Language, Culture, and Mind

This book examines the linguistic and cultural mediation of mind among speakers of Q'eqchi'-Maya living in the highlands of Guatemala. Empirically, it is focused on a variety of grammatical structures and discursive practices that index cognitive representations and express social relations. One chapter focuses on the relationship between personhood and inalienable possessions (i.e. words like 'hand' and 'heart', 'mother' and 'son', 'name' and 'shadow', 'clothing' and 'soul'). Another chapter focuses on ascriptions of mental states in relation to complement-taking predicates (i.e. words like 'believe' and 'desire', which take complements such as 'that it is raining' and 'to go to the store'). Another chapter focuses on the relation between theories of mind implicit in legends about time and grammatical categories such as tense, aspect, and evidentiality (evinced in constructions like 'I will eat', 'he had been sleeping', and 'she must be rich'). Another chapter focuses on logical operations in relation to epistemic modality (a broad category that includes negation ('I did not go'), counterfactuals ('I would have gone'), and optatives ('if only I had gone')). And another chapter focuses on the relation between emotions and interjections (little words that seem to lie on the edge of language, like 'ouch', 'oof', and 'yuck').

These linguistic resources were chosen because they are discursively frequent, grammatically elaborate, cross-culturally salient, and cross-linguistically comparable. Moreover, they are also locally relevant, and thus subject to rich interpretations by speakers themselves. As such, they are inextricably caught up in Mayan theories of mind: from childhood inculcation and public ascription, to medical diagnosis and religious prohibition. Such resources may be called stances, which I define in this book as the semiotic means by which we indicate our orientation to states of affairs, usually framed in terms of evaluation (e.g. moral obligation and epistemic possibility) or intentionality (e.g. desire and memory, fear and doubt). I show that such stances are not only used to express one's own mental states and transform the mental states of others, they are also maximally caught up in the expression and transformation of social statuses--and thus one's relations to those with whom and about whom one speaks. These stances provide, I argue, a privileged vantage point for studying the intersection of language, culture, and mind.

This monograph makes very specific claims about these grammatical categories: from the semantic features they encode and the pragmatic functions they serve, through the everyday and ritual practices they are caught up in, to what their usage reveals about how speakers understand the thoughts and feelings of others, as well as the very nature of subjectivity and agency. This leads me to a technical and empirical conversation with ordinary language philosophers, cognitive and typologically oriented linguists, linguistic and cognitive anthropologists, and scholars of Mesoamerica. In what follows, I summarize two small pieces of this argument. The first part of the argument links grammatical categories and mental states; the second part links ritual practices and modes of personhood. These technical arguments are aimed at demonstrating some of the richness and precision one can bring to bear on Mind by examining its linguistic and cultural mediation.

From the perspective of language structure, I argue that such stances may be cross-linguistically categorized and scaled as a function of the ontological distance between three kinds of events: the speech event (say, the event of speaking about a desire, belief, or feeling), the representational event (say, the event of desiring, believing, or feeling), and the represented event (say, the event desired, believed, or felt). By ontological distance, I mean the ways in which one of these events is logically or causally implicated in the others. For example, the ways in which an event of desiring is causal of the event desired, or an event of feeling is caused by the public expression of that feeling. In particular, such distance may be gauged with relations like semantic scope (between an operator and a predicate), morphosyntactic tightness (between a predicate and its complement), and pragmatic displacement (between a speech event and a narrated event). And such distance may also be tracked by speaker's tacit and explicit notions of logic and causality (as evinced in the types of implicatures they make, and the types meta-linguistic practices they engage in). By categorized and scaled, I mean the kinds of private representations there are (as locally construed), the relations such representations have to each other (via implicit taxonomies and partonomies), and their causal and logical connections to public behaviors. For example, this allows one to carefully describe the contours of different modalities of belief (such as doubt and knowledge), desire (such as love and lust), and feeling (such as anger and fear); as well as their relations to words and deeds.

As introduced above, inalienable possessions may be semantically characterized as relatively inalienable parts of relatively personal wholes. In this monograph, the relation between inalienable possessions and human possessors is analyzed across a variety of domains, ranging from grammatical categories and discursive practices to illness cures and life-cycle rituals. While this relation is figured differently in each domain, a strong resonance between such relations is shown to exist across such domains. For example, I argue that there are two key criteria underlying inalienable possession, whether as a grammatical category or a discourse pattern: First, whatever any person may be strongly presumed to possess (identifiability); second, whatever such personal possessions are referred to frequently (relevance). Inalienable possessions, then, are quite peculiar entities in comparison to other nouns (or referents). On the one hand, their existence is taken for granted (as mutually known by speaker and addressee). On the other hand, their condition is an active object of concern (only speaker knows, and yet informative to addressee). More generally, the gain and loss of inalienable possessions is related to the expansion and contraction of personhood. This relation is shown by an examination of life-cycle events such as baptism and marriage, in which one first acquires one's inalienable possessions, and by an examination of illness cures for susto, or 'fright'), in which one recovers one's inalienable possessions. In particular, all such events of acquisition and recovery involve ritual processes whereby fully social people induct socially immature people further into the role of person (thereby acquiring greater capacities to think, feel, and act), or induct physically impaired people back into the role of person. These linguistic and social facts are then used to ground two psychological concerns, themselves tracked through local practices of care: motivation, or the identification of a person with his or her inalienable possessions; and empathy, or the identification of a person with another inalienable possessor.