The key body of concepts comprising the emotion lexicon in Yolŋu-matha describe emotion and affective experience as fundamentally relational, as contingent upon the state of relations between people. If we ‘consider emotional meaning like any other semiotic practice, as a product of signification’ as Fred Myers suggests (1988, p. 591), most Yolŋu concepts associated with emotion and morality signify a particular state or sense of feeling among and between people. Yolŋu place emphasis not on the autonomous individual, nor necessarily even the individual self-in-relation-to-others, but rather, on the state of the relationship between people in any given situation or event.
This is not unique in the ethnographic literature. Emotions, Markus and Kitayama remind us, are typically conceived and experienced relationally, inter-personally, in the many places or cultures in which an interdependent view of the self prevails (Markus & Kitayama 1994 – but see also, for example, Geoffrey White 1994, D’Andrade 2008).
In this post I thought I would attempt to introduce and explain the two most basic terms or concepts associated with emotion or affect in Yolŋu-matha. This material is from Chapter 3 of my thesis.
The most basic concept is the emotion lexicon is ŋayaŋu, which I generally translate as ‘state or sense of feeling.’ As a cultural concept of affect there are a number of things that distinguish ŋayaŋu from the meaning and use of the English term ‘feeling’ and/or ‘feelings’ because ŋayaŋu does not necessarily distinguish between what Anglo-Europeans would normally consider distinct or different ‘senses’ – touch, sight, smell, taste and hearing – nor does it necessarily distinguish between affective and ‘physical’ feeling. Furthermore, while ŋayaŋu is experienced or felt by individuals (associated with the gumurr [‘chest’])  it is always and necessarily relational. Ŋayaŋu refers to the state or sense of feeling among and between people in any given situation or event. The individual experience or sense of ŋayaŋu is considered as or ‘in’ relation to significant others – and contingent upon the state of the relationship between them. This last point is significant as it gives rise to a theory of morality which foregrounds the affective influence that people have on one another in everyday life, as well as how this positively or negatively affects the state of feeling or state of relations among and between people more generally.
As something shared and contingent or mutually interdependent, ŋayaŋu is something that people can do to one another; it is something that people can give and take – something that they can exchange. Any given state or sense of feeling, whether positive, negative, pleasant or hurtful, can be exchanged. A person may give wikama a particular state or sense of feeling such as gora (‘shame, embarrassment, guilt’) to another person or group of people, or märrama (‘take, bring, carry’) it from one place or person to another. Ŋayaŋu can also be wutthun (‘affronted, hit, assaulted’), or djaw’yun-märrama (‘snatched, stolen’), or more positively, ŋama-thirri-yama (‘made good’). Ŋayaŋu implicates both positive and negative capacities of the self and others in interpersonal exchange. To give a sense of the way ŋayaŋu is implicated in everyday talk, the following are excerpts from recorded discussions with yapa and waku.
“Ŋayaŋu manymak – nhe yurru lakarama-mirri ŋarra-kala … so you and I have to have the same feeling. Yaka holding in. Yaka keeping in-nha anger. If I get anger with you, getting angry with you . . . because you not going to share your feeling with me – feelings-ndja, you must have holding something for me . . . a secret that you not going to share with me, but ŋarra-kala ŋayaŋu yurru lakarama yurru that you holding something there for me but nhe yaka yukurra djäl-thirri-ndja lakarama-nha.
(Nice, pleasant, healthy ŋayaŋu – we will tell or talk to one another . . . so you and I have to have the same feeling. Not holding in. Not keeping in anger. If I get anger with you, getting angry with you . . . because you not going to share your feeling with me – feelings, you must have holding something for me . . . a secret that you not going to share with me, but ŋayaŋu will tell that you are holding something there for me but you are not wanting to tell or talk [about it])
If you don’t share your feeling, you have a lot . . . getting a lot of heaviness-ndja and everything is still stuck in your brain . . . then become a headache nhanŋu, brain tumour nhe yurru märrama because of that, keeping everything in, for yourself, whether it’s good or bad, see?”
(If you don’t share your feeling, you have a lot . . . getting a lot of heaviness and everything is still stuck in your brain . . . then become a headache for that person, and you will get a brain tumour because of that, keeping everything in, for yourself . . . whether it is good or bad . . . see?”)
Consider also the following excerpt taken from a discussion with waku. This particular part of the discussion was prompted by my asking if it makes sense to say ŋoy wikama (‘give’ the seat of emotions). I asked this question because there exist conventional ways and means of talking about ‘giving’ various states of feeling, and I wanted to ‘ask around’ ŋoy (‘seat of emotions’) to clarify my understanding about differences between ŋoy and ŋayaŋu in this sense:
“Yaka . . . “märr läy-yun” ŋayi ŋunhi . . . ŋayi ŋunhi “ŋayaŋu läy-yun” . . . yaka “märr wikama” wo nhawi . . . “ŋoy wikama.” Ŋunhi-ndja ŋayi ŋunhi “ŋayaŋu wikama-nha” ŋayi ŋunhi ‘doing’ – It is “doing something” . . . to get back.
(It’s not . . . “ease [collective/ancestral] power” . . . it’s “ease the state or sense of feeling” . . . not ‘ease [collective/ancestral] power,’ or whatchyamacallit . . . “give the seat of the emotions.” What you are referring to is “[to] give the state or sense of feeling” which is “doing” – it is ‘doing something . . . to get back [i.e. mutual or reciprocal exchange].)
[ . . . ]
Ŋayaŋu läpthun-marama is, it is make yourself free . . . lay-yun . . . laytju-irri-nha, mulkurr ga rumbal-nha läy-yun-ndja.”
(To make yourself open, it is to make yourself free . . . to ease or relax . . . becoming pleasant and smooth, [to] ease or relax the head [mind] and body.)
The act of ‘giving something’ as described above, it should be noted, is not differentiated from the act of giving or ‘letting out’ one’s feeling(s) or (‘läpthun-marama ŋayi ŋunhi ŋayaŋu’). They are both associative expressions, which have meaning and significance in contradistinction to ‘holding something in for one another’ or being däl (‘hard, difficult’). Persons or proclivities that are not ‘open’ (‘ŋayaŋu läpthun-marama-mirri’), which do not ‘give’ or ‘let out’ something for one another are considered or felt to dhal-yurra (‘block up, close off’) the possibility for realising or maintaining positive, moral, valuable relations.
It is important to note that being ‘open’ is not akin to or the same as ‘being open and honest’ in English. It denotes or describes an observant attentiveness to the state or sense of feeling between people in any given situation or event – and reflects the valued ability to be attentive and sensitive to the interpersonal context – the knowledge and ability to respond flexibly and adjust to social contingencies.
Being ‘open’ is where ŋayaŋu and dhäkay-ŋäma meet; to be däl (‘hard, difficult’) is to be insensate, which is not to dhäkay-ŋäma.
The verb most closely associated with ŋayaŋu is dhäkay-ŋäma, from dhäkay (‘taste, flavour or feeling’) and the transitive verb ŋäma (‘to experience or feel’). Where ŋayaŋu is the state or sense of feeling, dhäkay-ŋäma is the act of ‘getting a taste, getting a feeling’ of ŋayaŋu among and between people (and or place). People can dhäkay-ŋäma a person, group of people, a social situation or place. They may also dhäkay-ŋäma songs as well as things like food. An alternate but similar expression used interchangeably with dhäkay-ŋäma is dhäkay birkay’yun from dhäkay (‘taste, flavor, feeling’) and the transitive verb birka’yun (‘try, test, taste’). Dhäkay-birkay’-yun is thus something akin to trying or testing the taste, flavor or feeling. Another similar term often used interchangeably is ŋan’ku-ŋäma from ŋan’ku (‘taste, flavour’) and – once again – the transitive verb ŋäma (‘to experience or feel’). These interchangeable expressions are often glossed by English speakers as ‘getting a taste, getting a feeling.’ The following excerpt from a recorded discussion with yapa offers an example of the use of these terms or expressions:
“ . . . ŋuli ŋali yurru dhäkay märrama ga birka’yun, dhäkay-ŋäma dhuwala dhäkay: “Ya – dhuwali ŋatha wikaŋa, ŋarra yurru dhäkay-birka’yun!” Taste, like dhäkay, same ŋayi mayali, eh?
(. . . if we get a taste/feeling, that’s dhäkay-ŋäma, that’s dhäkay: “Hey give me that food, I’ll get a taste/feeling!” Taste, like dhäkay, same meaning, see?)
When you go for a taste, have a go for a taste . . . dhäkay-ŋäma ŋayi yurru yolŋu’yulŋu-nha, eh? Yo. Dhäkay-ŋäma it can goes to anything; anything nhe yurru dhäkay-birka’yun.
(When you go for a taste, have a go for a taste . . . Get a taste/feeling of those people, see? Yo. Dhäkay-ŋäma it can goes to anything; you can get a taste/feeling of anything.)
Me: wäŋa – ?
(Me: [of a] place?)
“Yoo . . . wäŋa ŋunhi ŋilimurru yurru birka’yun mak ŋayi ŋunhi milk’milk-mirri . . . mak milk’milk’-miriw. Eh bitjan, wo wiripu mak ŋayi wäŋa nunhi mari-mirri . . . wo mak ŋayi laytju, yo, balanyara wiripu-nha ŋayi.”
(Yo, we can get a try/test whether that place, perhaps it has sandflies . . . or perhaps it is without sandflies. See, thus so. Or perhaps that place is conflict-ridden . . . or perhaps it is pleasant and smooth, yo, that’s a different [example].)
Consider also the following excerpt from a discussion using the interchangeable expression ŋan’ku-ŋäma:
“ . . . ŋan’ku-ŋäma ŋanya yurru, ŋan’ku-ŋäma ŋayi Yolŋu-nha ŋanya . . . maymak ŋayi ŋayaŋu, wo nhanŋu yätj ŋayaŋu . . . ŋan’ku-ŋänara-mirri ŋali-pi-yu Yolŋu wo whether Yolŋu or Balanda . . .
(. . . get a taste/feeling that person, they will get a taste/feeling [of/for/with] that person . . . [is it] a good state of feeling, or is that a bad state of feeling . . . they themselves will get a taste or feeling [of/for/with one another], whether Yolŋu or Balanda . . . )
. . . ŋali yurru ŋan’ku-ŋanara-mirri feel one another feelings-ndja litjalaŋu-way because our bodies can tell us something. Dhäkay-ŋäma ŋali yurru eh balanyara . . . yo . . . we can feel our body can tell us something . . . ŋali feel with our own body whether ŋayi manymak Yolŋu or yätj, balanyara.”
(. . . we will get a taste/feeling [of/for one another], feel one another feelings our way because our bodies can tell us something. We will get a taste/feeling thus so . . . yo, we can feel our body can tell us something . . . we feel with our own body whether that person is good or bad, thus so.)
Interestingly, one of the many stereotypes of Balanda is that they are always däl (‘hard, difficult’) and lack the sense, skill or ability to dhäkay-ŋäma (get a taste or feeling). There’s obviously a lot more to say about these ideas and concepts, but perhaps some other time I hope.
 There are more idioms based on the word ‘gumurr’ than can be addressed here, however, to give a sense of the way they are used, or what they imply I will briefly introduce a few. The expression ‘gumurr-mirri’, translated literally as ‘having or possessing the quality of a chest’ is an expression meaning ‘to spread out.’ The expression ‘gumurr-yun’, translated literally as ‘to chest’ is an expression meaning ‘to meet’. ‘To meet’ may also be referred to as ‘gumurr-buna’, literally ‘chest-arrive’. The expression ‘gumurr-manydji’, translated literally as ‘reciprocal relationship between chests’, is an expression used to describe or refer to close friends or consociates. The expression ‘gumurr-darrwa’, which translates literally as ‘multiple or many chests’ is used to describe someone of inconsistent loyalties who is irresolute or inconstant in some way. The expression ‘gumurr-djararrk’, literally ‘chest-beloved’ is one of the more common exclamations of affection, sympathy and compassion, meaning something akin to ‘my poor dear one!’ ‘Gumurr-yu-gäma,’ literally ‘to carry by the chest’ is used to describe the act of fare-welling someone, seeing them forth or carrying them onward a way. The final example is the ‘gumurr-yu-märrama,’ translated literally as ‘to take or get by the chest’. This is the expression used to describe the act of adopting a non-Yolŋu person into the Yolŋu kinship system and wider social networks.
 lakarama-mirri is difficult to translate directly into English and I am not completely satisfied with this particular translation. The term or expression is from the transitive verb lakarama (‘to talk or tell [of or about]’) and the suffix –mirri which here denotes the reflexive reciprocal form of the verb – to do to one another.
 This term or expression – ŋarra-kala is literally ‘with/at me’ – so this sentence could be more accurately (but awkwardly) translated as: ‘but ŋayaŋu will tell with or at me . . . ’
 This is, as the reader will appreciate, quite a different thing to being ‘open and honest’ in English. In fact, being ‘open’ in the sense in which it is used here often entails withholding (or highly regulating the expression of) one’s private inner thoughts and feelings – so as to maintain a state or sense of ŋayaŋu waŋgany (‘one state or sense of feeling)