Anthropology and Environment Society
Oral Presentation Session
G. H. Mead proposed that the capacity for language yields the human self-concept, by allowing individuals to “become objects to themselves” (Mead 1934: 139). I explore the figure-ground structure of linguistic forms like left or grandmother, which may particularly facilitate this process. Both spatial and social relationship terms can be considered “orientation conventions” (Buehler 1934) that substitute in human evolution for the untransposed gesture-calls (Burling 1999) of demonstrative pointing on the one hand, and of vocative calling on the other. In gesture-calls, the ground of the relation is necessarily identified with the speech situation (the “possessor” is the one who points and calls), and the figure with some other entity, never the pointer/ caller. Once lexicalized as orientation conventions however, the relational predicates of language allow for decoupling of the ground from the speech situation, and thus make reversal of the original figure-ground relation a possibility. Speakers can become figures as well as grounds in their own relational locutions: they can become objects to themselves. But these same orientation conventions also differ from the original gesture-calls in having language-specific semantic content, which we might expect to become part of any self-concept which derives from them, in a way not imagined by Mead, but explored by Vygotsky and Whorf. In an extended example, I explore parallels between spatial and social vocabulary in Mopan (Mayan), and show how cultural elaboration of respect for the wisdom of elders produces both linguistic and cognitive consequences for Mopan senses of self.