Dr. Eve Danziger, Linguist and Anthropologist

Dr. Eve Danzinger

left-arrow_50Previous portrait Dr. Eve Danziger, Professor
Department Chair, Anthropology
College & Graduate School of Arts & Sciences
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My research investigates the extent to which the categories of individual thought are shaped by those of socially shared but culturally-particular convention and culture, most especially by the categories of language structure. A time-honored anthropological proposal (Whorf 1940) argues that the differing structures of languages around the world may provide their users with differing default frameworks for thought. The Whorfian claim offers directions for many avenues of scientific and intellectual exploration, and it proposes strategies for increased appreciation for diversity in today’s culturally complex world. But the proposal has, until recent years, been philosophically unpopular. Only around the turn of the millennium did researchers return to serious empirical investigation of this claim. I was a participant in the work that turned this intellectual tide (see Pederson et al. 1998), and as a mature researcher I continue to consider myself a ‘neo-Whorfian’, drawing on my expertise in the language and culture of the Mopan Maya of Eastern Central America to discover empirical evidence that is relevant to the effects of language on thought. This work positions me at the interface of three academic disciplines: linguistic anthropology, cognitive science, and linguistics proper.

Hear the Wild Woman story here


Dr. Danziger conducts field research on the Mopan Maya language of Central America. This language is one of two Mayan subfamilies of languages that are directly associated with Classic Maya of antiquity and native to Belize and Guatemala. They are not well documented. Hear a portion of the Wild Woman story told by a community elder; in this clip the man’s wife has sent him to get help from a woodpecker so they can escape from the wife’s parents’ house. A summary of the story is below.

A hunter went to the woods every day, but he couldn’t find anything to hunt. He was about to give up when, one day, he met a woman in the woods. He told her he couldn’t find anything to hunt, so she proposed a deal – she would find meat for him if he brought her some salt. He agreed, and so she went off and brought back quite a lot of meat – there was so much that he couldn’t carry it, so she enchanted some sticks to carry it to his village for him. He sold it all in the village and bought salt for her. They made the exchange a couple of times. One day, the woman said she wanted to take him back to her own village. He was reluctant, but he knew she would be able to force him to follow her if he resisted, so he went with her.

When they arrived in her village, all the people there surrounded him and started to lick him because his skin was nice and salty. The woman shooed them away. She took him to her parents’ house and made him her husband. They all lived in the house together, but it was a small house and her parents were getting restless and jealous of the young couple. One day, she overheard them conspiring to eat her and her new husband. Her parents were going to have them prepare a fire and a pot, then cook them and eat them right there. But the woman outsmarted her parents. When they told her and her husband to gather the wood and water for cooking, she got a woodpecker to distract them, and she and her husband quickly slipped away. They traveled through the mountains and lakes and settled in a town far away from the woman’s evil parents and lived together.


My field research has involved the Mopan Maya language of Central America. My dissertation work at the University of Pennsylvania investigated the psychological reality of distinctive Mopan uses and understandings of words for family relationships (Danziger 2001). In Mopan, a deep respect for age as the vehicle of knowledge motivates a lexical distinction between “same age group” and “different age group” relationships, rather than those of strict genealogical calculation (for example, Mopan has separate words for older brother and younger brother, but uses the same word for older brother and uncle). Using data from Mopan school-age children, I was able to show that these distinctive lexical categories of Mopan were not understood merely as metaphors, but had psychological reality in their own right for Mopan speakers. After gaining the Ph.D., I maintained some activity in kinship research (Danziger 2005, 2013), but have also moved on to other domains where the motivating questions of language and thought could be more readily operationalized.

As a post-doc with the Cognitive Anthropology Research Group of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Psycholinguistics, I first began working on issues of spatial representation in thought and speech. I participated with other researchers in drawing out the cognitive implications of the fact that in many languages, spatial relationships are not expressed using concepts of left and right sides of the body. Instead, some languages use cardinal direction (north south etc.) or environmentally anchored terms (upstream, downwind etc.) even at small scales. Thanks to this research, we now know that these linguistic differences have parallels in default spatial problem solving (Pederson et al 1998). After leaving the MPI and taking up my current position as a professor at the University of Virginia, I further developed the theoretical insight that the speaker’s own spatial and social positioning is critically important in distinguishing among the different types of spatial expressions that may have effects on thought (Danziger 2010b).

In my ongoing work as a University of Virginia professor, I have had the opportunity to develop yet another line of research relevant into cultural diversity in language and thought. Mopan people generally prefer to evaluate everyday speech and action in terms of fidelity to cosmic prescriptions rather than in terms of actors’ own momentary and error-prone mental states. For example, false utterances are judged by Mopan as cases of blameworthy ‘lying’ (tus), even when it is known that speakers are merely mistaken rather than deliberately malevolent (Danziger 2010a). This attitude toward speaker intentionality is similar, though not identical, to attitudes that are reported from other parts of the non-Western world (e.g. Robbins and Rumsey 2008). The future of my research in this direction aims to discover what differences – if any – cultural philosophies make to language usage, and how such differences in usage might make their way into the Whorfian calculus. In general, the areas where such beliefs make the most difference to behavior are those in which issues of responsibility, blame, or exceptional credit are at stake (Danziger 2014).

Most recently, I have been working to follow up the observation (Danziger 2008) that the Mopan language does not devote distinct grammatical classes to semantic objects and to semantic events, as English does with its grammatical categories of noun and verb. Instead, Mopan words that involve willful, energetic relation of the argument to the predicate (translation equivalents of English words like run or yell) pattern together grammatically, whereas forms that imply more passive, effortless relations between predicate and argument (translation equivalents of English terms like to fall, to be hungry, to be female, to be a frog, or to be a bucket) together form a separate grammatical class. Similar cases were discussed speculatively by Whorf (1940). But the question whether languages without a true noun-verb distinction actually exist continues to be controversial. Many modern linguists (Pinker 2007; Chomsky 1975) believe a priori that all languages share an inborn Universal Grammar, in which nouns and verbs are basic and universal units. Recently, in collaboration with my University of Virginia colleague Ellen Contini-Morava, I have returned in full force to this line of research (Contini-Morava and Danziger 2013, 2011, in press).

I find it extremely exciting and liberating to discover the different solutions to universal human problems that have developed in languages and cultures which are different from the ones with which I grew up. My research constantly inspires me with admiration and respect for the importance of human cultural diversity, and for the potential of our species to innovate and solve problems well beyond what might be possible using only our endowment of biology or instinct. More pragmatically, I am most excited at present by the research potential that arises from advanced digital management of my corpus of audiovisual texts in Mopan Maya. I recently benefited from a fellowship with the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia, to support annotation and systematic exploration of this corpus.

Learn more about Dr. Danziger’s research and efforts to document and preserve the Mopan Mayan language by visiting her research page or the digital archive A Worldview in Words

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