There is one thing that has bothered me for some time. I'm assuming that I am not the first to notice or remark on this, but at the same time I don't think there has been enough discussion - let alone reflection - on the matter.
Has it ever occurred to you why the Malays, when they love, do so with their liver, and not with their heart like many other people around the world?
For many Malay speakers who have been exposed to English from a relatively early age (and that would be most of us, especially if you count those cartoon shows we used to be crazy about as kids) the English notion of the heart (i.e. the organ that pumps blood) being the organ most associated with emotions is something that we take for granted. We have been indoctrinated from young that the stylised symbol for heart ♥ represents love. It seldom - if ever - strikes us that this is in direct contradiction to our own cultural realities and experience.
In Malay, almost all expressions that contain the word "heart" in English, are translated with the word hati i.e. "liver". The end of a love affair may leave you heartbroken in English, but in Malay it would not break your heart but your liver (patah hati - "broken liver") Similarly, English speakers - as well as French, Italian, Spanish and German speakers - may tell you that they love you with all their heart; A Malay speaker on the other hand would tell you that he loves you with all his liver (sepenuh hati). "Liver" is present in many other Malay expressions related to feelings and emotions: jauh hati (feel slighted), rendah hati (humble), sakit hati (upset), bengkak hati (bruised ego, feelings), sejuk hati (mollified, gratified), kecil hati (feel slighted, to take offence) and besar hati (welcoming, a feeling that motivates one to go out of one's way to make another feel welcome, at ease, honoured). And this is far from being an exhaustive list.
Perhaps like many people, I grew up treating the Malay hati as interchangeable with the English "heart" until I saw the following scene between Tarzan and his gorilla mother Kala, in the animated movie Tarzan.
Kala: Close your eyes. Now forget what you see.
Kala: [puts Tarzan's hand to his chest] What do you feel?
Young Tarzan: My heart.
Kala: [puts Tarzan's head by her chest] Come here.
Young Tarzan: Your heart.
Kala: See? We're exactly the same.
Tarzan: No matter where I go, you will always be my mother.
Kala: And you will always be in my heart.
I actually never heard this dialogue in the way it is reported here because I watched the Bahasa Malaysia version. But the missing wordplay in the BM version was not lost on me: in the first two occurences, the word "heart" was translated as jantung since Kala was referring to the organ that beats and pumps blood. "Heart" in the last line however was translated as hati i.e. liver, since Kala was referring to the organ that is associated with her feelings.
Some preliminary enquiries suggest that the Malays are not unique in this. The view of the liver as an organ associated with feelings and love is also present in a few other Southeast Asian languages, including Cambodian and Burmese. In 16th century England, there was a belief that the liver was the place where love is "lodged", as suggested by quotes from Shakespeare's As You Like It, for instance. I have also stumbled upon commentaries that suggest that classical Greek images, for instance that of Prometheus being punished by having his liver pecked at by an eagle, allude to the belief that the liver is the seat of passion.
So back to the question: why do the Malays - at least lingustically - love with their liver? To be honest: I don't know. I doubt if I ever will. I am a native speaker of Malay. Personally, however I do not find the idea of liver as a medium of passion and feelings as a very intuitive one. When I am sad, I usually feel a hollowness in my heart, or at least the part of the body where I think my heart is. I don't know if it is natural to "feel" love or sadness in my heart, but the reality is: I do. I don't feel it in my liver.
All expressions alluding to "liver" in the Malay language however did not come out of thin air. They are there for a reason. They reflect the worldview of our ancestors. The way our forefathers saw the world and understood it. It was a way of perceiving the world where for reasons unknown to us, the liver was seen to be linked to emotions. It was a worldview through which the question would not be "Why do the Malays love with their liver?", but would instead be "Why do the Europeans love with their heart?" As our society changed, this worldview has been altered through the centuries. Had it not been for the scores of surviving expressions with the word hati in them, would we have even suspected that such a worldview existed?
Language is indeed, the repository of the collective experience of its speakers through the ages. A people with no language has no memory, no identity, no past.
And without a past, do we dare hope to face the future?
Dal cuore infranto
Avoir le cœur brisé
Con el corazón roto, tener el corazón partido
Mónica-Marta Moyano, Ets el meu fetge i el meu cor