Great Diagrams in the History of Anthropology: Iconism, Ecologism, and the Wild Man

Following previous discussions of semiosilversteinianism and Rex’s suggestion regarding ‘great diagrams,’ I looked up this wild diagram, from perhaps anthropology’s most accomplished sketch artist: Alfred Gell.


From Gell’s essay, “The Language of the Forest,” which relates phonological iconism to the ‘auditory culture’ and sylvan mode of being of Umeda people in New Guinea. I quote at length:

Phonological iconism […] depends on tracing connections between the sound-substance of individual words and morphemes and their meanings. As a culturally elaborated expressive mode it is probably quite rare, if only because the regular processes of sound-shift which all languages undergo would ensure, other things being equal, that phonologically iconic forms evolved into non-iconic ones after a lapse of time. Only where things are not equal, that is, where there are specific cultural vectors tending to preserve, generalize and intensify expressivity against the countervailing forces of morphological change, should one expect to encounter elaborate phonological iconism as opposed to sporadic onomatopoeia.

2 thoughts on “Great Diagrams in the History of Anthropology: Iconism, Ecologism, and the Wild Man

  1. Wild and beautiful, thanks for posting this Strong!

    A couple of years ago missionaries showed Gimi-speakers in PNG the Lord of the Rings trilogy. This drawing reminds me of the many (MANY) discussions I had about Ents after the movies with old guys who know / remember the multiple names for things. One night this spun into a discussion of morphemes (of course) and it was the first time I really think I got my head around how forest-related Gimi-language and forest sounds and beings transact with Gimi to make worlds. This drawing reminds me of that night.

  2. Hi Mhwk:

    Gell calls his argument \’environmentally determinist,\’ as he expects to find certain \’auditory\’ elaborations in specific physical environments, especially the rainforest.

    Nevertheless, people in the de-forested Asaro valley also establish all kinds of equations between \’themselves\’ and the \’forest\’ or specifically \’trees.\’ These include lost rituals such as the preparation of a special formulation of (white) grubs dug out of a particular tree to feed to girls undergoing seclusion after first menses, to everyday commonplace equations between particular clans and the trees they consider their \’omoso,\’ which is a construct that is rather totemic — men equate the shine on their skins to the twirling leaves in the wind. Myths relate the forest as a wonderful and dangerous place, full of reprodutive power and threat. There is a palpable sense in which spirits live in the high forest.

    I rarely really experience the high mountain forest in New Guinea as anything other than frightening, mainly because by the time I get up into it, I\’m too exhausted to stop and smell the moss, unlike my companions who trounce along in bare feet with great agility. My companions are notably energized by hikes up into the high bush: shirts come off, flowers (orchids) are stuck into hair, singing starts, colorful muds are spread across the cheek. The frail anthropologist, while admiring this robustness, focuses on trying not to slip on the rocks and fall to a tragic death.

    I wonder how other cinematic narratives of \’enchantment\’ (like Lord of the Rings), play for folks who actually inhabit such enchanted places. Say, for example, Princess Mononoke…

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