Illnesses of Imbalance in Choapan Zapotec

Donnelly, Erin
Donnelly, Erin
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I discuss the categorization, causes, symptoms, and treatments of ‘illnesses of imbalance’ in Choapan Zapotec (CHO), an endangered Eastern Oto­Manguean language spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico. The term ‘illnesses of imbalance’ describes illnesses that are the result of an imbalance in the hot and cold ‘humors’ in the body, as well as those that result from the disruption of normal emotional­spiritual regulation. I use these data to suggest that, just as grammatical documentation is language­driven, so should documentation of medical and spiritual knowledge be culture­driven. Illnesses of imbalance in CHO comprise two major categories: those resulting from spiritual, mental, or emotional imbalance, and those caused by disruption of balance between the body’s hot and cold forces (likened to Greek humors; cf. Hernández Sáenz and Foster 2001:22). Illnesses resulting from spiritual, mental, and emotional imbalances are caused by: malicious spirits, sudden fright, or an overpowering of negative emotions. These are all imbalances in the sense that something has disrupted a person’s stable, regulated emotional and spiritual state. Malicious spirits can steal people or cause life­threatening accidents, confusion, sadness, or physical pain (Author 2009; Dow 2001:74­77). A person’s own negative emotions, like worry or anger, can cause physical illnesses, including colic, diabetes, and gallbladder rupture (Author 2009). Illnesses coming from a sudden fright (Spanish susto) are the most varied. Anything can cause a sudden fright, or CHO ͡tsebiʔ, but common causes include suddenly encountering a dangerous animal, seeing a corpse, or taking a bad fall. A person’s life­force sometimes stays where the ͡tsebiʔ occurred. If the life­force is not recovered, the person will die (Author 2009; Dow 2001:83; Lipp 2001:110). Unlike emotional­spiritual imbalances, illnesses from a hot/cold imbalance only manifest physically. They range from minor inconveniences to deadly diseases, and include asthma, cracked skin on the hands or feet, tuberculosis, nosebleed, rheumatism, and ‘womb coldness’. External physical forces cause hot/cold imbalances within the body. These include bathing in or drinking cold water (especially if the body is hot from physical labor) and prolonged sun exposure (Author 2009). These varied illnesses seem completely unrelated from the Western medical­cultural perspective. This represents a crucial lesson for documentary linguists: just as a language’s grammar dictates how we describe it (and not our impositions of how a grammar should be), documentation of medical and spiritual knowledge should not be influenced by our own cultural understandings of health and healing. References Author, Investigación de Enfermedades en el Zapoteco de Choapan. Unpublished manuscript, 2009. James W. Dow, Central and North Mexican Shamans, vol. Mesoamerican Healers (Brad R. Huber and Alan R. Sandstrom, eds.), University of Texas Press, 2001, pp. 66­94. Luz María Hernández Sáenz and George M. Foster, Curers and Their Cures in Colonial New Spain and Guatemala, vol. Mesoamerican Healers (Brad R. Huber and Alan R. Sandstrom, eds.), University of Texas Press, 2001, pp.19­46. Frank J. Lipp, A Comparative Analysis of Southern Mexican and Guatemalan Shamans, vol. Mesoamerican Healers (Brad R. Huber and Alan R. Sandstrom, eds.), University of Texas Press, 2001, pp. 95­116.
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