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Reconnecting with Emotions and the Body through the Language of Ancestors

In this text by Svetlana Edygarova we are presented with an aspect of losing a language that is rarely brought up: that language is connected to emotion, and emotions to the body. What concequences then, has losing one’s language, and how do you understand your emotions?

Credits Svetlana Edygarova Translated by the author April 30 2024

When we speak about the importance of minority and indigenous languages, about the importance of transmitting minority languages from one generation to another, we often provide many arguments about the significance of the connection between generations and other important social aspects. However, what is spoken of less frequently is that by losing the language of our parents, grandparents, and the communities to which we belong, we simply lose the connection to our emotions and bodies.

Our ancestors and their communities were always interacting and attuned to their feelings; they knew well how their bodies reacted to different emotions. They know precisely how to heal their emotional wounds and care for their physical well-being. In addition to nonverbal knowledge, they also knew how to verbalize their emotions and physical reactions. Through the transmission of language, our parents pass down to us the knowledge and the language to interpret and understand our minds, bodies, and the basic principles of well-being. Through words and linguistic expressions, parents educate their children about all of these things.

What happens when language transmission is interrupted between a child and parents? How do parents secure their child with his or her emotions and reactions? How do they speak about love, happiness, and grief?

My mother tongue is Udmurt. I was lucky and my parents spoke to me in Udmurt from birth. Udmurt is an indigenous minority language spoken by about 260,000 people in the territory between Kama and Vyatka in Russia. Unfortunately, the language situation is quite dramatic. The Udmurt language is hardly taught in schools, its usage is severely limited, and we are witnessing rapid assimilation. This is evident, for example, in my native village, where fewer children speak Udmurt with each passing year. It is also evident in my personal networks, where my relatives, friends, and acquaintances no longer speak the language. Since I left my native village at the age of fifteen and moved to the capital city of Udmurtia, Izhevsk, the Russian language has also come to dominate my life.

Many years later, I settled in Helsinki and started a multicultural family. When our children were born and grew a little, we began to speak different languages at home. I decided to speak Udmurt, my husband – French, and the children spoke Finnish in kindergarten and school. At some point, I found it very difficult to cope with emotional reactions in our family. In my native village and family, things worked differently.

I thought that I had to learn more about emotions and to talk about feelings in different languages. I began to read literature on feelings and emotions. However, for some reason, all the information seemed to pile up into one heap, and it was unclear where to start specifically. What should I do? Once I saw pictures of faces with expressions and written names of feelings in my children's kindergarten. I decided to do the same. I printed out grimaces and wrote full sentences in Udmurt, French and Finnish, describing what feeling the person (a woman) in the picture expresses. I was surprised when I noticed that in some Udmurt names, a part of the body was present, for example:

Солэн йырыз кур. ’She is angry’ (literally, her head is bad/dirty). This expression comes from my native dialect.

Солэн кӧтыз ӝож. ‘She is sad’ (literally, her belly is sad).

Солэн кӧтыз куректэ. ‘She is suffering’ (literally, her belly suffers).

Со сюлмаське. ‘She feels anxious’. The phrase contains the verb сюлмаськыны ‘to feel anxious’ which consist of сюлэм ‘heart’ and verbal suffix.

In literature on emotions, it is stated that emotions trigger specific physical reactions that stimulates a person react appropriately in different situations: danger – flee, anger – attack or defend, etc. If these reactions remain unnoticed or suppressed, a person may become ill or feel unwell. The life of a modern person is full of stress and has a frantic pace. In such a regime, it is difficult to notice one’s physical reactions to endless emotional triggers. However, for good emotional and physical well-being, it is important to learn to understand the signals of one’s body in response to various stimuli. In my case, my mother tongue helped me to identify and notice emotional reactions in my body.

Once I had a headache. Йыр ‘head’ I thought, and remembered how I recently wrote this word under an angry face: Солэн йырыз кур (literally, she has a bad/dirty head), meaning ‘She’s angry’. “Am I really angry?” I wondered. I began to recall what I was thinking before my head started hurting. And I remembered! A brief moment when I thought about a very unpleasant and irritating situation. When the whole chain came together, when I understood how I reacted to the unpleasant memory, the headache stopped. Since then, my headaches have decreased, and I have started feeling better. Thus, my native language helped me better understand the connection between emotions and the body, helping me better interpret physical signals from the body that contributed to my well-being.

In other Udmurt dialects, different expressions of emotions are used. For example, in the southern dialect of the Udmurt language, “I am angry” would be Солэн вожез потэ (literally, her green is going out), which is likely related to bile and the gallbladder. I believe it is very important to maintain and transmit from generation to generation the living dialects or linguistic varieties of smaller language communities, as such a variant of the language is the closest to the person from this linguistic group, which can most accurately help them understand themselves.

Answering the questions raised earlier, it can be said that when the linguistic connection between parents and children is interrupted, the emotional connection can still exist. However, this connection through the native language is much deeper and more intimate. Furthermore, it is much easier to learn to understand our feelings and body with the help of the native language.

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