Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Mystifying Rationale of Mesoamerican Directions – Part XI

Continuing with Brant A. Gardner’s rationale of John L. Sorenson’s skewed Land of Promise, along with our responses.
Gardner: Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, provides some interesting background on this terminological problem. His emphasis was on understanding how the brain encodes meaning rather than anything to do with geography, but the example is informative…Levinson’s group examined Tzeltal, a language spoken in the Chiapas region of Mexico…Tzeltal has no general words for “left” or “right.” The closest it has is terms for the left or right arm or leg, but the terms are rarely used to refer to the left side of an object, table, or room. Instead the Tzeltal speakers describe spatial arrangements relative to the mountain slope that dominates their villages. The spatial vocabulary of Tzeltal includes words that mean “up-the-slope” (which is roughly southward), “down-the-slope” (roughly northward), and “across-the-slope.” These coordinates are used not just when traipsing up and down the mountain but also when on flat terrain or indoors, and even when describing the arrangements of small objects. According to Levinson, Tzeltal speakers say “The spoon is downslope of the teacup,” not “The spoon is on the right of the teacup.”
Response: First, Parker (left) also wrote: “By examining our words, we can learn a lot about who we are.” It is interesting he did not say “what we think, or what guides us, or how we see the world.” Obviously, if one wants to wade through this linguistic work, they might find a lack of relationship to the idea under discussion here. Second, having spent many years training professional people who were visiting or being transferred from one culture in one part of the globe to another culture in another part of the world. As an example, in Afghanistant and all Muslim countries, eat your food, gesture, and wave with your right hand, not your left, which is considered unclean. Though a spatial appendage, it had nothing to do with directions, spatial thinking, or linguistics—it was a hygiene matter and paramount in their thinking and actions. Many Americans who thought our training was ridiculous learned the hard way to avoid things such as using the “left” hand or one of hundreds of other social graces when in country. While crossing your legs in a figure four as Americans tend to do, it is offensive to many foreign countries to show the soul of your foot (cross legs as women do with the soul pointing downward).
Left: Motioning “come here” in most parts of the world; Motioning “come here” in China, Japan, and Peru

Such other areas are like in China, if you clean your plate to finish a meal, the host will be offended, thinking you didn’t get enough food; in Afghanistan and India, if you clean your plate, it will be filled again; but in Kenya and Germany, if you leave a little food on your plate, it suggests you didn’t like the food. Or in Germany, the only food to eat with your fingers and not utensils is bread, any other, including pizza and fries, is offensive. In Vietnam, pointing with one finger is offensive (you must point with your entire hand), and in India, one is expected to refuse a first offer—it will be offered again.
    In Pakistan, arrive about 15 minute after the scheduled start time of a meal and up to one hour after the start of a party; but in Denmark, you are expected to be punctual at all times. In Libya, Slovakia, and Norway, greet a colleague with a handshake, and in Russia, never shake hands or conduct business over a threshold (step all the way in or all the way out). In Vietnam, do not touch someone’s head or shoulder, and do not pass things over a person’s head.
    Almost every culture has its taboos and acceptances that foreigners find important to learn if they are going to conduct business there, or just get along socially. None are directional factors and none deal with cardinal compass directions. Gardner here, as Mesoamericanists often do, is simply clouding the issue and trying to sell us his point of view.
Gardner: “We should not assume that Tzeltal speakers don’t understand right and left. They certainly do. They simply use different terminology to describe those spatial relationships.”
Response: The thing about translating words is an understanding of the meaning of the words to be translated. As an example, we do not know that Reformed Egyptian has words “left” and “right.” They may have words that are used for this, which may be no different than the Tzeltal, or many of the cultures we used to prep people to understand in their long-term in-country assignments. After all, when linguists assign meanings to words of aboriginal cultures, it is not always possible to know the actual “meaning” of words used from a “western” or “English” translation process. 
Take any word among the 88+ different languages and it will have 80 or more different spellings and pronunciations—however, in all cases it will have the same meaning of a directional bearing

At the same time, some words will have slightly different word transfer etymology, yet still project the same meaning. Take the word “boobook” in Australian aboriginal language (which brings us kangaroo and boomerang) can be translated as “owl.” Yet, it is not a correct translation, for the name comes from the two-tone sound a certain owl makes, but not every owl makes the sound. Still, in Australian, using “boobook” for “owl” would be understood. Owl could also be “Goor-goor-da,” “Melin-de-ye,” and “Koor-koo,” equally understood generally as “owl,” unless you are working in taxonomy. Another word in indigenous Australian is “bombora,” which can be translated as “sea waves,”” submerged rock shelf“ or “reef,” or “sand bank.” It can also mean “rapids” in a river, or where the “surf breaks” some distance from shore. However, it is almost solely used in surfing and made popular by “Bombora-The Story of Australian Surfing,” and includes numerous “surfing” slang meanings.
    Or take the Egyptian words for north and south. Literally, the image or character for south is a boat “sailing up river,” and for north is a boat with sail furled, “sailing down river,” based on the narrow strip of habitation along the Nile in ancient times. Yet, they still meant the same thing as our north and south. The same is true of Gardner’s example of the Tzeltal “up” “down” and “across” the slope. Even those words convey other than directions to an unknowing person, they have the same meaning as we have in using north and south and across (east and west). That is, they rely heavily for an absolute frame of reference, on the overall slope of the land, distinguishing an “uphill/downhill” axis oriented from south to north, and an orthogonal “crossways” axis (sunrise-sunset) on the basis of which objects at all distances are located. As a result, when a Tzeltan uses the expression uphill, he means north; if he uses downhill, he means south, and also has reference words lok’ib k’aal for east or sunrise, and malib k’aal for west, or sunset (Penelope Brown, “Time and Space in Tzeltal: Is the Future Uphill?” Frontiers in Psychology, Frontier Media SA, July 9, 2012)
In this, the Tzeltal are no different than almost any other people in expressing understanding—the meaning of words and gestures are basically the same, though the words and gestures are unique to them. After all, Tzeltal, which is also known as Ts'eltal, is closely related to Tzotzil and the two languages form the Tzeltalan branch of the Cholan-Tzaltalan sub-branch of the Ch'ol Mayan languages. In all these languages, certain words mean what other languages mean with their corresponding words, though the words are different. As an example, there are several Mayan languages, such as Achi, Aguacateco, Akatek, Ch’ol, Chorti, Huasteco, Ixil, Kaqchikel, Ki'che', Lacandon, Mam, Q’anjob’al, Q'eqchi', Tojolabal, Tsotsil, Tzeltal, Tz'utujil, Yucatec Maya. Words are not all the same between them, but there are corresponding meanings among their different words.
    According to Widdowson and Howard in Approaches to Aboriginal Education in anada: Searching for Solutions, (2008), another very serious problem, seldom understood, let alone included by the layman in discussing translation, is what is called “back translation.” This occurs when an aboriginal language is translated into, say French or German, and then later, back-translated into English, that is, from aboriginal to French and then from French into English.
    The point is, to say that an aboriginal language has no equivalent word for left or right may well be correct, but such wide-sweeping assertions of reasoning can often be shown to have other answers and meanings.
    A search in one Canadian aboriginal language of the spatial word “left,” does not produce a spatial interpretation or meaning, rather, it is an action: “eskutaski,” meaning something left and not eaten; while “eskutk,” means it was left for someone else to eat. On the other hand, and this is important, the word “right” brings us “iljo’qwa’sik,” meaning “to right itself,” such as a vessel in the water, as well as the spatial “inaqn,” meaning right hand.” Yet, when looking for “left hand,” it gives us the same spatial meaning of “right hand,” “grasp with the right hand,” with no spatial meaning of “left.” The closest spatial meaning is “turns it wrong side out,” for “left” being the “wrong side,” which is quite common in many languages for reasons unassociated with space, but more with right and wrong, good and evil, or acceptable and non-acceptable.
(See the next post, “The Mystifying Rationale of Mesoamerican Directions – Part XII,” and the continuation of Gardner’s rationale of Sorenson’s skewed Land of Promise, and the various meanings of words in other cultures, along with our responses)

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