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The Body in Linguistic Representations of Emotions in Dalabon (Northern Australia)

Maïa Ponsonnet

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In the Dalabon language of Northern Australia (Gunwinyguan family, non-Pama-Nyungan), body-part words are used in expressions denoting emotions. For instance, kangu-yowyow(mu), literally ‘flowing belly’ (kangu ‘belly’+ yowyow(mu) ‘flow’) means ‘feel good, be nice’. This is cross-linguistically unsurprising: most languages in Australia and around the world make use of body-parts to describe emotions. However, these body-parts can play different roles. They are often involved in metaphors. These metaphors are sometimes highly conventionalized and conceptually opaque to speakers; or they can be conceptually salient so that the body-parts in question are regarded by speakers as the locus of emotions.

In Dalabon, the body-part most closely acquainted to emotions in the belly (kangu). The belly is sometimes treated as the locus of emotions, especially inter-personal emotions. It is involved in a network of metaphors. The most widespread metaphor describes the belly as malleable or resistant. Someone who feels good may be described as someone with a malleable or fluid belly, and conversely someone who feels bad may be described as someone with a hard belly. In another metaphor, a broken belly corresponds to bad feelings, and a belly in good condition, to positive feelings. These metaphors are highly conventionalized, i.e. they are embedded in some of the most frequent Dalabon emotion words. Yet speakers do perceive these metaphors and elaborate upon them in non-linguistic or para-linguistic communication. For instance, gestures accompanying speech on emotions may involve the belly. Further, a Dalabon ritual performed on young children to ensure trouble-free emotional development elaborates upon the malleability/fluidity metaphor, involving floodwater and massaging the belly with sand. Thus, this ritual elaborates semiotically upon a Dalabon emotion metaphor. Its symbolism may be suggested by linguistic metaphors. However, it is not determined by these metaphors: speakers are free to choose which metaphors they make conceptually and culturally relevant.

While metaphors are an important aspect of what body-parts ‘do’ with respect to the linguistic description of emotions in Dalabon, some body-parts also fulfill other functions. In particular, body-parts are often used to produce precise descriptions of emotional behaviors. For instance, in Dalabon it is easy to say that someone is ‘angry from the hands’ (when gesticulating: langu-yirru-mun, ‘hand’+‘angry’) or ‘sulky from the back’ (when turning their back: dolku-bruH(mu) ‘back’+‘blow/sulky’). This is also an important function of body-parts in linguistic descriptions of emotions, since such compound verbs allow speakers to be articulate specific description of emotional behaviors.

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Référence électronique

Maïa Ponsonnet, « The Body in Linguistic Representations of Emotions in Dalabon (Northern Australia) », in Australian Aboriginal Anthropology Today: Critical Perspectives from Europe (« Les actes »), 2014, [En ligne], mis en ligne le 13 juin 2014, consulté le 16 décembre 2017. URL :


Maïa Ponsonnet

Australian National University

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