Review of Relatively Speaking: Language, Thought, and Kinship Among the Mopan Maya
Danziger, Eve (2001) Relatively Speaking: Language, Thought and Kinship
among the Mopan Maya. Oxford University Press, hardback ISBN 0-19-509910-9,
x+125pp., Oxford Studies in Anthropological Linguistics.
Review by Stavros Skopeteas, University of Erfurt, Germany
[previous review at http://linguistlist.org/issues/12/12-1569.html --Eds.]
Chapter 1 "Kinship, Semantics, and Linguistic Relativity" (pp. 3-17)
introduces the philosophical framework and methodological principles of the
book. After a brief discussion of the linguistic diversity in the domain of
kinship terminology three approaches to the semantics of a linguistic
expression are introduced:
- the monosemy approach based on the principle that every linguistic
expression covers a unique language-specific classification of referents,
- the polysemy approach that describes the referents of a linguistic
expression as separate but interrelated units, e. g. as a constellation of
central vs. peripheral referents in prototype semantics and
- the homonymy approach that describes different referents as unrelated
All approaches offer different possibilities for a semantic description,
that can be used in the viewpoint of linguistic relativity. Next the
methodological issues are presented combining ethnographic observation and
formal tests of a psycholinguistic type. The chapter finishes with a plan of
Chapter 2 "The Mopan Setting" (pp. 18-24) is an ethnographic overview of the
investigated community. Mopan is a Mayan language spoken in the Peten
regions of Belize and Guatemala. The investigation took place in the oldest
Belizean Mopan village, which consisted of about 1300 (mostly monolingual)
Mopan Maya speakers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Special attention is
paid to a crucial element of the social interaction in the community, namely
the notion of tzik 'respect', which is a basic element of the Mopan culture
and is expressed through several interactional patterns, especially forms of
Chapter 3 "The Meanings of Kinship Terms" (pp. 25-37) summarizes the
psychological research on the acquisition of kinship terms starting with
Piaget (1928). Two aspects of kinship terms have to be acquired:
- the relational semantics of kinship terms as they are a kind of two-place
predicate ascribing a relation between two referents (e.g. X is parent to
- the reciprocal character of kinship terms, i. e. when a kinship term is
ascribed to a referent X with respect to another referent Y, this implies
another type of kinship relation, that holds the other way around, it can be
ascribed to Y with respect to X (e.g. X is child of Y vs. Y is parent of X).
The next part of this chapter offers a detailed account of tzik 'respect'
among the Mopans: Respect is paid above all to the older Mopans as bearers
of the collective knowledge of the community. They are a very important
factor in determining tzik. The content of tzik includes living according to
the rules of the community. Disregard of tzik causes punishment of the
individual and the community by supernatural forces. One important form of
tzik is the correct application of conventionalized greeting forms, that
depend on the function of the interlocutors in the civil and religious life
and their relationship to each other. In the last part of the chapter the
kinship terms of Mopan Maya are introduced and defined in form of a
combination of distinctive logical predicates.
Chapter 4 "Tzik and Kinship" (pp. 38-52) describes the embedding of tzik
'respect' in the Mopan social life. The first part describes the relations
between tzik and sexuality and between tzik and family relations, and also
the importance of the correct use of tzik in greeting patterns. The second
part is an overview of the social relations in Mopan community, with
particular stress in relations of authority. The last part describes the
steps of the socialization of a Mopan child during the early years, and the
acquisition of the notion of tzik and its proper use in greeting.
Chapter 5 "Creating Tzik Relationships" (pp. 53-67) is devoted to social
events that create relationships of tzik 'respect'. The first such important
relationship is the one established through an initialization rite (usually
a baptism). Two socially important relationships are thus ritually
established: one relationship between the godparent and the child and
another between the godparents and the child's parents, that are both very
important for the Mopan social life. Both create particular tzik
relationships among the involved persons. Another important event creating
relationship of tzik is the marriage, formally acquired through a rite and
creating tzik between the married persons and their families. In all these
types of relationships, proper use of tzik is related with the
well-formedness of the rite. No tzik is established when the persons in love
are not properly married. If the parents and godparents don't want to change
their former relationship into a tzik relationship after the performance of
the baptism, then the relevant parts of the ceremony have to be left aside.
Chapter 6 "Three Semantic Analyses and Their Consequences" (pp. 68-78)
outlines the three perspectives in semantic analysis (monosemy, polysemy,
homonymy) and their consequences for the description and conceptualization
of kinship terms. Every type of analysis focuses on a kind of interrelation
among the referents of the kinship term and implies particular assumptions
on the language acquisition. The empirical basis is restricted to two items,
the Mopan suku'un used to greet someone as 'same-generation' and the Mopan
tataa' used to greet someone as 'different-generation'. Different
expectations about the acquisition of these terms are drawn, according to
the assumptions of the three perspectives of semantic analysis.
Chapter 7 "Formal Findings"(pp. 79-92) describes the elicitation of data on
the acquisition of Mopan kinship terms and an analysis of the collected
data. The data is collected through interviews with children between 7 and
14 years old. Children are requested to explain the meaning of kinship terms
to the investigator. They have been given responses of four types:
(a) Precategorial responses (see Danziger 1957), in which the term to be
defined is not assigned to any general class of things,
(b) Categorical responces (X has property Y) that consist in an absolute
definition of the term.
(c) Relational responces (X has property Y with respect to Z) that define
kinship terms as relationships between two individuals, and
(d) Reciprocal responces (X has property Y with respect to Z and Z has
property W with respect to X) that describe kinship terms as reciprocal
pairs of relationships.
According to the findings of the interviews relationality increases with the
age as expected. The results support the monosemy analysis. Furthermore they
show that Mopan children discussed kinship terms following culture-specific
reflective patterns, i. e. the tzik relationships, rather than according to
semantic classifications based on the logical relations between the terms.
Chapter 8 "Language, Thought and Reality"(pp. 93-112) is an overall
discussion of the investigation and theoretical treatment of the data. Both
levels of description, namely ethnographic and linguistic are closely
related. In the spirit of the relativist viewpoint in linguistic diversity,
language and thought are in interchange, so that linguistic units may have
properties that reflect the social environment, and on the other hand
linguistic units are used to create social entities, such as social
relations in the sense of tzik.
The descriptive contribution of this book is the ethnographic description of
the Mopan social life and relationships and the linguistic description of
the kinship terminology in Mopan.
The most important and innovative theoretical issue of the book is the
treatment of the three types of semantic analysis, namely monosemy, polysemy
and homonymy. Instead of postulating one type of analysis as the only
adequate one, such excluding the other two, Danziger accepts all three as
different perspectives, that can offer plausible interpretations in the
relativist's viewpoint. Furthermore, she develops an heuristic for the
evaluation of data of language acquisition in order to identificate the most
relevant kind of semantic organization for the interpretation of particular
Danziger, Kurt (1957), The Child's Understanding of Kinship Terms: A Study
on the Development of Relational Concepts. Journal of Genetic Psychology,
Piaget, Jean (1928), Judgement and Reasoning in the Child. Trans. M. Warden.
New York: Harcourt, Brace.
Stavros Skopeteas is working at the University of Erfurt. His research
interests are linguistic typology, language description in functional
perspective, conceptualisation of spatial relations, historical linguistics.
In his typological study he is mainly occupied with Greek, Yucatec, Ingush,
Indonesian and Corean.
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