Things that go with the words

29 septembre 2012

Des mots aux choses la conséquence est bonne. L'ethnographe dans son enquête part du lexique de la langue indigène.

Dans les deux premiers paragraphes (ci-dessous reproduits) d'un article classique de 1962 intitulé The Ethnographic Study of Cognitive Systems, Charles O. Frake invite à inverser la démarche empiriste spontanée qui part de la perception pour aller au langage (getting words for things). C'est au contraire, montre-t-il, en partant du lexique d'une langue indigène pour procéder à l'identification des choses que les indigènes mettent sous les mots (finding the things that go with the words), que nous sommes en mesure d'appréhender le système conceptuel dans le cadre et sur la base duquel les indigènes perçoivent et utilisent les choses qui les entourent.


A relatively simple task commonly performed by ethnographers is that of getting names for things. The ethnographer typically performs this task by pointing to or holding up the apparent constituent objects of an event he is describing, eliciting the native names for the objects, and then matching each native name with the investigator's own word for the object. The logic of the operation is: if the informant calls object X a mbubu and I call object X a rock, then mbubu means rock. In this way are compiled the ordinary ethnobotanical monographs with their lists of matched native and scientific names for plant specimens. This operation probably also accounts for a good share of the native names parenthetically inserted in so many monograph texts: "Among the grasses (sigbet) whose grains (bunga nen) are used for beads (bitekel) none is more highly prized than Job's tears (glias)." Unless the reader is a comparative linguist of the languages concerned, he may well ask what interest these parenthetical insertions contain other than demonstrating that the ethnographer has discharged a minimal obligation toward collecting linguistic data. This procedure for obtaining words for things, as well as the "so-what" response it so often evokes, assumes the objective identifiability of discrete "things" apart from a particular culture. It construes the name-getting task as one of simply matching verbal labels for "things" in two languages. Accordingly, the "problem-oriented" anthropologist, with a broad, cross-cultural perspective, may disclaim any interest in these labels; all that concerns him is the presence or absence of a particular "thing" in a given culture.

If, however, instead of "getting words for things," we redefine the task as one of finding the "things" that go with the words, the eliciting of terminologies acquires a more general interest. In actuality not even the most concrete, objectively apparent physical object can be identified apart from some culturally defined system of concepts (Boas 1911:24-25; […] Goodenough 1957). An ethnographer should strive to define objects according to the conceptual system of the people he is studying. Let me suggest, then, that one look upon the task of getting names for things not as an exercise in linguistic recording, but as a way of finding out what are in fact the "things" in the environment of the people being studied. This paper consists of some suggestions toward the formulation of an operationally-explicit methodology for discerning how people construe their world of experience from the way they talk about it. Specifically these suggestions concern the analysis of terminological systems in a way which reveals the conceptual principles that generate them.

Charles O. Frake, The Ethnographic Study of Cognitive Systems, dans T. Gladwin and W. Sturtevant, Eds., Anthropology and Human Behavior, Washington, D.C., Anthropological Society of Washington, 1962, pp. 72–85.