- The Language of Emotions: The Case of Dalabon (Australia) by Maïa Ponsonnet
In the 1980s, Catherine Lutz and (for Australian Aboriginals) Fred Myers put the ethnography of emotion on the anthropological front burner, while cognitive linguists like George Lakoff began probing deeply into English emotion semantics. In thirty years worth of subsequent scholarship, the key issues (above all, universal bodily experience versus culture, and metaphor versus metonym) have been widely debated. [End Page 225]
Dalabon, spoken in the interior Northern Territory, was down to ten or so speakers during the author’s fieldwork. The data included videotaped comments on Aboriginal-themed films and on still photographs featuring the (white) author and her husband in emotion-laden poses. The videos, of which selected frames are reproduced here, were revealing insofar as speakers pointed to their own body parts (belly, heart).
This book, which developed out of a Ph.D. thesis, is the most comprehensive work on emotion semantics, and emotive expressives, in an Aboriginal language. It is more like a handbook than a typical monograph with a central narrative. The detail- and bibliography-heavy background sections on Dalabon ethnography, Dalabon grammar, emotion theory, and metaphor theory are necessary rites de passage in a dissertation, but distracting in a published book. “Not all the information presented in this chapter [on ethnographic context (J. H.)] will be used directly in the following chapters …” (p. 47). Indeed. It might have been better to weave background information into the core chapters where it is directly relevant.
Readers should keep two general issues in mind before taking this book as a window into traditional Aboriginal verbal culture. The first is the “grandma effect.” Only a few elderly women were available as informants. One must ask, how well would a study of American English emotion semantics and emotive expressives based on female nursing-home residents generalize to the broader population?
The second issue is that Kriol, a regional English-lexified creole, is the everyday vernacular even for elderly people who can still speak Dalabon. Kriol bears the semantic as well as phonological imprint of substratal Aboriginal languages, but it took shape in the nineteenth century with other Aboriginal languages as primary substrata, it spread belatedly into the Dalabon zone, and it is not immune from ongoing standard English influence. Kriol-Dalabon calquing is a lurking possibility given that many emotion expressions are transparent compounds; e.g., ‘forgive’ is literally ‘belly-break’. Ponsonnet acknowledges “I haven’t carried out detailed semantic studies on the emotional lexicon of Barunga Kriol” (p. 241 n. 177), and she uses “calque” in a directionality-neutral manner to mean that “the structure of a given Dalabon compound is matched by a morphologically analysable word in Barunga Kriol” (p. 241 n. 176). One suspects calquing into Dalabon in cases where a trope is systematic in English, Kriol, or both, but marginal in Dalabon, for example, ANGER = HEAT (“one lexeme, one occurrence” [p. 316]).
Chapter 4 (pp. 74–144) covers expressives (diminutives, interjections, intonation). Aboriginal languages are generally weak in diminutives and other hypocoristics. I did not observe them in adult-to-adult speech in Nunggubuyu (aka Wubuy, east of Dalabon) in the 1970s, except for the opposition wirig ‘small’ versus sound-symbolically charged wiçig ‘little, teeny’ and their derivatives meaning ‘elder/younger sibling’ and ‘slowly, softly’. In Dalabon, a compound final -wurd ‘child’ (IPA [wuɖ]) is added to nouns, including its own congener wurdurd ‘child’ (diminutive wurdurd-wurd). ‘X-child’ compounds have a range of literal, mitigating, and endearing functions, the latter especially in informants’ commiserations with film characters undergoing dramatic ups and downs. Ponsonnet’s documentation of these functions is convincing. I do suspect that the textual frequency of the endearing function has been favored by the grandma effect, the nature of the cinematic prompts (heart-warming dramas of fellow Aboriginals), and the presence of sound-symbolically correct diminutives in English and Kriol, e.g., Kriol biginini (< *pickaninny) ‘baby’ and lil(-wan) ‘little’.