Academic journal article Applied Semiotics/Semiotique appliqué

Literary Conventions and the Human Body: The Use of Bodily Expressions for States of Mind

Academic journal article Applied Semiotics/Semiotique appliqué

Literary Conventions and the Human Body: The Use of Bodily Expressions for States of Mind

Article excerpt

A. Correlation bodily expression and state of mind

1. Evidence

Variations in the mood of speakers habitually co-occur with variations in their facial expressions or bodily movements. This kind of correspondence has been observed and commented on [i], not least in the medical literature, where speakers with different types of handicap, mental and others, have been studied. [ii] That we are not alone in the animal world in this respect is shown by studies of apes [iii] and monkeys [iv], where similar relations have been found. From a communicative point of view we may, with Wierzbicka (1995), make a distinction between "bodily actions which function as speech surrogates [...] and bodily actions which while meaningful cannot be seen as speech surrogates" (209). Although many physical manifestations are deliberately communicative [v], such as hugs and kisses as expressions of friendship or love, physical manifestations are unconscious or semiconscious perhaps most of the time, and speakers vary with regard to their wish and ability to control them.

Consequently, a given physical expression can be assumed to indicate a certain emotional state while a given emotional state cannot without reservation be expected to result in a certain physical expression. [vi] As this relation between certain mental states and physical expressions is fairly well established [vii], writers, particularly writers of fiction, have been quick to make use of it. It is obvious, therefore, that it has aspects of interest to linguistic and communicative studies. Kurath (1921) observed, as Sweetser (1990:28) notes, that "Indo-European words for the emotions are very frequently derived from words referring to physical actions or sensations accompanying the relevant emotions, or to the bodily organs affected by those physical reactions." What the present study will do is consider the stage preceding that discussed by Kurath, viz. the stage where the physical actions or sensations have not yet become, or are just beginning to become, lexicalised as purely emotional expressions. The study will thus look into the way in which states of mind are represented as physical expressions in written English. It will use material from two language corpora, viz. the 57-million-word Cobuild Direct Corpus (examples where the reference follows the text) and the 100-million-word British National Corpus (examples where the reference precedes the text). An important question to be addressed will then be to what extent the actual physical manifestations represented in writing can be assumed to be present in the persons referred to. For example, can a person said to be tearing his or her hair out in exasperation actually be assumed to be physically doing so, or has the phrase become just a literary device to signify an emotional state? Is the link between the state of mind and its physical manifestation being severed?

2. General validity?

There has been a great debate as to whether terms and relations in the emotional field established for one language community can also be taken to apply to other language communities. [viii] Wierzbicka, for one, emphatically denies that this could be the case: "[A]s empirical cross-linguistic studies show, there are simply no emotional expressions interpreted the same way across cultures ..." (2000:149). The present little study is only concerned with English, so the question whether the bodily expressions can be translated and whether they apply in the same way to states of mind in other language communities does not arise. Moreover, we are not here concerned with deliberately communicative manifestations, such as handclapping, hugging and kissing, but rather with mostly unintentional and perhaps unconscious ones like pursing one's lips or dropping one's jaw.

B. Literary use

The fact that facial expressions and bodily movements are often unconscious and yet expressive of some mental state makes them an obvious medium for anyone wanting to observe, study and describe internal processes in our fellow human beings. …

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