Linguistics and Interjections

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C u r r e n t A n t h r o p o l o g y Volume 44, Number 4, August–October 2003 2003 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved 0011-3204/2003/4404-0002$3.00

The Meanings of Interjections in Q’eqchi’ Maya
From Emotive Reaction to Social and Discursive Action1 by Paul Kockelman

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. []). 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]...
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