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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 entities. 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 the book.
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 greeting.
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 Y). - 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 data.
Danziger, Kurt (1957), The Child's Understanding of Kinship Terms: A Study on the Development of Relational Concepts. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 91:213-232. 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.