I went to a brilliant seminar on the language of emotion in Dalabon by Maïa Ponsonnet yesterday. Dalabon is an endangered Gunwinyguan language spoken by less than twelve speakers in Arnhem Land. This is just a skip, hop, and a jump away from my fieldsite (in Australian terms), so it was amazing to see just how different – not only the language is, but the way people consider, think and talk about emotion.
In the North East where I work the lexicon of emotion pivots on the concept of ŋayaŋu (‘state or sense of feeling’), which is associated with the gumurr (‘chest’). The seat of the emotions, in contrast – ŋoy (which is generally associated with heavier, personal, often negative emotions) – is associated with the lower abdomen. Ŋayaŋu is fundamentally relational – it refers to the state or sense of feeling between people at any given time, whereas ŋoy is an individual, personal thing. Ŋayaŋu can be positively or negatively affected by everyday interactions. ‘States of feeling’ can not only be affected but they can also be exchange and shared; People may have a particular state or sense of feeling, but people can also wikama (‘give’) or märrama (‘take, bring’) a particular state of feeling to another person, a group of people, or even a camp or place. Ŋayaŋu can also be wut-thun (‘hit, affronted, assaulted’), djaw’yun-märrama (‘snatched, stolen’) or ŋama-thirri-yama (‘made well’). Ŋoy is none of these things. Ŋoy is not only individual, but (perhaps thankfully) it is also impervious – at least when compared to ŋayaŋu.
Further West and in Dalabon, as I learned yesterday, the emotion lexicon is very much focused on kangu-no (‘belly [as the body-part or locus for emotion]‘) and the concept of yolh-no (‘feelings, pep, vitality’). Negative and positive emotional states are considered and talked about along a spectrum of fluidity where ‘flowing’ is positive and good, and ‘blocked’ is negative or bad. In contrast to ŋayaŋu (‘state or sense of feeling’), yolh-no (‘feelings, pep, vitality’) is always a part of the person – it is inalienable.
Similar to ŋayaŋu (‘state or sense of feeling’) and the many idioms based on the term gumurr (‘chest’), there are, Maïa explained, many metaphors or idioms based on the kangu-no (‘belly’), so one can say “belly releases” and it may refer to the physiological feeling and the positive emotional state of the person. To have a flowing belly is also indicative of a good, ‘nice’ person – comparable to, I suppose (but not the same as), saying that someone has a ‘kind heart’ in English.
Anyhow, the associated lovely thing that I wanted to write about was the ritual that Maïa mentioned involving young babies. A baby will be taken to a creek or river bed and given a sand massage. The mother then places the baby on his or her stomach in the sand, and drags the child gently so as to leave an imprint of the child’s belly. The water then eventually rises, and the flowing water washes the imprint away. The hope, of course, is that the child will grow up to be a person whose belly is ever flowing.
How just-so lovely is that . . .