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Heart and Liver in Kewa

When my wife and I first lived in the hamlet of Muli, in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea (then the Territories of New Guinea and Papua), our initial task was to learn to speak and analyze the Kewa language (actually, it turned out to be the East Kewa dialect). In 1958, there were no speakers of English or Tok Pisin in the area, so we began learning the language monolingually — that is, by using only what Kewa we knew. At first, of course, we relied on guesswork, but our former teacher and mentor, Professor Kenneth L. Pike, had taught his students the “monolingual approach.” He used this approach to learn the Mixtec language of Mexico in 1935, and from that experience came his first monolingual demonstration in 1936.


We soon found that the East Kewa (EK) people expressed various emotions using the body part “liver” (pu). When someone felt good about something, his/her liver was “happy” (raana pia) or “sweet” (rende pia); if they were excited, their liver “stood up” (rekaa), and if they were annoyed their liver was “bitter” (rero pia); when someone died, the liver was “extinguished” (kundinaa); the liver was also involved in shame (pu yala pia), sickness (pu rundu aaya), and in many other expressions.


We studied and lived (intermittently) with the East Kewa people from 1958-1963, but then moved to another area to study West Kewa (WK) from 1967-1973, and we visited them sporadically thereafter for a number of years.


There were idioms in WK similar to those in EK that used liver, such as: ni pu nala (1st.sg liver eat. 3rd.sg.pres = I am upset); pu oyala (liver bad. 3rd.sg.pres = to have pity); pu rekaa (liver stand. 3rd.sg.past = he was excited) pu upatea (liver sleep.lie.down. 3rd.sg.perf = to be lazy) and pu undinaa (liver extinguish. 3rd.sg.past = [someone] has died).


We, therefore, expected that the emotional center in WK would be the same as in EK, simply the “liver,” but discovered instead that the “liver-heart” (pu-imu), or occasionally simply imu was used. We heard expressions like Nipu madaa pu-imu rasu sape (3rdSg concerning liver-heart distended put meant “He has an intense attraction for her. Nipu-na pu-imu pa eto paala pia

3rdSg-poss liver-heart just shakes afraid it.is meant “He is extremely afraid of something.”


Later, when vehicles came to the area, we also heard this metaphor: Kara-na imu (car-poss heart) referred to “the engine/gearbox of the car.” We learned that the Kewa people employed body part names according to their perception of their functions. Their mental image of a body and its parts served as the imaginative and creative springboard for understanding and naming, such as for vehicle parts. Parts of houses and flora also had metaphors based on the human body. For example: peraani “ribs” (roof rafters); masa “back” (back area of a house); maa “neck” (top of tree); kimbu “shin” (ridge of mountains); aane “ear” (edge of something); yogaane “skin” (bark of tree); paala “thigh” (branch of tree).


The influence of Tok Pisin (TP) throughout the nation began well before we arrived in the Kewa area and had been used by prospectors, missionaries, and government officers. However, TP was not used among the EK to any extent while we lived there. By 1967, when we took up residence in the area called Usa in the WK, missionaries and government officers were conducting business in TP.


Although several body parts are used to express emotions in Kewa, it is historically the liver —and more recently the stomach — that signal them. The word for “heart” can be adjoined with the word for “liver” (as a compound) but does not occur separately to express emotions.


These examples demonstrate the way people think about their universe. In the King James version of the Bible, we can read expressions like “bowels” to demonstrate extreme feelings. For example: “My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.” (Song of Solomon 5.4); “My bowels, my bowels! I am pained at my very heart; my heart maketh a noise in me; I cannot hold my peace, because thou hast heard, O my soul, the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.” (Jeremiah 4.19) Other versions translate this feeling as “my heart, my heart”, “my anguish, my anguish” or “my soul, my soul.”


Paul’s great feelings for the Philippians (1.8) are expressed in the KJV: " For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.

Here are some other versions that express Paul’s feelings for the Philippians:

  • For God is my record of how greatly I long for you all in the compassion of Jesus Christ.

  • For God is my witness, how I long after you all in the tender mercies of Christ Jesus.

  • For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus [whose great love fills me].

Languages change and just as English speakers have changed “bowels” to other expressions, Kewa is beginning to change “heart-liver” to “stomach.” We may not even notice the changes taking place, but they are often religious or political. It is probably wise to take note.



Karl Franklin