My belly is angry, my throat is in love: Body parts and emotions in Indigenous languages

Many languages in the world allude to body parts to describe emotions and feelings, as in “broken-heart,” for instance. While some have just a few expressions like this, Australian Indigenous languages tend use a lot of them, covering many parts of the body: from “flowing belly” for “feel good” to “burning throat” for “be angry” to “staggering liver” meaning “to mourn.”

As a linguist, I first learnt this when I worked with speakers of Dalabon, Rembarrnga, Kune, Kunwinjku and Kriol languages in the Top End, as they taught me their own words to describe emotions

Recently, with the help of my collaborator Kitty-Jean Laginha, I have looked systematically for such expressions in dictionaries and word lists from 67 Indigenous languages across Australia. We found at least 30 distinct body parts involved in about 800 emotional expressions.

Where do these body-emotion associations come from? Are they specific to Australian languages, or do they occur elsewhere in the world as well? There are no straightforward answers to these questions. Some expressions seem to be specific to the Australian continent, others are more widespread. As for the origins of the body-emotion association, our study suggests several possible explanations.

Firstly, some body parts are involved in emotional behaviors. For instance, we turn our back on people when we are upset with them. In some Australian Indigenous languages, “turn back” can mean “hold grudge” as a result of this.

Secondly, some body parts are involved in our physiological responses to emotion. For instance, fear can make our heart beat faster. Indeed, in some languages “heart beats fast” can mean “be afraid.”

Thirdly, some body parts represent the mind. This can be a bridge to emotions linked to intellectual states, like confusion or hesitation. For instance, “have a sore ear” can mean “be confused.”

Read more: phys.org

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