Color me bitter: Crossmodal compounding in Tzeltal perception words

Brown, P. (2011). Color me bitter: Crossmodal compounding in Tzeltal perception words. The Senses & Society, 6(1), 106-116. doi:10.2752/174589311X12893982233957.
Within a given language and culture, distinct sensory modalities are often given differential linguistic treatment in ways reflecting cultural ideas about, and uses for, the senses. This article reports on sensory expressions in the Mayan language Tzeltal, spoken in southeastern Mexico. Drawing both on data derived from Tzeltal consultants’ responses to standardized sensory elicitation stimuli and on sensory descriptions produced in more natural contexts, I examine words characterizing sensations in the domains of color and taste. In just these two domains, a limited set of basic terms along with productive word-formation processes of compounding and reduplication are used in analogous ways to produce words that distinguish particular complex sensations or gestalts: e.g. in the color domain, yax-boj-boj (yax ‘grue’ + boj ‘cut’), of mouth stained green from eating green vegetables, or, in the taste domain, chi’-pik-pik (chi’ ‘sweet/salty’ + pik ‘touch’) of a slightly prickly salty taste. I relate the semantics of crossmodal compounds to material technologies involving color and taste (weaving, food production), and to ideas about “hot”/“cold” categories, which provide a cultural rationale for eating practices and medical interventions. I argue that language plays a role in promoting crossmodal associations, resulting in a (partially) culture-specific construction of sensory experience.
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