Keys to Cultural Understanding

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Science  21 Apr 1961:
Vol. 133, Issue 3460, pp. 1202-1206
DOI: 10.1126/science.133.3460.1202


Figures of speech are tangible manifestations of deeply rooted modes of perception and conceptualization. They represent categories or models for interpreting the universe—natural and supernatural, and material and non-material phenomena. These categories or models are reflected in all aspects of culture and are fundamentally determined by culture. They should not be considered universal but, rather, extremely relative and highly variable. Some students of language and culture, such as Whorf, would consider figures of speech not to be the most important organizing categories and would give precedence to grammatical constructions—that is, subject-predicate division or verb tenses. The use of figures of speech, however, is in some ways more easily investigated than grammatical categories, and their analysis can provide both unique and corroborative insights into various aspects of a culture, as has been demonstrated here with Palauan social organization.