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Review of  Semantics of Body Part Terms

Reviewer: Kelsie E. Pattillo
Book Title: Semantics of Body Part Terms
Book Author: Iwona Kraska-Szlenk
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Cognitive Science
Anthropological Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Arabic, Standard
Issue Number: 26.5054

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Reviews Editors: Malgorzata Cavar and Ashley Parker


This book contextualizes common cross-linguistic patterns found in body part semantics. It contains 18 chapters organized in two parts. Part 1 analyzes patterns in semantic extensions of body part terms as they appear across languages and language families, and Part 2 analyzes Swahili corpus data for patterns of lexical semantics and language usage as they are mapped onto other domains.

Part 1 is divided into 10 short chapters and a brief conclusion that address current discussions in semantic studies on body parts. More specifically, this section shows how metaphor and metonymy provide explanations to patterns found in embodiment, partonymy, grammaticalization, and semantic extensions. Kraska-Szlenk provides cross-linguistic examples from more than 70 languages, representing more than 15 language families and relates her own intimate knowledge of Polish and Swahili to each of these subtopics. She further contextualizes these patterns within the ongoing discussions of language universals.

Part 2 includes 8 chapters and a brief conclusion devoted to explaining semantic mappings of Swahili body part terms, including ‘body,’ head,’ ‘face,’ ‘eyes,’ heart,’ ‘hand/arm,’ and ‘sweat.’ Kraska-Szlenk’s data for these chapters come from many sources including the Helsinki Corpus of Swahili, mono- and bilingual dictionaries, and compilations of proverbs and idiomatic expression. Along with many corpus examples, Part 2 includes bodily and figurative meanings for each body part examined as well as a figure of the semantic network discussed. This results in detailed usage-based data for both metaphorical and metonymic body part extensions in Swahili.

There are also three indices in this book. The “Name Index” lists names cited in the book with corresponding page numbers. The “Language Index” lists language and language family names from which the data in the book is taken, along with page numbers. The “Subject Index” lists subjects discussed in the book, including metaphor, metonymy, embodiment, emotion and individual body parts, along with their corresponding page numbers.

Chapter 1 illustrates how body part studies fit into cognitive linguistics from three perspectives: cognition and conceptualization, usage, and culture. It focuses on metaphor and metonymy and introduces the concept of unidirectionality, which are each discussed at length throughout the book. This chapter also provides a general overview of the two parts of the book and the chapters in Part 1.

Chapter 2 introduces the embodiment hypothesis, which states that in semantic extensions, the body serves as a source and not as a target. Kraska-Szlenk emphasizes that this hypothesis is supported by data found in a vast number of languages families spoken across geographic areas. She includes data from languages spoken around the world to demonstrate how widespread embodiment is. She gives a quick overview of the development of this hypothesis starting with Lakoff and Johnson (1980) and ending with the most recent literature on embodiment.

In Chapter 3, Kraska-Szlenk summarizes the literature addressing three common questions in cross-linguistic body part studies as follow: (1) Which parts of the body are linguistically encoded? (2) Is the partition of the body language-specific or common to all languages? (3) How can one posit equivalents and compare different body parts in many languages? Along with summarizing previous claims in the literature as answers for each of these questions, she adds her own Polish examples.

Chapter 4 focuses on showing how languages extend body part terms in grammaticalization. Kraska-Szlenk briefly summarizes Heine’s (2014) findings that spatial orientation, reference identity and counting are the most common target domains found in the grammaticalization of body part terms.

Kraska-Szlenk devotes the following four chapters of the book to major domains that are common cross-linguistic targets for body part extensions. In Chapter 5, the author explains how the body tends to have physically felt responses to emotion. She provides many examples and discusses the interior and exterior body parts that experience a physical effect when people experience emotions, the cross-linguistic parallels and differences in body part metaphors, finally, the body parts that serve as sources for words of endearment and curses. Chapter 6 examines how languages extend body part terms to the domain of knowledge and reasoning. Kraska-Szlenk shows how languages differ in the way they classify irrational emotions and rational thinking using body part metonymy. Chapter 7 focuses on the domain of social interactions and values including kinship, possession, and honor.Chapter 8 looks at domains external to the human body such as animals, plants, landmarks, human-made artifacts, and foods.

In Chapter 9, the focus shifts from demonstrating cross-linguistic tendencies to explaining how language specific semantic extensions fit into the theoretical discussion. Kraska-Szlenk demonstrates that culture plays a key role in shaping metaphors, which further influence language structure. This cultural model explains language usage between speakers in a community and transfer of linguistics expressions, calques, metaphors and metonymies. She also introduces corpus models as a method to measure how alive a metaphor is in a given language, which prepares readers for the corpus studies discussed in Part 2.

Chapter 10 completes Part 1 with the discussion of Kraska-Szlenk’s view of language universals and embodiment. She explains language universals and their use in body part literature, assuming that embodiment is the only hard universal. She also includes what she classifies as soft embodied universals, such as most languages have a body part term meaning ‘head.’ The author’s examples focus on metaphors, metonymies, lexicon and directionality of semantic extensions. At the end of the chapter, she reformulates Kövecses’ (2005) language universals into soft universals.

Between Chapters 10 and 11, Kraska-Szlenk includes a short conclusion which both summarizes the main points of Part 1 and prepares readers for Part 2.

Chapter 11 introduces Kraska-Szlenk’s goals and methodology to examine body part terms in Swahili. She uses a usage-based approach to semantic extension, explaining why it is needed, what it is, and the key elements of major studies (i.e. Croft and Cruse 2004, Traugott and Dasher 2002, and Langacker 2006) of semantic extension. She, then, shows how corpus studies fulfill the needs of a usage-based approach and explains her methodology in data collection, analysis and body part selection discussed in the remaining chapters.

In Chapter 12, Kraska-Szlenk shows corpus examples to demonstrate the difference between Swahili «mwili» ‘body’ and «roho» ‘soul.’ Her findings indicate that «mwili» ‘body’ is overwhelmingly common in the bodily sense and not very common in figurative senses. As in each of the remaining chapters in Part 2, Kraska-Szlenk concludes with a figure representing this semantic network.

Chapter 13 focuses on many bodily and figurative senses associated with Swahili «kichwa» ‘head.’ Bodily uses in the data include the domain of the physical body, especially in texts describing accidents and medical references. Figurative usages include referring to people’s thoughts, extensions to agriculture, alcohol consumption, counting, and spatial relations. The uses of «kichwa» refer to both the head as a whole and the parts of the head, such as the top, which is commonly used to carry objects such as jugs of water.

Chapter 14 examines the uses of «uso» ‘face’ and finds that the Swahili corpus data has for this term bodily senses more commonly than figurative senses. Some bodily uses include appearance, age, and criteria used to determine beauty, whereas some of the figurative uses include the metaphors Face for Emotions, and Honor (Respect/Dignity) is Face. Other figurative extensions include spatial and temporal domains.

Chapter 15 focuses on the terms «jicho» and «macho» ‘eye(s).’ Kraska-Szlenk shows that there is an overlap between figurative and bodily uses for ‘eye(s)’ and claims that it is often difficult to tell the difference between the two uses.

Chapter 16 examines the uses of «moyo» ‘heart,’ which competes with Swahili «roho» ‘soul, spirit’ for the concept of ‘locus of emotions.’ Kraska-Szlenk finds that bodily uses of «moyo» are extremely rare and figurative extensions commonly use locus of emotions as a target domain for both metaphors and chained metonymies.

Chapter 17 demonstrates the complexity of a complete semantic network of Swahili «mkono» ‘hand/arm’. The complexity originates from the vast variety of ways to use the hands and arms. Bodily uses include washing, contact with another person, and damaging or injuring the hand/arm. Figurative uses include instrument of moving, instrument of touching, instrument of working and instrument of pointing. The data also indicate that it is more common to show metonymies of working in Swahili with the term for ‘sweat’ than «mkono» ‘hand/arm.’

Chapter 18 exemplifies both bodily and figurative uses of «jasho» ‘sweat.’ A major source domain for metaphorical meanings of «jasho» is hard physical work. Kraska-Szlenk outlines a unidirectional semantic chain Sweat for Hard Physical Work > Hard Work > Work and shows that «jasho» is often used with the term for ‘peasants’ and is also used to refer to hardships and fighting.
Part 2 ends with a brief conclusion recapitulating the main findings from the Swahili data and showing how they support the Cognitive Linguistics approaches discussed in Chapter 11.


This book is a much needed addition to the contributions on body part semantics and lexical typology. In addition to providing a thorough analysis of seven body part terms in Swahili, Kraska-Szlenk provides numerous examples from diverse language families, making it appealing to Bantuists and linguistic typologists. Previous work in this field predominantly focuses on data from languages spoken in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East (Maalej and Yu 2011, Sharifian et al. 2008, Yu 2002, Charteris-Black 2003, Horszowska 2007, Pavlenko 2002, Matisoff 1985 and others) and there are few studies of body part extensions in Bantu languages (Pongweni 2008). In addition to representing sub-Saharan languages in a quickly growing subfield of cognitive linguistics, the present study results in a solid representation of body part semantics in the world’s languages in one source. Furthermore, Kraska-Szlenk’s work provides many thorough examples of both metaphor and metonymy, consistently showing how the two differ and overlap throughout Part 2. Kraska-Szlenk’s chapter on «jasho» ‘sweat’ is also noteworthy as it is not widely discussed in cross-linguistic body part studies and is a welcome contribution to studies of bodily metaphors and metonymies. Kraska-Szlenk meets her goals by providing a comprehensive description of cross-linguistic semantic patterns of body part semantics as well as an in depth description of figurative and bodily uses in Swahili.

This book has many strengths. First, Kraska-Szlenk includes examples from more than 70 languages in her discussion of the literature on body part extensions. These examples represent a well-balanced language sample in terms of genetic and areal distribution. In addition to synthesizing data from a wide number of grammars and articles, Kraska-Szlenk also provides her own abundant examples from Polish and Swahili throughout Part 1. Throughout Part 2, Kraska-Szlenk uses examples from Swahili grammar to show how deeply rooted the extensions are in Swahili. This emphasizes the importance of the data presented in Part 2 for linguistic typologists. Further, the data is presented within a clear theoretical framework that explains how embodiment functions cross-linguistically and which is transparent throughout the book. The author’s consistent use of examples throughout the book further strengthens this transparency, creating a book that is uniform in quality and depth in the range of topics covered by the author. Another strength of the book is that it focuses on a variety of body parts and extensions rather than a narrower analysis of the internal organs and the emotions, as previously discussed in the literature (Sharifian et al. 2008, Horszowska 2007, Yu 2002). Finally, the discussion of the interplay between metaphor and metonymy is very clear. Kraska-Szlenk highlights metonymy’s role in body part extensions throughout the book, which makes the book stand out from most previous studies which most commonly focus on the metaphor.

The monograph has a couple of weaknesses. Kraska-Szlenk assumes that readers are familiar with the body part literature referenced in Part 1. This may make the book difficult to approach for those unfamiliar with the literature but interested in the topic, especially readers coming from fields such as anthropology, psychology, or philosophy. It may also make the Swahili data less accessible to the Bantuists without a solid background in lexical semantics. Additionally, I question the relevance of the discussion of Optimality Theory on pages 75-76 for the intended audience of the book. Although there is an attempt to fit the discussion into the discussion of language universals, this section neither supports Kraska-Szlenk’s claims regarding language universals and tendencies, nor is it relevant to the semantics of body part terms. Especially given the assumption of the familiarity with the body part semantic literature throughout Part 1, it is odd to devote nearly a full page to a theory that is commonly included in the standard linguistic training. Last, the glossing of examples throughout the text is sometimes confusing. Morphological glosses are left out if not essential, and throughout Part 2 English translations appear in the same line as the Swahili corpus examples, making them difficult to read. Italicizing the Swahili corpus examples would have enhanced readability.

Overall, this book is an excellent contribution to semantic typology and it will certainly become a valuable resource and reference for future research on body part extensions.


Charteris-Black, Jonathan. 2003. ''A Contrastive Cognitive Perspective on Malay and English Figurative Language.'' In Meaning through Language Contrast, Volume 2, 141-157. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Benjamins, 2003.

Croft, William and D. Alan Cruse. 2004. Cognitive Linguistics. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

Heine, Bernd. 2014. The body in language: Observations from grammaticalization. In: M. Brenzinger and I. Kraska-Szlenk (eds.). The Body in Language: Comparative Studies of Linguistic Embodiment. Leiden: Brill.13-32.

Horszowska, K. (2007). The Embodied Emotions in Chinese, Metaphor and Metonymy [Metonymy] Perspective. In M. Fabiszak (Ed.) , Language and Meaning: Cognitive and Functional Perspectives (pp. 127-138). Frankfurt, Germany: Peter Lang.

Kövecses, Zoltán. 2005. Metaphor in Culture: Universality and Variation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Langacker, Ronald W. 2006. On the continuous debate about discreteness. Cognitive Linguistics 17 (1): 107-151.

Maalej, Zouheir and Ning Yu (eds.). 2011. Embodiment via Body Parts: Studies from Various Languages and Cultures. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Matisoff, James. 1985. “Out on a limb: ARM, HAND, and WING in Sino-Tibetan.” In Thurgood, Matisoff, and Bradley (eds.). Linguistics of the Sino-Tibetan area; the state of the art: papers presented to Paul K. Benedict for his 71st birthday. 421-50. Pavlenko, Galina. 2002. Emotions and the body in Russian and English. Pragmatics and Cognition 10: 207–241.

Pongweni, A. C. 2008. Body-Sourced Metaphors in Discourse across Cultures: Similarities and Dissimilarities between English and Bantu. In M. Bagwasi, M. Alimi, P. Ebewo (eds.). English Language and Literature: Cross Cultural Currents. Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars. 98-120.

Yu, Ning. 2002. Body and emotion: Body parts in Chinese expression of emotion. Pragmatics and Cognition 10 (1-2): 341-367.

Sharifian, Farzad, René Dirven, Ning Yu, and Susanne Neimeier (eds.). 2008. Culture body and language: Conceptualization of internal body organs across languages and cultures. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Traugott, Elizabeth and Richard Dasher. 2002. Regularity in Semantic Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dr. Kelsie Pattillo is an associate lecturer in the department of linguistics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her current research focuses on body part semantics. Kelsie's other interests include linguistic typology, semantic change, historical linguistics and language contact.