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Centeredness as a cultural and grammatical theme in Maya-Mam

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Collins, W. M. (2005). Centeredness as a cultural and grammatical theme in Maya-Mam. PhD Thesis, Univ., Columbus.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-0012-7811-4
In this dissertation, I look at selected Maya-Mam anthropological and linguistic data and suggest that they provide evidence that there exist overlapping cultural and grammatical themes that are salient to Mam speakers. The data used in this study were gathered largely via ethnographic methods based on participant observation over my twenty-five year relationship with the Mam people of Comitancillo, a town of 60,000 in Guatemala’s Western Highlands. For twelve of those years, my family and I lived among the Mam, participating with them in the cultural milieu of daily life. In order to help shed light on the general relationship between language and culture, I discuss the key Mayan cultural value of centeredness and I show how this value is a pervasive organizing principle in Mayan thought, cosmology, and daily living, a value called upon by the Mam in their daily lives to regulate and explain behavior. Indeed, I suggest that centeredness is a cultural theme, a recurring cultural value which supersedes social differences, and which is defined for cultural groups as a whole (England, 1978). I show how the Mam understanding of issues as disparate as homestead construction, the town central plaza, historical Mayan religious practice, Christian conversion, health concerns, the importance of the numbers two and four, the notions of agreement and forgiveness, child discipline, and moral stance are all instantiations of this basic underlying principle. I also suggest that centeredness, in addition to being a pervasive Mam cultural principle, is also a grammatical theme, what Hale calls a “lexico-semantic…motif which functions as an integral component in a grammar” (1986: 234). This grammatical theme is instantiated in large measure, by the formal notion of origo, the “space-time-social centre” of the world (Levinson, 1983, 64). I show that the idea of spatial centeredness (or recenteredness (Hanks, 1990)) as a grammatical theme is evidenced in the Mam lexicon, as well as in aspects of the morphology, syntax and narrative discourse structure of naturally occurring Mam texts. These Mam data show that language and culture are interconstitutive (Enfield, 2000), structured and structuring cultural practice via the grammatical structures habitually employed.