breath [13, p. 165].

In the passage the emotion is unknown to the girl and is linguistically conveyed by the indefinite pronoun something. The context, however, helps to understand that the emotion is negative: it is compared to a sharp blade that interferes with the character’s ability to breathe. Pragmatically, the passage implies the fear of the unknown and its negative effects on the girl’s mental and physical state.

These are just a few examples illustrating the phenomenon of alexithymia in fiction. It has been discovered that the cause of alexithymia does not only lie in the nature of emotions, but also in their intensity: the higher degree an emotion has, the harder it is to express and understand it. Authors often use alexithymia in order to leave space for the reader’s imagination and create a pragmatic effect. Common means of enhancing the pragmatic effect include metaphors, comparison, repetition, ellipsis and description. Emotional utterances are pragmatically-oriented and have different pragmatic potential, among which is the desire to avoid judgement and disinformation. The analysis has also demonstrated that emotions can still be identified without being expressed or implied. It is the context that allows to reveal emotions. It has also been discovered that alexithymia in language occurs more frequently when a person feels negative emotions.

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