Linguistics and Interjections

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Linguistics and Interjections

In Western philosophy and linguistic theory, interjections—that is, words like oof, ouch, and bleah—have traditionally been understood to indicate emotional states. This article offers an account of interjections in Q’eqchi’ Maya that illuminates their social and discursive functions. In particular, it discusses the grammatical form of interjections, both in Q’eqchi’ and across languages, and characterizes the indexical objects and pragmatic functions of interjections in Q’eqchi’ in terms of a semiotic framework that may be generalized for other languages. With these grammatical forms, indexical objects, and pragmatic functions in hand, it details the various social and discursive ends that interjections serve in one Q’eqchi’ community, thereby shedding light on local values, norms, ontological classes, and social relations.

In short, this article argues against interpretations of interjections that focus on internal emotional states by providing an account of their meanings in terms of situational, discursive, and social context. p a u l k o c k e l m a n is McKennan Post-Doctoral Fellow in Linguistic Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth College (Hanover, N.H. 03755, U.S.A. [[email protected]]). Born in 1970, he was educated at the University of California, Santa Cruz (B.A., 1992) and the University of Chicago (M.S., 1994; Ph.D., 2002).

His publications include “The Collection of Copal among the Q’eqchi’-Maya” (Research in Economic Anthropology 20:163–94), “Factive and Counterfactive Clitics in Q’eqchi’-Maya: Stance, Status, and Subjectivity,” in Papers from the Thirty-eighth Annual Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistics Society (Chicago: Linguistics Society, in press), and “The Interclausal Relations Hierarchy in Q’eqchi’ Maya” (International Journal of American Linguistics 69:25–48). The present paper was submitted 1 vi 01 and accepted 27 xii 02.

1. A longer version of this article was presented at the workshop “Semiotics: Culture in Context” at the University of Chicago in January 2001. Chris Ball, Anya Bernstein, John Lucy, and Michael Silverstein all provided very helpful commentary. This article also greatly benefited from suggestions made by Benjamin S. Orlove and several anonymous referees.

Western philosophy and linguistic theory have traditionally considered interjections at the periphery of language and primordially related to emotion. For example, the Latin grammarian Priscian defined interjections as “a part of speech signifying an emotion by means of an unformed word” (Padley 1976:266). Muller (1862) ¨ thought that interjections were at the limit of what might be called language. Sapir (1921:6–7) said that they were “the nearest of all language sounds to instinctive utterance.” Bloomfield (1984[1933]:177) said that they “occur under a violent stimulus,” and Jakobson (1960: 354) considered them exemplars of the “purely emotive stratum of language.” While interjections are no longer considered peripheral to linguistics and are now carefully defined with respect to their grammatical form, their meanings remain vague and elusive. In particular, although interjections are no longer characterized purely in terms of emotion, they are still characterized in terms of “mental states.”

For example, Wierzbicka (1992:164) characterizes interjections as “[referring] to the speaker’s current mental state or mental act.” Ameka (1992a:107) says that “from a pragmatic point of view, interjections may be defined as a subset of items that encode speaker attitudes and communicative intentions and are contextbound,” and Montes (1999:1289) notes that many interjections “[focus] on the internal reaction of affectedness of the speaker with respect to the referent.” Philosophers have offered similar interpretations. For example, Herder thought that interjections were the human equivalent of animal sounds, being both a “language of feeling” and a “law of nature” (1966:88), and Rousseau, pursuing the origins of language, theorized that protolanguage was “entirely interjectional” (1990:71).

Indeed, such philosophers have posited a historical transition from interjections to language in which the latter allows us not only to index pain and express passion but also to denote values and exercise reason (D’Atri 1995).2 Thus interjections have been understood as a semiotic artifact of our natural origins and the most transparent index of our emotions. Such an understanding of interjections is deeply rooted in Western thought. Aristotle (1984), for example, posited a contrastive relationship between voice, proper only to humans as instantiated in language, and sound, shared by humans and animals as instantiated in cries.

This contrastive relation was then compared with other analogous contrastive relations, in particular, value and pleasure/pain, polis and household, and bios (the good life, or political life proper to humans) and zoe (pure life, shared by all living things). Such a contrast is so pervasive that modern philosophers such as Agamben (1995) have devoted much of their scholarly work to the thinking out of this tradition and others built on it such as id versus ego in the Freudian paradigm. In short, the folk distinction made between interjections and language 2. D’Atri (1995:124) argues that, for Rousseau, “interjections . . . are sounds and not voices: they are passive registerings and as such do not presuppose the intervention of will, which is what characterizes human acts of speech.”

Proper maps onto a larger set of distinctions in Western thought: emotion and cognition, animality and humanity, nature and culture, female and male, passion and reason, bare life and the good life, pain and value, private and public, and so on (see, e.g., Lutz 1988, Strathern 1988). In this article I avoid such abstracting and dichotomizing traps by going straight to the heart of interjections: their everyday usage in actual discourse when seen in the context of local culture and grounded in a semiotic framework. I begin by characterizing the linguistic and ethnographic context in which I carried out my research and go on to relate interjections to other linguistic forms, showing how they are both similar to and distinct from other classes of words in natural languages.

Next I provide and exemplify a semiotic framework, generalizable across languages, in terms of which the indexical objects and pragmatic functions of interjections can best be characterized. Then I detail the local usage of the 12 most commonly used interjections in Q’eqchi’ and show the way in which they are tied into all things cultural: values, norms, ontological classes, social relations, and so on. I conclude by discussing the relative frequency with which the various forms and functions of interjections are used. In short, I argue against interpretations of interjections that focus on emotional states by providing an account of their meanings in terms of situational, discursive, and social context.

Linguistic and Ethnographic Context

While I am attempting to provide as wide a theoretical account of interjections as I can, thereby providing a metalanguage for speaking about similar sign phenomena in other languages, I am also trying to capture the grammatical niceties of Q’eqchi’ Maya and the discursive and social particularities of one Q’eqchi’-speaking village in particular. Before I begin my analysis, then, I want to sketch the linguistic and ethnographic context in which I worked. Q’eqchi’ is a language in the Kichean branch of the Mayan family, spoken by some 360,000 speakers in Guatemala (in the departments of Alta Verapaz, Izabel, and Peten) and Belize (Kaufman 1974, Stewart 1980).

3 Lin´ guistically, Q’eqchi’ is relatively well described: scholars such as Berinstein (1985), Sedat (1955), Stewart (1980), Stoll (1896), and Chen Cao et al. (1997) have discussed its syntax, morphology, phonology, and lexicon, and I have detailed various morphosyntactic forms (encoding grammatical categories such as mood, status, evidentiality, taxis, and inalienable possession) as they intersect with sociocultural values and contextual features and as they illuminate local modes of personhood (Kockelman 3. Typologically, Q’eqchi’ is a morphologically ergative, head-marking language. In Q’eqchi’, vowel length (signaled by doubling letters) is phonemic; /k/ and /q/ are velar and uvular plosives, respectively, and /x/ and /j/ are palato-alveolar and velar fricatives, respectively. All other phonemes have their standard IPA values.

2002, 2003a, b). This article is therefore part of a larger project in which I examine how intentional and evaluative stances are encoded in natural languages and the relations that such stances bear to local modes of subjectivity. Alta Verapaz, the original center of the Q’eqchi’-speaking people who still make up the majority of its population, has had a unusual history even by Guatemalan standards. In 1537, after the Spanish crown had failed to conquer the indigenous peoples living there, the Dominican Friar Bartolome de Las Casas was permitted to ´ pacify the area through religious methods. Having succeeded, he changed the name of the area from Tezulutlan (Land of War) to Verapaz (True Peace), and the Dominicans were granted full control over the area—the state banning secular immigration, removing all military colonies, and nullifying previous land grants. In this way, for almost 300 years the area remained an isolated enclave, relatively protected by the paternalism of the church in comparison with other parts of Guatemala (King 1974, Sapper 1985).

This ended abruptly in the late 1800s, however, with the advent of coffee growing, liberal reforms, and the influx of Europeans (Cambranes 1985, Wagner 1996). Divested of their land and forced to work on coffee plantations, the Q’eqchi’ began migrating north into the unpopulated lowland forests of the Peten ´ and Belize (Adams 1965, Carter 1969, Howard 1975, Kockelman 1999, Pedroni 1991, Saa Vidal 1979, Schwartz 1990, Wilk 1991). In the past 40 years this migration has been fueled by a civil war that has ravaged the Guatemalan countryside, with the Q’eqchi’ fleeing not just scarce resources and labor quotas but also their own nation’s soldiers—often forcibly conscripted speakers of other Mayan languages (Carmack 1988, IWGIA 1978, Wilson 1995).

As a consequence, the past century has seen the Q’eqchi’ population spread from Alta Verapaz to the Peten and finally to Belize, Mexico, and even the ´ United States. Indeed, although only the fourth largest of some 24 Mayan languages, Q’eqchi’ is thought to have the largest percentage of monolinguals, and the ethnic group is Guatemala’s fastest-growing and most geographically extensive (Kaufman 1974, Stewart 1980). The two key ethnographies of Q’eqchi’-speakers have been written by Wilk (1991) and Wilson (1995), the former treating household ecology in Belize and the latter upheavals in village life and identity at the height of the civil war in highland Guatemala during the 1980s.

In addition to these monographs, there are also a number of dissertations and articles on the history (King 1974, Sapper 1985, Wagner 1996), ecology (Carter 1969, Secaira 1992, Wilson 1972), and migration (Adams 1965, Howard 1975, Pedroni 1991) of Q’eqchi’-speaking people. The data for this article are based on almost two years of ethnographic and linguistic fieldwork among speakers of Q’eqchi’, most of it in Ch’inahab, a village of some 80 families (around 650 people) in the municipality of San Juan Chamelco, in the department of Alta Verapaz. At an altitude of approximately 2,400 m, Ch’inahab is one of the highest villages in this area, with an annual precipitation of more than 2,000 mm. It is also one of the most remote, access to the closest road requiring a three-hour hike down a steep and muddy single-track trail.

Its relatively high altitude and remote location provide the perfect setting for cloud forest, and such a cloud forest provides the perfect setting for the resplendent quetzal, being home to what is thought to be the highest density of such birds in the world. Because of the existence of the quetzal and the cloud forest in which it makes its home, Ch’inahab has been the site of a successful eco-tourism project the conditions and consequences of which are detailed in my dissertation (Kockelman 2002). While the majority of villagers in Ch’inahab are monolingual speakers of Q’eqchi’, some men who have served time in the army or worked as itinerant traders speak some Spanish.

All the villagers are Catholic. Ch’inahab is divided by a mountain peak with dwellings on both of its sides and in the surrounding valleys. It takes about 45 minutes to hike across the village. At one end there is a biological station kept by the eco-tourism project and used sporadically by European ecologists, and at the other there is a Catholic church and a cemetery. In the center there is a small store, a school for primary and secondary grades, and a soccer field.

The surrounding landscape is cloud forest giving way to scattered house sites, agricultural parcels, pasture, and fields now fallow. All villagers engage in corn-based, or milpa, agriculture, but very few have enough land to fulfill all of their subsistence needs.4 For this reason, many women in the village are dedicated to chicken husbandry, most men in the village engage in seasonal labor on plantations (up to five months a year in some cases), and many families engage in itinerant trade (women weaving baskets and textiles for the men to sell) and eco-tourism (the women hosting tourists and the men guiding them). Dwelling sites often contain a scattering of houses in which reside an older couple and their married sons, all of whom share a water source and a pasture.

The individual families themselves often have two houses, a relatively traditional thatched-roof house in which the family cooks and sleeps and a relatively new house with a tin roof in which they host festivals and in which older children and ecotourists may sleep. Because of eco-tourism and the influx of money and strangers that it brings, there has been an increase in the construction of such tin-roofed houses, and, as will be seen, many of my examples of interjections come from such construction contexts. My data on the use of interjections among villagers in Ch’inahab comes from 14 months of fieldwork carried out between 1998 and 2001.

The data collection con4. Before 1968, what is now Ch’inahab was owned by the owner of a plantation. Q’eqchi’-speakers who lived in the village of Popobaj (located to the south of and lower than Ch’inahab) were permitted to make their milpa in this area in exchange for two weeks of labor per month on the finca (Secaira 1992:20). Only in 1968, when a group of villagers got together to form a land acquisition committee, were some 15 caballerıas (678 ha) of land purchased from the owner ´ for 4,200 quetzals (US$4,200). This land, while legally owned by the entire community, was divided among the original 33 villagers as a function of their original contributions.


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 9 November 2016

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