Aspects of the semantics of emotions and feelings in Dalabon (South-Western Arnhem Land, Australia)

Maia Ponsonnet

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    This article describes two of the principal roots allowing the expression of emotions and feelings in Dalabon, an endangered language of South-Western Arnhem Land. The first root, kangu, 'belly', is depicted linguistically as the location of emotions induced by interpersonal relationships. The belly is thus presented as the locus of good and bad moods generally and of conflict more specifically. Furthermore, the material properties of the belly-its fluidity in particular-impact on one's temper and ability to deal with others in an ideologically prescribed manner. Speakers describe ritual manipulations undertaken on the belly of young infants in order to shape their temper. Kangu-no may thus be described as a malleable interface between the person and the outside world, principally other people. The second root, yolh, may at first sight translate as 'feelings', either good or bad, but also means 'appetite', 'drive', 'pep'. Yolh-no is associated with the most intimate part of the person, one's own aspirations that are independent of interactions with others. Although yolh-no connotes the core self and kangu-no, the belly, connotes relatedness to others, they are conceived as physiologically connected, so that material properties of the belly impact on the self. Thus, the semantic analysis of Dalabon, along with related anthropological observations, unveils an explicit conceptual and cultural attention to the distinction between emotions and feelings (as respectively defined in the article) and to the autonomy of the person within a constraining social framework. The article shows how this concern echoes and challenges both anthropological and philosophical considerations.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)367-389
    JournalAustralian Journal of Anthropology
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - 2010


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