Brown, P. (2002). Everyone has to lie in Tzeltal. In S. Blum-Kulka, & C. E. Snow (Eds.), Talking to adults: The contribution of multiparty discourse to language acquisition (pp. 241-275). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
In a famous paper Harvey Sacks (1974) argued that the sequential properties of greeting conventions, as well as those governing the flow of information, mean that 'everyone has to lie'. In this paper I show this dictum to be equally true in the Tzeltal Mayan community of Tenejapa, in southern Mexico, but for somewhat different reasons. The phenomenon of interest is the practice of routine fearsome threats to small children. Based on a longitudinal corpus of videotaped and tape-recorded naturally-occurring interaction between caregivers and children in five Tzeltal families, the study examines sequences of Tzeltal caregivers' speech aimed at controlling the children's behaviour and analyzes the children's developing pragmatic skills in handling such controlling utterances, from prelinguistic infants to age five and over. Infants in this society are considered to be vulnerable, easily scared or shocked into losing their 'souls', and therefore at all costs to be protected and hidden from outsiders and other dangers. Nonetheless, the chief form of control (aside from physically removing a child from danger) is to threaten, saying things like "Don't do that, or I'll take you to the clinic for an injection," These overt scare-threats - rarely actually realized - lead Tzeltal children by the age of 2;6 to 3;0 to the understanding that speech does not necessarily convey true propositions, and to a sensitivity to the underlying motivations for utterances distinct from their literal meaning. By age 4;0 children perform the same role to their younger siblings;they also begin to use more subtle non-true (e.g. ironic) utterances. The caretaker practice described here is related to adult norms of social lying, to the sociocultural context of constraints on information flow, social control through gossip, and the different notion of 'truth' that arises in the context of non-verifiability characteristic of a small-scale nonliterate society.