Maïa Ponsonnet: Aboriginal Languages, and the Linguistic Representation of Emotions

PonsonnetMaia_20141126_16Maïa Ponsonnet, Postdoctoral Fellow, Dynamique du Langage & Linguistics, School of Culture, History and Language, Australian National University, Canberra

My main research focus as a linguist is to explore the way emotional internal states are described and expressed in diverse languages, and how variations in the linguistic encoding of emotions correlate with shared representations and cultural practices about emotions. I do not restrict myself to emotions stricto sensu, if these are defined as relatively short episodes accompanied by a number of behavioural responses, including bodily responses (Ekman, 1992; Scherer, 2013). Rather, I consider as falling within the purview of my investigation all emotionally tainted internal states potentially available for verbalization, including, besides emotions, moods such as depression, mild affective states such as concern or disappointment, and fairly generic states such as feeling good or bad.


Not every language offers to its speakers the same tools to express and describe emotions. Are any resources common to all of them? How much do these resources vary? Do the variations correlate with the way speakers experience emotions, respond to them, and conceptualize these experiences? In order to anchor such large-scale interrogations in sound research questions, it is initially appropriate to focus on a smaller number of languages.


My research currently focuses on a small set of Australian languages that have long coexisted within a shared cultural context. Having developed in isolation from other languages of the world, Australian aboriginal languages constitute an interesting sample. They offer great potentials for comparisons between them and with the rest of the world’s languages—with respect, for instance, to the lexical categories and emotion metaphors they include.


I begin with some general remarks on the encoding of emotions across languages and cultures, and then summarize the contents of my own research on Australian languages.


Language, representations and practices


Language plays a central role in channelling emotions, and in eliciting the socially structuring moral values attached to them. Such values can differ cross-culturally. For instance, in some human groups it is the norm to condemn anger as an inadequate response to social interactions, whereas in other groups anger may be permitted or even encouraged for various reasons (Lutz, 1986; Rosaldo, 1980; Ponsonnet 2013, Forthcoming). Social scientists also agree that emotion categories can be culture-specific, as reflected by the diversity of emotion words across languages (Ogarkova, 2013; Wierzbicka, 1999). Although Wierzbicka (1999) has identified a few possible universals of human languages with respect to emotions (some lexical items such as ‘fear’; semantic associations, for instance between emotions and body parts; and more), she has acknowledged that many emotion words do not find simple translations, even in languages that are relatively close geographically and genetically (i.e. that have developed from one single original language). Wierzbicka’s famous study of the German category of angst, a mix of fear and depression with no accurate translation in English, offers an interesting example in this respect.


Because of specificities of this sort, studying the way people talk about emotions sheds some light upon individual and shared concepts, views and values about emotions (Wilce, 2009). For instance, anthropologists often collect and analyze the list of emotion words they find in a language, and interpret it as a kind of “blue print” of the emotions that are foregrounded (or hypercognized, to use Levy’s (1973, 1984) well-known expression) in this particular cultural context (Myers 1979, Blakeman 2014). This approach is fruitful, but it assumes that representations and practices about emotions are systematically reflected in the tools that are available to talk about emotions in a given language. In my view, this assumption should be questioned rather than taken for granted. While the way speakers talk about emotions certainly tells us something about how they conceive of emotions, the correlation between language and representations/practices is not straightforward.


Languages are not merely a projection of people’s current concepts. Linguistic tools are also shaped by history: they are partly inherited. A language may have retained words for emotions that were socially and conceptually important in the past, but no longer are in the present. In such a case, it would be inappropriate to infer from the presence of a word for X that X plays an important role in current cultural practices. Such a role may hark back to a long-expired cultural concern, and be preserved in the language through linguistic inertia.


Furthermore, representations and practices may also be influenced by language. This hypothesis, known as the “linguistic relativity hypothesis”, was articulated by Whorf decades ago (Whorf, 1956). For instance, Whorf suggested that the tense system of the Hopi languages influenced the way speakers of Hopi thought about and dealt with time. More recently, the influence of language upon representations has been established for some semantic domains (Malt, Ameel, Gennari, Imai, & Majid, 2011; Malt, 2010).


For example, Levinson (2003) showed that the words available in a given language to indicate directions correlate with the way speakers respond to cognitive tests on how they manipulate objects in space. The words left and right indicate directions that vary depending on someone’s position in space: linguists say that these terms pertain to a relative frame of reference. In contrast, some words, like north and south, pertain to an absolute frame of reference, which never changes. Some languages have no referential words like left and right, and use cardinal points to indicate spatial directions in all situations. It has been demonstrated that speakers of such languages respond to spatial-ordering cognitive tests differently than speakers of languages with relative frames of reference. This demonstrates that language influences speakers’ representations of space, and the way they behave with respect to space.


With respect to more complex and socially loaded domains such as emotions, the question of the mutual influences between language, representations and practices has yet to be empirically explored. Does language influence representations of emotions, or do representations of emotions influence language; or both? Which specific aspects of language should we attend to figure out the way people construe and experience emotions? These are some of the questions I aim to answer in my research, on the basis of empirical linguistic descriptions.


Dalabon and the dominance of expressive features



Ponsonnet_map_captionIn my doctoral thesis (Ponsonnet, 2013, 2014c), I described the encoding of emotions in the Dalabon language of northern Australia (Gunwinyguan family). Dalabon used to be spoken by a few hundreds semi-nomadic hunter-gathers living in relatively welcoming open savannah. Nowadays, Dalabon is severely endangered and only known by a handful of speakers—probably a dozen. While some anthropologists have published extensive discussions of emotions among some Australian Aboriginal groups (e.g. Myers, 1986), the language of emotions in Australia had only been dealt with in shorter works (for instance Gaby, 2008; Goddard, 1991; Harkins, 1990, 2001; Peile, 1997; Turpin, 2002). My doctoral thesis is therefore the first extensive study of emotions in an Aboriginal language. Thanks to a long experience living with the Dalabon community, I was able to produce a comprehensive description and analysis of how emotions are expressed and described among the Dalabon group. This research is of potential interest to linguists but also to anthropologists and psychologists interested in the emotions.


My studies cover both expressive and descriptive emotional resources. Expressive resources are devices that allow speakers to express their own emotional states. These include intonation and other prosodic features such as variations in voice quality, loudness etc., as well as interjections for instance (which are often associated with prosodic features). Descriptive features, on the other hand, consist mostly of the emotion vocabulary, which allows speakers to straightforwardly describe anyone’s states—their own or others.

Maggie Tukumba, a master speaker of Dalabon and an active language consultant, commenting on a recent and very emotional movie

Maggie Tukumba, a master speaker of Dalabon and an active language consultant, commenting on a recent and very emotional movie

A first observation I made is that Dalabon offers a sizeable emotion vocabulary—more than 160 lexemes (Ponsonnet, 2014a). This is smaller than the English, French or Taiwanese Chinese emotion lexicons for instance, which comprise hundreds of lexemes. Yet, it is larger than some other minority languages studied in the past. For example, Lutz (1980) reports 58 emotion lexemes in Ifalukian (a Micronesian Island, Western Pacific), and Howell (1981) reports only 7 in Chewong (Peninsular Malaysia). In comparison, 160 items is a relatively high figure for a “small” language like Dalabon—small in the sense that even in precolonial times, it probably never numbered more than a few hundreds speakers.


A second, very noticeable observation is that the Dalabon lexicon has very few emotion-related nouns: only 2, one for anger (yirru), and one for ‘energy, motivation, desires’ (yolh). The rest of the circa 160 lexemes are verbs and adjectives. This is as if, in English, we could only say things like “I fear” or “I love”, and never talked about the emotions of “love” or “fear”. As a result, Dalabon speakers nearly always encode emotions as states of the person rather than independent things.

A third important observation is that, in spite of this quite extensive lexicon, Dalabon speakers make fairly minimal use of emotion words in ordinary, spontaneous emotional speech. Words are certainly used in some contexts, otherwise they wouldn’t exist. But at this stage, it remains a mystery (and one that may apply for many other languages) why Dalabon has so many emotion words, when its speakers make so little use of them. Instead, speakers prefer either to describe facts and behaviors that entail emotions (that is, describe a dreadful monster rather than mention the child’s fear), and leave it to the audience to draw conclusions about emotional states; or, very frequently, they use expressive emotional resources like intonation and other prosodic features, rather than emotion words, to convey emotions.


In concord with this observation about words, I have observed that expressive features are overwhelmingly frequent in spontaneous speech. For instance, diminutives, i.e. small items that are added at the end of other words to convey emotional coloring (like the English ‘y’ in kitty, poppy etc.), occur as soon as Dalabon speakers become emotional. The employment of these diminutives is a common way to highlight culturally prominent and ethically valued emotions such as compassion. Dalabon speakers use the diminutive -wurd when they feel compassion, but also when they witness compassion, like two persons helping each other out, caring for each other, or sharing something. In such cases, diminutives are used to express moral approval as much as emotional endearment, to remind listeners of their moral duty to be compassionate, and to manifest sharing and caring social behaviors.


An important corollary is that in Dalabon, emotion nouns are not particularly good guides to culturally relevant emotional concepts, because expressive resources such as diminutives, interjections and prosody are the most common means for expressing and talking about emotions. This problem may well generalize to other languages, and it should lead linguists—or anthropologists, or psychologists—seeking some insight onto emotions to take a closer look at some aspects of the language that are less obvious than words.

Sample: a Dalabon expressive statement

The speaker is commenting on a movie. The hero is paddling alone on a swamp in a canoe. The speaker concludes that he’s had an argument with his family. Emotions are conveyed by means of intonation and of a diminutive suffix –wurd. There is also a lexical item, the sense of which is quite language-specific: kodj-dadj(mu) ‘head’+‘cut’, ‘get sulky and interrupt social interactions in consequence’ (see Ponsonnet (2014, Chap 10) for an analysis of this lexical item).

Kah-bal-bon-wurd…                    Garra denkinu! Kah-kodj-dadjminj.
he-directly-goes-DIMINUTIVE with     canoe     he-head-cut(PAST)

Translation: “He takes off poor thing… With a canoe! He got sulky and left [he cut head].”

Dalabon and Emotion Metaphors

Another important aspect of my doctoral research was the exploration of the role of body part words in the Dalabon emotion lexicon. As pointed out by Wierzbicka (1999), most (if not all) languages in the world use expressions where an emotion is associated to a part of the body, often an abdominal organ—like in English, ‘broken-hearted’, or ‘having guts’ (Enfield & Wierzbicka, 2002; Sharifian, Dirven, Yu, & Niemeier, 2008). The status of the association between emotions and body parts has been debated. Many researchers have assumed that such linguistic associations automatically imply that speakers construe emotions as located in, or experienced by, the body part in question. But some linguists have argued that we must resist the temptation to “exoticize” people, and remember that these associations can be entirely conventionalized and therefore transparent to speakers (Enfield, 2002; Goddard, 1994, 1996; Keesing, 1985). For instance, most French speakers don’t interpret énervé (‘irritated’) as a metaphor involving nerves, although the word could be interpreted literally as ‘without nerves’.


In order to assess whether body parts yield emotional metaphors, and whether speakers perceive these metaphors or not, let us first get clear on how metaphors work. Generally speaking, metaphors are figurative linguistic devices whereby the label for a (usually more concrete) thing X is used to designate something else Y (usually more abstract), with an implicit comparison between X and Y (Kövecses, 2002; Lakoff, 1987). Hence when we say ‘he is consumed by anger’, anger (Y) is implicitly compared to fire (X). Because the “target” (here, anger) is usually less concrete than the “source” (here, fire), it has been argued that metaphors help us construe abstract and invisible aspects of the world (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980), and are thus conceptual representations.








A central finding of my study is that although many Dalabon emotion expressions involve body part words, only a couple of abdominal body parts—mostly the belly—yield emotion metaphors in this language (Ponsonnet, 2014b). These metaphors nevertheless represent a significant proportion of the emotion vocabulary, so that overall, emotions are very often represented linguistically as states of the belly. Thus, for example, kangu-yowyow(mu) ‘belly’+‘flow’, literally ‘flowing belly’, means ‘feel good, be nice’. Here, someone feeling good is represented metaphorically as someone with a fluid belly. Most Dalabon representations of emotions are built on comparable patterns: emotions are nearly always represented linguistically as states of the person, or states of parts of the person. This is another puzzling feature of Dalabon, in comparison with other languages.


In English for instance (Kövecses, 2000), emotions are often represented as things that can impose an effect on the person who experiences the emotion: natural forces (e.g. fire), enemies and opponents (‘he’s fighting his fears’). They are also represented as independent things, which can grow autonomously for instance (‘hope swells’). These representations of emotions as things or agentive entities are not specific to English. On the contrary, they have so far been reported in all languages for which we have data on the matter. Dalabon stands out in not having such metaphors. Instead, as explained above, it mostly only represents emotions as physical states of the person (Ponsonnet, to appear-b).


book language emotionsWhy is it that Dalabon does not have such metaphors, when other languages do? This takes us back to some of the questions raised in earlier sections, namely questions about the mutual influences between language, representations and practices. One explanation of the peculiarities of Dalabon metaphors may be that they reflect culturally specific shared representations and practices about emotions. Some evidence in favour of this explanation is provided by the emotion regulation strategies I have witnessed while living among the Dalabon. Within the Western world, regulation strategies often aim at “unloading” negative emotions and feelings—for instance by talking to friends or to a professional to “get it out”.

In contrast, Dalabon speakers avoid discussing emotional traumas. Instead, their strategy aims at monitoring emotional triggers so as to bring about negative or positive emotions at appropriate times. This is very apparent for example in mourning strategies, where people intentionally maximize negative emotions at certain times (for instance, during the funeral), while banning all negative triggers during some periods of time—e.g. there is a taboo on the deceased’s name. To overcome grief, Dalabon people orchestrate an alternation of negative and positive emotional states. Such strategies strike me as evocative of the way I monitor my own physical fitness, shifting my body back and forth from states of exercise to states of rest. Similarly, Dalabon regulation strategies aim to transition between emotional states of the person, rather than representing emotions as things to be taken out, exhausted, or expelled in any way.


The idea that emotion metaphors are a linguistic readout of deep cultural differences is plausible, but far from conclusively established. The restriction on Dalabon metaphors may have other origins. For example, we should consider whether Dalabon emotion metaphors could be constrained by some grammatical features specific to this language. For instance, Dalabon grammar imposes peculiar restrictions on some nouns, and this grammatical restriction could prevent the occurrence of certain emotion metaphors. Since emotion nouns can never be prominent grammatical participants such as subjects or objects, it seems logical that they cannot be represented as agents, which are normally expressed as grammatical core participants in this language.


If this hypothesis became confirmed, then the restrictions on Dalabon emotion metaphors would be a simple consequence of the grammar of the language. From there, they could eventually loop back into cultural differences. Dalabon emotion metaphors could in turn plausibly influence representations and practices about emotions, as suggested in the figure below.


If grammatical features, via emotion metaphors, were proven to influence the way speakers think of and respond to emotions, this would be very significant, because it would confirm the often-debated influence of language upon thought and practices (i.e. validate the linguistic relativity hypothesis I discussed in the first section in the domain of emotions).

Beyond the case of Dalabon: Comparing languages within a cultural network

Dalabon was spoken to the extreme north of the Australian continent, in the part of the Top End peninsula called Arnhem Land. Arnhem Land is a region of approximately the same size as Portugal for instance, which has been somewhat protected from the most violent colonization, and remains a cultural bastion. Reflecting the high linguistic density observed elsewhere on the continent, more than 15 languages were spoken in Arnhem Land alone. Each language was spoken by a few hundreds speakers, and therefore each speaker spoke several languages, so as to interact within a broader social network involving members of the neighboring language groups. Therefore, Dalabon speakers traditionally knew other languages also spoken in this part of Arnhem Land, namely Rembarrnga, Mayali and Jawoyn, each spoken by a few hundreds of speakers. Speakers of Dalabon Rembarrnga, Mayali and Jawoyn lived together: they intermarried so that family units where often multilingual. That is, these language groups formed a cultural unit where a multiplicity of languages were spoken. Therefore, they must have shared most representations and practices about emotions—an assumption confirmed so far by my ethnographic observations.


This affords us an opportunity to compare linguistic differences while keeping fixed the cultural background. If we find out that these languages, unlike Dalabon, have metaphors where emotions are represented as things (not states of the person), this will imply that the restriction on Dalabon emotion metaphors is not culturally, but linguistically induced—that is, that the way people talk about emotions is influenced by the rules of the language they use.


My description of the linguistic encoding of emotions in Dalabon thus lays the ground for cross-linguistic, comparative studies that will shed light upon the respective influence of linguistic and cultural parameters upon the linguistic encoding of emotions. Starting from this small regional group, the study will then expand to take into account a broader sample of Australian languages, including languages from other linguistic families—for instance languages from the Central Desert. The Australian continent, with its mix of cultural and linguistic resemblances and dissemblances, will then constitute an ideal sample to be compared with languages from other continents, and assess the respective role of language and culture in shaping the way humans talk, and think, about emotions.



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