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Review of  Words and Meanings


Reviewer: Penelope Scott
Book Title: Words and Meanings
Book Author: Cliff Goddard Anna Wierzbicka
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Sociolinguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 26.2127

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Review:
Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry

SUMMARY

Words and Meanings is the culmination of a wealth of research by the authors into cross-cultural semantics and the feasibility of using a semantic metalanguage. That is not to say, however, that it is merely a summary of this research tradition. The book presents a number of case studies with the aim of demonstrating the precision and cross-linguistic validity of Natural Semantic Metalanguage analyses. The work would be of interest to researchers in lexical semantics within NSM, but also to those new to this perspective; the theoretical groundwork is laid and prior knowledge of NSM is not necessary. The book begins by laying the foundations for the subsequent Natural Semantic Metalanguage analyses by defending the often controversial claim that semantic universals exist (see for example Mühlhäusler 2012 for a discussion of this debate). These universals, they claim, represent the most basic concepts, and theirs is a theory that prioritizes the awareness of cultural distinctions when seeking to define concepts. This is one of their main motivations for the metalanguage, which they claim avoids the ethnocentrism that comes through defining the concepts of one natural language through another (usually English).

Chapter 2 critiques the traditional componential analyses as applied to social categories such as men, women and children. They claim that ‘men’ and ‘women’ are semantic universals (though notably, ‘male’ and ‘female’ are not), though they point out that a semantic universal concept is not the same as an ontological objective concept. They also note that in some languages the concept for the third gender or shifting gender is lexicalised, so they make no claim to the effect that binaries are universal. The assumed universal distinction between men and women is, they claim, the result of the highly salient status of sexual reproduction, in human societies.

Chapter 3 looks at the ways in which people talk about the physical world, providing NSM definitions for sense terms, including those relating to touch, taste etc. Sight-related terms are not dealt with as they are focussed on in more detail in the next chapter. The culturally specific aspects of sense-related metaphorical extensions are investigated via a discussion of Polish and English.

Chapter 4 aims to deconstruct the concept of colour, and problematizes the common reliance on the idea of ‘lexical’ gaps as an explanation for ‘universal’ concepts lacking a lexicalised form in all languages. This is followed by a cross-linguistic comparison of terms relating to the appearance of things, in which the terms in Walpiri are claimed to make reference more to shininess and patterning than colour. The concept of seeing, but not the concept of colour, is claimed to be a semantic universal.

Chapter 5 argues against the idea that happiness is a universal concept. Indeed, Goddard and Wierzbicka claim that the translation of words for other cultures’ distinct concepts into happiness is not only Anglo-centric, but can lead to a misunderstanding of the philosophical and religious ideas encapsulated within the original texts. The chapter considers the concepts of ‘bdewa’ in Tibetan and ‘Glück’ in German in philosophical writings, and a diachronic examination of ‘happiness’ in English leads to the argument that the term has undergone a semantic ‘devaluation’.

The theme of cultural specificity is expanded in Chapter 6 by taking on a concept that to many would be assumed to be universal: pain. By examining terms for pain in English, Australian Aboriginal languages, and French, Goddard and Wierzbicka reveal that though there might be overlap there is no consistency between these languages when one takes into account e.g. emotional vs. physical pain, long lasting vs. short lasting pain, as well as intensities and sensations.

Chapter 7 moves to an area of pragmatics that is more obviously culturally specific than that covered in the previous chapter: speech acts. The chapter focuses on the numerous speech act terms of English, and highlights the necessity of explications that are cross-linguistically intelligible.

Chapter 8 ‘A stitch in time and the way of the rice plant’ explicates proverbs from English and Malay, firstly providing definitions in NSM distinguishing ‘proverbs’ and ‘sayings’. Goddard and Wierzbicka go on to explicate the semantic content of a range of proverbs, with a focus not only the message content of the proverb but also on its proverbial nature.

Chapter 9 deals with an issue that has long been at the centre of philosophy of language: the conceptualisation of abstract, as opposed to concrete nouns. The authors lay out their philosophical perspective, which assumes (following the work of Locke) that words do not correspond to independently verifiable ontological entities, and that instead a mental ontology is created through the repertoire of abstract nouns. This position, they agree, is true to some extent also with concrete nouns. They go on to explicate abstract nouns in NSM including ‘violence’, ‘disease’, ‘rights’ etc. Though not concerned primarily with the philosophical question of which entities are ontologically ‘real’ or ‘fictitious’ (cf. Bentham, as described in Ogden 1951), they do outline how their treatment is compatible with the idea that some entities are ontologically ‘fictitious’.

The final chapter discusses some of the implications of NSM, including the argued benefits that might be brought to the discussion of cultural norms and the translatability of scientific concepts.


EVALUATION

‘Words and Meanings’ successfully brings together many of the developments in NSM over the last forty or so years, and convincingly makes an argument against the use of natural languages in lexical semantic explications. Though much of the text takes the form of case studies and examples of NSM explications, plenty of space is given to the wider linguistic, social and philosophical implications of the position. There is no denying that the basic premise of the theory-- that some words can truly be thought to be semantic universals--is controversial. This idea has attracted criticism from others in the area of cross-cultural semantics. There is an ongoing debate between those in support of universalism and those in support of relativism. While Goddard and Wierzbicka defend the idea of universal semantic primes, they emphasise the need for this to be tested cross-linguistically, and do not support a casual form of universalism.The assumption that a word in one language equals a word in another language is commonly implicitly made, and the attempt to engage directly with this question and to test it is certainly an improvement. The need for a continued critical approach to the proposed set of universals is apparent, and the set raises certain questions, particularly since many of the lexical primes have different usage in different languages. For example, ‘see’ in English does have the metaphorical meaning of ‘know/understand’(and has this historically, see Allan 2009) . And since presumably ‘I see what you are saying’ might not be possible given the concept of ‘seeing’, we might question whether it is indeed a lexical prime. Goddard and Wierzbicka respond to such criticisms with the argument that while lexical polysemy is common, and is language specific, the primary meanings of this ‘set’ are consistent cross-linguistically. The same issue arises with words such as ‘feel’ which might refer only to the sensory mental experience of physically touching things, or the experience of emotions. It is unclear whether the semantic prime of ‘feel’ in NSM refers to the former, the latter, or both. However, the use of ‘feel’ appears in the following explication of ‘depressed’, in its emotional sense, suggesting that its status as a prime is not limited to the physical sense:

1. she thought like this at this time:
2. “I know now that some good things can’t happen
3. this is bad
4. I don’t want it to be like this
5. I know that I can’t do anything because of this”
6. When she thought like this, she felt something bad
Like people feel at many times when they think like this
(Goddard and Wierzbicka 2014: 223)

The model of NSM explications will seem, as Goddard and Wierzbicka themselves point out, unfamiliar and possibly jarring for readers unacquainted with the theory. Because they are written in the most basic lexical language possible, they suffer from relative syntactic complexity. Therefore, though cultural knowledge is unlikely to be a barrier to understanding the meaning, they are far from concise, which would limit the contexts into which they could be adopted. In the final chapter, Goddard and Wierzbicka convincingly argue that the language in the human sciences is problematic as it stands in that it is not culturally transferrable. Though the use of NSM, or even the inclusion of an NSM glossary in certain social science works would bring certain benefits, the loss of concision is likely to limit the wider adoption of the metalanguage.

Some of the discussions included in the book show how decomposing the semantic content of lexemes by means of NSM explications can help in identifying culturally constructed concepts. A case in point is the concept of happiness, which is examined from a diachronic and cross-linguistic perspective. This raises an interesting point about the westernisation of Buddhist philosophy in ‘The Art of Happiness’ that occurs primarily through the translation of a Tibetan word:‘bdewa’ into English ‘happiness’. The NSM explication reveals markedly different concepts for the two words, which emerge out of different cultural and philosophical traditions.

The debate surrounding whether languages ‘carves nature at its joints’ (47) is never so pertinent as in discussions surrounding gender. Though of course the present text is not focussed on the wider cultural and philosophical issues, semantics has something to offer in terms of the understanding of how culturally constructed notions are conceptualised and the extent of their universality. Goddard and Wierzbicka rightly criticise the feature-based accounts of words used to refer to people. The feature-based account carries with it a certain theoretical baggage in that it necessarily requires the stating of genders in terms of binaries, and further more, with the notion that one is the ‘basic’ form [+ female] or [+male]. NSM does not require such stipulations. It is claimed in Chapter 2 that ‘woman’ and ‘man’ are semantic primes. A long established claim in feminist theory (e.g. de Beauvoir 1949) is that women are considered as the ‘other’ of men. In Goddard and Wierzbicka this state of affairs appears to be somewhat subverted by the defining of men through women (as in, men are people who cannot bear children). This claim is grounded in the claim that the concept ‘woman’ is likely to be acquired prior to the concept of a ‘man’. However, while this definition may be a welcome alternative to the usual ‘otherness’ of women, it does seem to disregard the sexism that does in fact exist in English: the use of words for men, women, and children, it could be argued, do treat women as secondary. It would seem strange if speakers who had lexicalised a concept of men that is defined through women would go on to assume for example that an unspecified ‘person’ is male, as is commonly the case. Though the book covers many areas of interest to philosophy and social sciences, Goddard and Wierzbicka’s concern is of course lexical semantics, which is a representation of social constructions rather than ontological realities. One of the strengths of the book is that though it does not claim directly to reach into such areas, it problematises culturally specific definitions and lays the ground for related debates; this is in addition to their central semantic aim of developing a model for defining concepts.

Overall, Words and Meanings is a thought-provoking text that discusses a wide range of lexical sets, and presents a good introduction to the Natural Semantic Metalanguage for those unfamiliar with it, but will also be of interest to those already engaged in scholarly work within this theoretical perspective.

REFERENCES

Allan, Kathryn (2009). Metaphor and metonymy: A diachronic approach (Publications of the Philological Society 42). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Bentham, Jeremy (1843). In John Bowring (ed.), The Works of Jeremy Bentham. 11 vols. Edinburgh: William Tait.

de Beauvoir, Simone (1997 [1949]). The Second Sex. London: Vintage.

Ogden, Charles Kay (1951 [1932]). Bentham’s Theory of Fictions, with Introduction, 2nd edn. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Mühlhäusler, Peter (2012). ‘Prologue’ In: Idström, Anna and Elisabeth Piirainen (eds.), Endangered Metaphors. 2012. vi, 376 pp. (pp. 1–14)
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Penelope Scott is a lecturer in English Language and Linguistics at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China. She completed her PhD in English Language in 2012 at the University of Edinburgh. Her research area is historical linguistics, and her most recent paper (to appear in Transactions of the Philological Society) is ''Geminate Reduction and High Vowel Syncope In West Saxon Weak Past Participles''.

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