Up, down, and across the land: Landscape terms and place names in Tzeltal
The Tzeltal language is spoken in a mountainous region of southern Mexico by some 280,000 Mayan corn farmers. This paper focuses on landscape and place vocabulary in the Tzeltal municipio of Tenejapa, where speakers use an absolute system of spatial reckoning based on the overall uphill (southward)/downhill (northward) slope of the land. The paper examines the formal and functional properties of the Tenejapa Tzeltal vocabulary labelling features of the local landscape and relates it to spatial vocabulary for describing locative relations, including the uphill/downhill axis for spatial reckoning as well as body part terms for specifying parts of locative grounds. I then examine the local place names, discuss their semantic and morphosyntactic properties, and relate them to the landscape vocabulary, to spatial vocabulary, and also to cultural narratives about events associated with particular places. I conclude with some observations on the determinants of landscape and place terminology in Tzeltal, and what this vocabulary and how it is used reveal about the conceptualization of landscape and places.
Publication typeJournal article