Of Words and Fog: Linguistic Relativity and Amerindian Ontology

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This article explores the role of analogies derived from language in the ethnographic description and analysis of non-Western ontologies. Focusing in particular on the rhetorical analogy of subject and object central to descriptions of Amerindian perspectival ontologies, I suggest that such analogies may well obscure as much as they reveal. Utilizing an account of ontological transformation drawn from my own research among the Mapuche of southern Chile, I suggest that the analogy of subject and object suggests to speakers of European languages a radical discontinuity and therefore obscures the subtleties of the transformation at stake. Through the presentation of alternative grammatical paradigms present in Amerindian languages themselves, I suggest that grammars necessarily contain implicit ontologies which, when used analogically to represent non-linguistic phenomena, may seriously distort the ethnographic data they are intended to clarify.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)247-263
Number of pages17
JournalAnthropological Theory
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2010


  • Amerindian
  • analogy
  • linguistic relativity
  • Mapuche
  • ontology
  • perspectivism
  • Benjamin Whorf


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