AbstractClassroom training for attention to utterance recipients’ likely states of knowledge is useful in order to compensate for the situations of reduced co-presence that characterize literate communication at a distance. But many aspects of the Mopan (Mayan) philosophy of language resonate instead with non-schooled practices of Mopan socialization that support oral and not literate transmission of knowledge. In Mopan, everyday speech and action are evaluated with reference to a more-than-human moral order in which what counts is fidelity to ancestral prescriptions rather than to one’s own or others’ momentary mental states. Such cultural differences in beliefs about the (non-)importance of mental states are known to enter into institutionalized moralities such as those governing legal decisions or religious obligations. At the same time, many unconscious and embodied aspects of meaning-making in interaction are clearly conducted without apparent input from differing cultural beliefs. The present study shows how cultural attitudes about meaning-making play out at a level intermediate between these two apparently contradictory extremes. Mopan farmers and US English university students engaged with an interactional matching task in which visual common ground is occluded and speakers must describe a photograph in such a way that the listener succeeds in picking out that very photograph from among a set of similar ones. Schooled US English participants rarely describe any attributes of the photos other than their minimum distinguishing features, and they almost always mention those features. In contrast, Mopan participants often construe the interactional task as one that requires accurate and complete description of single items one at a time, rather than requiring identification of key attributes that will uniquely identify the target referent in its current context to a particular listener. Significant differences in strategic approaches to real-time construction of conversational reference is thus shown to correspond to contrasting cultural belief systems about the making of meaning, themselves related to literate versus oral modes of knowledge transmission.
Cognitive Semiotics – de Gruyter
Published: May 30, 2018
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