Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Word Avoidance as a Relation-Making Act: A Paradigm for Analysis of Name Utterance Taboos

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Word Avoidance as a Relation-Making Act: A Paradigm for Analysis of Name Utterance Taboos

Article excerpt

Abstract

This article outlines several layers of the relation-making indexicality of name avoidance in a New Guinea society. These layers include: avoidance's paradoxical logic of achieving relational intensification through relational restraint; the enthusiasm with which people seize on avoidance to create or define relations anew; the ways avoidance extends social involvement beyond spaces and times of face-to-face copresence; the emergence of micro-communities of common alignment around specific avoidances; and speakers' active engagement with powers of transgressing avoidance norms. I also suggest that the efficacy of avoidance in interaction can usefully be understood as similar to a religious logic of sacrifice. [Keywords: Name avoidance, indexicality, transgression, sacrifice, Korowai of West Papua]

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Name avoidance practices are among the most frequently mentioned sociolinguistic phenomena in world ethnography because they are cross-culturally widespread and are a focus of strong reflexive interest on the part of people who practice them. Explicit rules of interactional avoidance more generally are a classic topic of anthropological analysis, especially avoidance between affines. In this article, I outline a possible paradigmatic orientation for studying personal name avoidances. While the proposed framework builds synthetically on existing literature about avoidance, and is semiotic and pragmatic in overall assumptions, I present the theory mainly through the ethnographic case of name avoidance practices upheld by Korowai speakers of West Papua, Indonesia.

The core theoretical theme that emerges from examination of Korowai name avoidances is that observing word taboos is relationally constitutive. Avoidance indexes attentive restraint toward an other, and thus creates intensified relatedness through that restraint. Beyond this core pattern of intensification through restraint, there are several further social layers to how avoidance indexically creates relational qualities that I also trace out here. One layer is people's use of avoidance and its subtle variations to create new bonds, or to underline and reshape existing ones. Another layer is avoidance's effects of extending the spacetime of people's presence to each other, beyond direct bodily co-presence. A further layer to avoidance's relational force lies in the diverse ways that local social networks come into existence around common avoidance alignments toward third parties. And a final important layer lies in the myriad social potentials of performative breaking of an avoidance norm.

Four Name Avoidance Genres

Speakers of Korowai dialects number about 4,000 people and live spread out across 500 square miles of lowland forest, just south of New Guinea's highland mountain chain and about 110 miles inland from the Asmat coast to the southwest. Korowai make their livelihoods by banana gardening, sago processing, fishing, and hunting. Around 1980, Dutch missionaries and their Papuan assistants became the first radical foreigners to start regularly interacting with Korowai in their own lands. Since the early 1990s, Korowai have become famous in the international mass media for their treehouse architecture, and for being-as the promotional materials say-a "Stone Age" people whom Westerners can visit in the present day. While Indonesian migrants and state officials have until now remained a generally distant presence in Korowai lives, Korowai themselves have become very actively oriented toward the new cash economy of tourism work and imported commodities, and toward the possibility of socioeconomic advancement through their children's Indonesian-language schooling (see Stasch 2007 on incipient bilingualism generally).

Amidst these changes, Korowai lives also continue to be strongly organized around ownership of discrete, large patches of the forest landscape by small patriclan groups, and around people's strong senses of belonging in relation to their particular lands. …

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