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Hello and welcome, from Eve Danziger, Professor of linguistic anthropology at the University of Virginia. You can access a fuller list of my publications, my CV, and other materials at my professional website. Also, please visit the programs that I am affiliated with: Cognitive Science Program, and the Linguistics Program. You may contact me directly by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Although I have lived and worked most of my life in Europe and North America, the very first languages that I spoke were Indonesian and Javanese. Unfortunately I don't speak those languages now -- we left Indonesia when I was still very young. But I've always wondered whether speaking them into adulthood would have made the world seem like a different place to me. I took that question into my working life, and became a linguistic anthropologist who studies, writes and teaches about the principle of linguistic relativity. This principle starts from the obvious facts that (1) there is usually more than one way to think about any problem, and (2) the particular approach that a person takes depends on his or her past experience. Linguistic relativity proposes that speaking a particular language is one of the kinds of experience that is relevant to selecting strategies in problem-solving. For example, if your language obliges you to state the cardinal direction (north south east west) every time you talk about something that moves, you might be particularly good at solving spatial problems. Speaking a particular language could make some kinds of strategies and solutions seem more natural than others, even on an unconscious level. This would mean that we could learn about alternative ways of approaching the external world by studying and learning other languages. My publications in the field of linguistic relativity make use of methods from linguistics, cognitive science and ethnography, and include studies of kinship, spatial representation, and spontaneous gesture.
My interest in linguistic relativity has prompted me to learn as much as I can about a language that is very different from the languages of Europe: the Mopan Maya language and its relatives in the Mayan language family. These are living Native American languages spoken in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Today's speakers are descendants of the famous Ancient Maya who left their pyramids and hieroglyphic inscriptions all over the same territory. I have an ongoing interest in the primary grammatical description of Mopan and its relatives, and I am also active in exploring the contribution that linguistics can make to the reconstruction of Mesoamerican prehistory.
One of the most interesting things that I have learned from traditional Mopan speakers is that, for them, speech has a direct effect on the cosmos, regardless of what the speaker may think, intend or ‘mean’ as he or she speaks. Profound questions about the nature of representation, and about the cultural universality of its mechanisms, arise from this fact. The comparative study of cultural philosophies of language becomes another way in to discovering the effects of culture on the human mind. Once we know that mentalism is not a necessary component for a cultural philosophy of language, for example, we can ask what are the historical factors (Christianity? literacy? social mobility?) that have led to the development of mentalist philosophies where they do exist. We can also ask how people in different parts of the world deal with the ambivalent possibilities for well-intentioned falsehood in all sorts of artistic and social domains. We can in the end, and returning to the question of linguistic relativity from a new perspective, investigate the possibility that different philosophies of language and/ or mind may have consequences for the psychological development of individuals. These and related questions constitute one of the most active areas of my current research.