I was tagged into a really interesting conversation on Twitter yesterday about empathy in language, and how Americans generally don't seem to have many words to express empathy for others. In fact, the English word for empathy reportedly comes from the German word einfuhlung, which means "feeling into." And we only started using it about 100 years ago.
The word "empathy" alone doesn't really seem to be enough to actually express it, though. You can say to someone, "I empathize," but is that always the most effective way to express empathy? The conversation yesterday was really about how we don't seem to have words to convey "affection, deference and respect" to strangers, especially strangers who may be worse off than us, or of a lower social class. To me, having words like that and knowing how to use them would be a form of expressing empathy. Having a way to address someone in a way that essentially acknowledges our privilege without being condescending and signaling that we're empathetic would be incredibly useful. Some people find ways to do this, of course. But as I tweeted back, it's not really something we learn.
Then someone else in the conversation noted that it depends on who we mean by "we." African American Vernacular English and other dialects used primarily by minorities do seem to have words that achieve the very thing we were discussing. (Click that link for some examples.) So maybe we just - in general - tend to devalue the speech that confers empathy in these ways?
This is something I will be diving further into very soon.