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Review of  Relatively Speaking: Language, Thought, and Kinship Among the Mopan Maya

Reviewer: Rusty Barrett
Book Title: Relatively Speaking: Language, Thought, and Kinship Among the Mopan Maya
Book Author: Eve Danziger
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Subject Language(s): Mopán Maya
Issue Number: 12.1569

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Danziger, Eve (2001) Relatively speaking: Language,
thought, and kinship among the Mopan Maya, Oxford University
Press, 125 pp, Oxford Studies in Anthropological Linguistics
#26 (Announced on LINGUIST 12.1139; 12:1006; 12:393.3)

Rusty Barrett, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The linguistic relativity hypothesis, the claim that the
particular language one speaks influences the way in which
one thinks about reality, has long been a central question
in the broader study of language as it relates to thought
(for reviews of the hypothesis, see Lucy 1992, 1997). Based
on fieldwork conducted in Belize, Danziger considers the
relativity hypothesis in the specific context of the use of
kinship terms in Mopan Maya. By focusing on kinship terms,
Danziger approaches the question of linguistic relativity
using what Lucy (1997) has called the "domain-centered
approach," examining the ways in which languages encode a
particular domain of experienced reality. In reviewing
research in the domain-centered approach, Lucy (1997: 299)
notes that many studies in this area are problematic both
because they fail to demonstrate "structural coherence" of
the domain "on language-internal grounds" and because they
tend to emphasize what one can say (reflective thought)
rather than what is structurally salient (habitual thought).
Danziger overcomes these problems through a combination of
ethnograhpic study of Mopan kinship and empircal research on
the acquisition of kinship terms by Mopan children. Through
the ethnographic research, the language-internal structure
of the kinship domain and the range of reflective thought
regarding kinship are clearly outlined. The empirical
research on acquisition, however, focuses on habitual
thought, demonstrating a language-specific system for
conceptualizing kinship. The combination of approaches also
demonstrates that reflective thought (as evidenced through
prototype categories) and habitual thought (in the
traditional sense of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) are not
mutually exclusive and can both function simultaneously in
the minds of speakers.

Danziger proposes three possible semantic analyses for
considering the relationship between language and an
external domain of experience: monosemy, polysemy and
homonymy. Following Whorf (1956), the monosemy approach
assumes the linguistic relativity hypothesis and holds that
specific languages will have specific means of encoding
experienced reality. Under monosemy, the various classes of
referents associated with a single lexical item will form a
conceptual system specific to a given language. The polysemy
approach uses prototype categories (e.g. Lakoff 1987, Palmer
1996, etc) in which a central referent is the prototypical
member of the category. The polysemy approach need not
oppose linguistic relativity unless one holds that the
prototype members of a category will be universal. For the
purposes of her analysis, Danziger defines the polysemy
approach as claiming psychological primacy for the prototype
of a category and assigning less psychological weight to
more peripheral referents. The homonymy approach holds that
there is no pscyhological connection between a lexical item
and various classes of referents (such as with the English
words "bank" meaning financial institution and "bank"
meaning the edge of a river).

In the ethnographic sections of the book, Danziger
determines how each of these three semantic analyses would
model adult cognition with regard to kinship terms in Mopan.
In order to ensure that the domain is defined in language-
internal terms, Danziger examines the Mopan concept of
"tzik" or respect which applies to particular social
relationships. For the Mopan, one is required to formally
greet senior relatives with a "tzik" greeting each time
they meet or pass on the street. Absence of the "tzik"
greeting when it would be expected is very significant,
indicating either that incest has occurred between the two
or that extreme anger exists between them. These "tzik"
relationships include ties made through "compadrazgo" (co-
parenting), such as godparents who accompany children
through their sacrements in the Catholic church. Thus, the
range of kinship terms Danziger considers goes beyond
geneological ties and reflects a system particular to Mopan
society. The ethnographic section also considers cases in
which the actual kinship term for a particular individual
may be under dispute in order to demonstrate how the
particular terms might be viewed as fuzzy prototype

Having laid out the structure of the Mopan kinship
system, Danziger tests each of the three semantic approaches
empirically by means of testing the stages of acquisition of
kinship terms following the system of Piaget (1928). In the
Piagetian analysis, children acquire kinship terms at
particular stages, depending on the relational complexity of
a given term. Children first pass through the absolute or
categorical stage, in which they offer an absolute
characteristic as the definition of a term (e.g. a "brother"
is a "boy"). This is followed by the relational stage, in
which children recognize that a term denotes a particular
relationship, but where the relationship is seen as a
property of a particular referent (e.g. recognizing that
male children of the same couple are brothers, but not
recognizing that having a brother also makes one a brother
or sister). The final stage (the reciprocal stage) is that
in which a child defines a term that recognizes the
reciprocal nature of a term (e.g. in order to be a brother
one must also have a brother or sister). Danziger
demonstrates that according to the Mopan system of kinship
each of the three semantic analyses (monosemy, polysemy and
homonymy) predicts a different pattern for the acquisition
of Mopan kinship terms by children.

Danziger tests these predictions, focusing on two
particular terms, suku'un and tataa'. The Mopan term suku'un
refers to older male blood relatives in the same generation
as the speaker. As such, suku'un refers primarily to an
older brother, but may also refer to older cousins, as well
as uncles and nephews who happen to be in the same
generation as the speaker. The term tataa' refers to older
male relatives in a different generation from the speaker
(who are not the speaker's father). Tataa' thus, refers
primarily to one's grandfather, but may also refer to uncles
and great-uncles. Thus, what English would designate as
"uncle" may be either suku'un or tataa' depending on the
difference in age between speaker and referent. Under the
monosemy analysis these two terms should be acquired at the
same stage because within the Mopan system they are equal in
terms of relational complexity (older relative that is not a
parent). The polysemy analysis, with it's focus on central
referents, would predict that suku'un would pass through
Piagetian stages earlier than tataa' because the central
referent of tataa' (grandfather) is more relationally
comples (X is parent of A; A is parent of Y) than the
central referent of suku'un (brother) (X is a sibling of Y).
Under the homonymy analysis the term suku'un must be
analyzed as including those referents referred to in English
as "cousins" (X child of A; A sibling of B; B parent of Y),
which is more relationally complex than any of the referents
for tataa'. Thus, the homonymy analysis predicts that tataa'
will be acquired before suku'un. The empirical tests of
Piagetian acquisition show that the two terms pass through
acquisition simultaneously, indicating that the monosemy
analysis best suits the relationship between Mopan kinship
terms and their external referents. Thus, although in
reflective conscious thought it is possible to determine a
prototype referent for the particular categories, in
habitual unconscious thought the categories function with
sharp boundaries. Because it is precisely this habitual
unconscious monosemic conceptualization that serves as the
basis for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Danziger offers her
study as evidence in favor of the linguistic relativity

Perhaps the greatest achievement of this work is its
unique combination of ethnographic and quantitative
methodologies. It is this combination that allows the study
to rise above the many problems facing anyone who attempts
to examine the relativity hypothesis. It also begins to
address the relationship between reflective and habitual
thought, an area that will make it possible to begin to
clarify the relationship between prototype semantics and
linguistic relativity. This aspect of the book will be of
greatest interest to linguists focusing on lexical and
cultural semantics. The ethnographic research is itself a
major contribution to Mayan ethnography. Danziger provides
an excellent description of the Mopan system of kinship (and
its role in establishing and maintaining social
relationships) and her analysis of the importance of the
'tzik' concept of respect will be especially useful to
anthropologists and Mayanists. In addition, the ethnographic
data give special attention to the lives and viewpoints of
Mopan women and thus represent a major contribution to the
study of gender in Maya culture. The only disappointment in
this work is its relatively short nature (104 pages of
actual text). Given the richness of the analysis one might
be left wishing for further information and more discussion
of the theoretical implications of the research.

Works cited:

Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What
Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: Chicago
University Press.

Lucy, John A. 1992. Language Diversity and Thought. Studies
in the Social and Cultural Foundations of Language No 12.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Lucy, John A. 1997. Linguistic Relativity. Annual Review of
Anthropology 26: 291-312.

Palmer, Gary 1996. Toward a Theory of Cultural Linguistics.
Austin: University of Texas Press.

Piaget, Jean. 1928. Judgement and Reasoning in the Child.
Trans. M Warden. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Rusty Barrett is a visiting assistant professor at the University of
North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His research interests are Mayan
languages, linguistic anthropology/sociolinguistics, language and
gender and phonology. In the fall he will be a visiting assistant
professor in the linguistic department at the University of Michigan,
Ann Arbor.