Upright posture and the meaning of meronymy: A synthesis of metaphoric and analytic accounts

Cognitive Semiotics 11 (1):1-18 (2018)
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Cross-linguistic strategies for mapping lexical and spatial relations from body partonym systems to external object meronymies (as in English ‘table leg’, ‘mountain face’) have attracted substantial research and debate over the past three decades. Due to the systematic mappings, lexical productivity and geometric complexities of body-based meronymies found in many Mesoamerican languages, the region has become focal for these discussions, prominently including contrastive accounts of the phenomenon in Zapotec and Tzeltal, leading researchers to question whether such systems should be explained as global metaphorical mappings from bodily source to target holonym or as vector mappings of shape and axis generated “algorithmically”. I propose a synthesis of these accounts in this paper by drawing on the species-specific cognitive affordances of human upright posture grounded in the reorganization of the anatomical planes, with a special emphasis on antisymmetrical relations that emerge between arm-leg and face-groin antinomies cross-culturally. Whereas Levinson argues that the internal geometry of objects “stripped of their bodily associations” (1994: 821) is sufficient to account for Tzeltal meronymy, making metaphorical explanations entirely unnecessary, I propose a more powerful, elegant explanation of Tzeltal meronymic mapping that affirms both the geometric-analytic and the global-metaphorical nature of Tzeltal meaning construal. I do this by demonstrating that the “algorithm” in question arises from the phenomenology of movement and correlative body memories—an experiential ground which generates a culturally selected pair of inverse contrastive paradigm sets with marked and unmarked membership emerging antithetically relative to the transverse anatomical plane. These relations are then selected diagrammatically for the classification of object orientations according to systematic geometric iconicities. Results not only serve to clarify the case in question but also point to the relatively untapped potential that upright posture holds for theorizing the emergence of human cognition, highlighting in the process the nature, origins and theoretical validity of markedness and double scope conceptual integration.

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Jamin Pelkey
Toronto Metropolitan University


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