26.2127, Review: Anthropological Ling; Semantics; Socioling: Goddard, Wierzbicka (2013)

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Subject: 26.2127, Review: Anthropological Ling; Semantics; Socioling: Goddard, Wierzbicka (2013)

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Date: Tue, 21 Apr 2015 17:43:49
From: Penelope Scott [penelope0783 at gmail.com]
Subject: Words and Meanings

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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/25/25-1667.html

AUTHOR: Cliff  Goddard
AUTHOR: Anna  Wierzbicka
TITLE: Words and Meanings
SUBTITLE: Lexical Semantics Across Domains, Languages, and Cultures
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Penelope Scott, Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University

Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


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

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. 


‘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

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


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)


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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