What the Heart Wants

Today I’m going to write briefly about Mayan possessed-heart constructions. The examples are from the book Language, Culture, and Mind: Natural Constructions and Social Kinds, which is a very interesting and worthwhile read in my opinion.

To illustrate what we’re talking about here, consider the following example:


It has dropped into my heart to come

I remembered to come

In this example and similar ones, a psychological state is expressed by a physical state, activity or change in the heart. This example isn’t a million miles away from English expressions like “His heart wasn’t in it”, but the difference is that this pattern is apparently very common and highly productive in the language of the Q’eqchi’-Maya, to the point where it is the main way to express some psychological states. Here’s a short summary of other possessed heart expressions:

Literal meaningPsych meaning
One’s heart is doing XTo want to do X
One’s heart exists (to/for X)To be interested in X
One’s heart becomes small To regret
One’s heart is doubledTo be conflicted
One’s heart is brokenTo be dissuaded
X exists in one’s heartTo remember X
X remains in one’s heartTo remember X
X drops into one’s heartTo remember X
X is lost in one’s heart To forget X
X comes to one’s heartTo agree X
X is born in one’s heartTo decide X
To think X in one’s heartTo plan, intend X
To say X in one’s heartTo think
One’s heart is tastyTo be happy
One’s heart is bitter/painfulTo be sad
One’s heart is redTo be jealous
One’s heart is foreignTo be estranged
One’s heart is tameTo be humble
One’s heart is fastTo be smart
One’s heart is straightTo be loyal
One’s heart is softTo be humble
One’s heart is hard/strongTo be brave
One’s heart is smallTo be timid
One’s heart is two-sidedTo be insincere
One’s heart is unitaryTo be united
One’s heart is seatedTo be content
One’s heart is levelledTo be content
One’s heart is standingTo be animated
Examples of Possessed Heart Constructions in Mayan

I find the idea that a language and culture could prefer this kind of very explicit metaphor of the heart for inner life as an alternative for monomorphemic (or at least synchronically unanalysable to most speakers) psych verbs quite fascinating. The very presence of the word ch’ool “heart” marks a modal shift and converts an expression from an event happening in the real world to one happening in the mind of the heart’s owner.

There’s also something very charming, somehow, about mapping people’s states of mind to the physical states of their hearts as a matter of every day language, instead of restricting it to poetry and niche expressions.