Doctoral Dissertation Research: Seri (SEI) Landscape Classification and Spatial Reference
Juergen Bohnemeyer Principal Investigator
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This research project examines how the Seri people of Sonora, Mexico, categorize the landscape in which they live through their language. Under the supervision of Dr. Juergen Bohnemeyer and Dr. David Mark, Carolyn O'Meara will carry out a survey of parts of the Seri area selected in view of their geomorphologic and ecological diversity. She will record route descriptions that use land and water forms as natural landmarks and isolate landscape terms on the basis of a set of diagnostics derived from a detailed examination of the grammar of spatial reference in Seri. This work will be complemented by studies of landscape-related cultural practices (in particular, fishing and gathering expeditions) and the recording of biographical and local history narratives.<br/><br/>The study of the classification of land and water forms such as mountains, hills, valleys, rivers, and lakes and natural assemblages of vegetation is a new field of study in linguistics and cultural anthropology. The overarching research question is to what extent the classification of such entities reflects universal principles of cognition and to what extent it varies with language and culture, reflecting, for example, differences in the ways in which different cultures make use of their natural environment. Seri makes for a fascinating case study in this domain. The territory is highly diverse, including seashore, islands, and mangroves as well as mountainous and desert areas. The Seri people practiced hunting and gathering well into the 20th century and as such have particularly intimate knowledge of this richly varied landscape. But Seri is an endangered language, and due to economic changes, traditional knowledge of the landscape is rapidly becoming obsolete. The documentation of Seri landscape terminology provides future generations of Seri with lasting access to the ways of their ancestors. At the same time, the findings of this study will bear directly on theoretical issues such as the ontological properties and individuation of land and water forms.<br/><br/>This dissertation research is being supported by the Programs in Linguistics, Cultural Anthropology and Geography & Regional Science.