Time in Language, Gesture, and Thought, A Case Study in Chol Maya

Rodriguez, Lydia, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Danziger, Eve, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

A claim often made in the non-anthropological literature on temporal cognition, and especially in conceptual metaphor theory scholarship, is that time is universally understood and experienced as uni-directional movement along a line. Such a linear view of time is indeed clearly reflected in spontaneous speech-accompanying gesture, since numerous studies have shown that gestures which co-occur with time expressions vividly portray uni-directional movement along an imaginary line. In Time in Language, Gesture, and Thought, a Case Study in Chol Maya I propose, however, that the linearity of temporal gesture, and by extension the linearity of temporal thought, is not a human universal. I argue that the presence of metaphorical timelines in gesture and mental imagery may be linked to the linguistic feature of mandatory grammatical tense, and that in languages that do not inflect predicates for grammatical tense, metaphorical timelines are much more difficult to find, in gesture, language, and thought. I test this proposal by investigating time-related speech and gesture in Chol Maya, an indigenous language of Chiapas (Mexico), in which predicates are inflected only for grammatical aspect and not for tense.
Building on the anthropological critique of lineal versus cyclical notions of time, I argue that temporal notions in Chol are subjectively experienced as separate activities/events which are not projected into an abstract timeline that extends ad infinitum. Rather, Chol temporal thought seems to be based on dyadic relationships between events. In any given sequence of events, the relative order of events is expressed by means of completed or punctual activities that act as benchmarks for other (not yet completed) activities. Such contrast between completed versus non completed events which is clearly marked in Chol grammar (perfective versus non perfective aspects) is also reflected in co-speech gesture: gestures that co-occur with predicates that refer to completed events are often pointing or “placing” gestures, whereas gestures co-occurring with non completed events tend to be open-ended, “tracing” gestures. Arguing from the premise that the form of unconscious and spontaneous gesture is a “window” into habitual thought or worldview, I conclude that Chol conceptualization of time is not linear, and that language exerts significant influence on individual cognition. At the highest level, in this dissertation I argue that conceptual categories are not just the product of sensorimotor experience, but that linguistic convention and cultural experience play a significant role in the formation of such categories.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
time, language, gesture, linguistic relativity, Chol Mayan
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