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Materiality vs. expressivity: The use of sensory vocabulary in Yucatec Maya


Le Guen,  Olivier
Language and Cognition Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Categories across Language and Cognition, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Language documentation and data mining;

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Le Guen, O. (2011). Materiality vs. expressivity: The use of sensory vocabulary in Yucatec Maya. The Senses & Society, 6(1), 117-126. doi:10.2752/174589311X12893982233993.

In this article, sensory vocabulary relating to color, texture, and other sensory experiences in Yucatec Maya (a language spoken in Mexico) is examined, and its possible relation to material culture practices explored. In Yucatec Maya, some perceptual experience can be expressed in a fine-grained way through a compact one-word adjective. Complex notions can be succinctly expressed by combining roots with a general meaning and applying templates or compounds to those sensory roots. For instance, the root tak’, which means ‘adhere/adherence,’ can be derived to express the notion of ‘dirty red’ chak-tak’-e’en or ‘sticky with an unbounded pattern’ tak’aknak, or the root ts’ap ‘piled-up’ can express ‘several tones of green (e.g. in the forest)’ ya’axts’ape’en or ‘piled-up, known through a tactile experience’ ts’aplemak. The productive nature of this linguistic system seems at first glance to be very well fitted to orient practices relating to the production of local material culture. In examining several hours of video-recorded natural data contrasting work and non-work directed interactions, it emerges that sensory vocabulary is not used for calibrating knowledge but is instead recruited by speakers to achieve vividness in an effort to verbally reproduce the way speakers experience percepts