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“Cultural” Concepts and the Language‐Culture Nexus

Michael Silverstein
Current Anthropology
Vol. 45, No. 5 (December 2004), pp. 621-652
DOI: 10.1086/423971
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/423971
Page Count: 32
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“Cultural” Concepts and the Language‐Culture Nexus
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Abstract

Events of language use mediate human sociality. Such semiotic occasions develop, sustain, or transform at least part—some have argued the greater part—of people's conceptualizations of their universe. Reserving the term cultural concepts for such sociocentric aspects of human cognition, this article sketches linguistic anthropology's methods for discovering truly cultural conceptualizations, illustrated at the polar extremes of ritual efficacy (Christianity's Eucharistic liturgy) and of everyday conversational language games. Knowledge schemata structuring cultural concepts, here termed ‐onomic knowledge, turn out to be “in play” in interaction, made relevant to it as interactants use verbal and perilinguistic signs in the work of aligning as relationally identifiable kinds of persons. In interactional experience, ‐onomic knowledge anchoring cultural concepts is always implicit and is even sometimes part of largely abstract cultural patterns only indirectly experienceable by people such as the cultural “edibility” of fauna in Thai villagers' cultural concept invoked by use of terms denoting animals. Furthermore, beyond unique micro‐contextual occasions of interaction, one discerns a macro‐sociology of ‐onomic knowledge. Privileged ritual sites of usage anchor such a multiplex social formation; their emanations constitute power—frequently politicoeconomic— to warrant or license usage of particular verbal forms (e.g., American English “wine‐talk” register) with particular meanings germane to certain interested ends of self‐ and other‐alignment, closing the circle of analysis.

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