Anna Wierzbicka, Words and the World

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Abstract


This introduction to the Special Issue summarises Anna Wierzbicka’s contribution to the linguistic study of meaning. It presents the foundations of the approach known as the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) developed by Wierzbicka. The current state of the approach is discussed in the article with the ideas of 65 semantic primitives, universal grammar and the principle of reductive paraphrase in semantic explications. It traces the origin of Wierzbicka’s ideas to Leibniz. The framework has been tested on about thirty languages of diverse origin. The applications of the approach are broad and encompass lexical areas of emotions, social categories, speech act verbs, mental states, artefacts and animals, verbs of motion, kinship terms (among others), as well as grammatical constructions.


1. INTRODUCTION The current and the next issue of the Russian Journal of Linguistics are dedicated to Anna Wierzbicka. Anna Wierzbicka is an internationally renowned linguist who systematically integrated language, culture and cognition in her studies and demonstrated the logic of culture-specific modes of linguistic interaction. In 2018 Anna Wierzbicka celebrates her anniversary and the Russian Journal of Linguistics highjacks two issues to celebrate her scholarship and the warmth of her personality. Those of us who are fortunate to know her personally are moved by her kindness and moral support. She has been an inspiration to a countless number of colleagues, young scholars, and students in Russia and beyond. Over the years her scholarship, intellectual rigor, and academic integrity have been exemplary. The Editorial Board of the journal, the authors and the readers wish that her intellectual journey will continue for many more years to come. Professor Anna Wierzbicka is a Professor Emeritus in Linguistics at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. She is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, the Australian Academy of Social Sciences, the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is the recipient of two Honorary Doctoral Awards from the Marie Curie-Sklodowska University, Poland (2004) and from the Warsaw University, Poland (2006). She is also the recipient of the Dobrushin Prize 2010 (established in Russia in honour of the Russian mathematician Roland Lvovich Dobrushin) and the Polish Science Foundation Prize 2010 for the humanities and social sciences. Anna Wierzbicka is well known for her contributions in the field of semantics and the development of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM). Her work spans a number of disciplines, including anthropology, psychology, cognitive science, philosophy and religious studies in addition to linguistics. She has published over twenty books and edited or co-edited several others. Anna Wierzbicka is a widely acclaimed scholar in the Russian linguistic circles. Five books of hers (Wierzbicka 1996, 1999b, 2001a, b, 2011) along with numerous articles have been published in Russia. In this regard, Elena Paducheva rightly notes (2009[1996]: 629): Undoubtedly, the influence of Wierzbicka’s scholarship on linguistic studies in Russia (in general linguistics and Russian linguistics in the first place) is notably greater than in any other country. This could be due to the original Slavic commonality which successfully overcomes territorial and language barriers, but, most likely, this is due to the consonance of linguistic paradigms [...]. In Russian linguistics, one is unlikely to find another author who is cited as widely and passionately as Wierzbicka [...]. (Translation is ours - AG, TL) The first volume relates to Anna Wierzbicka’s contribution to the development of the theory of meaning and her methodology of linguistic analysis known as the Natural Semantic Metalanguage. Consequently, the introductory article to the first volume summarises her contribution to the study of meaning. The main focus of the second volume will be Anna Wierzbicka’s research dealing with the relationship between meaning and culture as well as other applications of her approach. 1. NATURAL SEMANTIC METALANGUAGE: A BRIEF OVERVIEW The most distinctive feature of Anna Wierzbicka’s linguistic research is attention to meaning. At the time of linguistics being dominated by formal and structuralist approaches centered on syntax, Wierzbicka suggested a daring shift in the paradigm by stating that meaning is what language is primarily about and that the study of language should first and primarily be conducted through the prism of meaning. Wierzbicka (1996: 3) famously declared: To study language without reference to meaning is like studying road signs from the point of view of their physical properties (how much they weigh, what kind of paint are they painted with, and so on), or like studying the structure of the eye without any reference to seeing. Being committed to the principle of the centrality of meaning to linguistic analysis, Wierzbicka set a research agenda of developing a way of studying linguistic meaning that could be versatile enough to give access to a variety of linguistic phenomena and be applicable across languages. In her 1972 book “Semantic Primitives” she launched a theory which is now known under the acronym “NSM” (Natural Semantic Metalanguage) and is being internationally recognized as one of the world’s leading theories of language and meaning. 1. Semantic primitives Inspired by Leibniz’s idea that all languages have a finite number of concepts by means of which other concepts can be explained Wierzbicka set an agenda of identifying these concepts by the process of a detailed linguistic analysis of different semantic domains (cf. Wierzbicka 1972). Leibniz acknowledged that some words are more basic and simple in meaning than others: “Amongst the words, some are frequently used and serve as auxiliary to the others” (Leibniz 1987[1678]: 162). He called these words “the alphabet of human thoughts” (cf. Wierzbicka 1972: 6). Goddard and Wierzbicka (2014a: 11) write: One has to attempt a very large number of definitions to be able to find out which words can, and which cannot, be defined, and consequently, which words (or word-meanings) can be regarded as elementary building blocks out of which all complex concepts (and word-meanings) can be built. This agenda had been pursued by Wierzbicka throughout her career passionately and diligently. Wierzbicka’s (1972) initial list of universal human concepts, or primes, included 14 words. Over the years, this list considerably expanded and developed into a versatile metalanguage of linguistic analysis. This development was due above all to collaboration with Cliff Goddard (currently Professor of Linguistics at Griffith University in Australia), and also to collaboration with other colleagues who applied and tested the metalanguage in a considerable number of unrelated languages1. The metalanguage was given the name 1 It is also important to acknowledge the synergy between the Natural Semantic Metalanguage approach, the Moscow School of Semantics (Apresjan 1992, 2005) and the Meaning-Text Theory (Mel’čuk 1989, 2012, 2013, 2015). the “Natural Semantic Metalanguage” because it is based on the concepts expressed as words of natural language (any natural language) and because it was primarily developed as a tool for semantic analysis. The theory has advanced significantly over more than 40 years. It continues to develop and some aspects continue to be clarified and refined. The current state of the theory is reflected in Wierzbicka (1996), Goddard and Wierzbicka (eds. 2002, 2014a), as well as Goddard (2011, 2018)2. In identifying universal human concepts the NSM theory accepts Leibniz’s hypothesis that they should be shared by people regardless of the language they speak. The NSM theory suggests that there are 65 meanings or human concepts of this kind (see Table 1). These meanings are called semantic primitives or primes and they have been identified by a process of trial and error. Exponents of semantic primes in English and Russian (after Gladkova 2010, Goddard and Wierzbicka 2014a) JA, TY, KTO-TO, ČTO-TO~VEŠČ’, LJUDI, TELO substantives I, YOU, SOMEONE, SOMETHING~THING, PEOPLE, BODY ROD~VID, ČAST’ relational substantives KINDS, PARTS ĖTOT, TOT ŽE, DRUGOJ determiners THIS, THE SAME, OTHER~ELSE ODIN, DVA, NEKOTORYE, VSE, MNOGO, MALO quantifiers ONE, TWO, SOME, ALL, MUCH~MANY, LITTLE~FEW XOROŠIJ~XOROŠO, PLOXOJ~PLOXO evaluators GOOD, BAD BOL’ŠOJ, MALEN’KIJ descriptors BIG, SMALL ZNAT’, DUMAT’, XOTET’, NE XOTET’, ČUVSTVOVAT’, VIDET’, SLYŠAT’ mental predicates KNOW, THINK, WANT, DON’T WANT, FEEL, SEE, HEAR GOVORIT’~SKAZAT’, SLOVA, PRAVDA speech SAY, WORDS, TRUE DELAT’, PROISXODIT’~SLUČAT’SJA, DVIGAT’SJA actions, events, movement DO, HAPPEN, MOVE BYT’ (GDE-TO), BYT’~EST’, BYT’ (KEM-TO/ČEM-TO) location, existence, Table 1 BE (SOMEWHERE), THERE IS, BE (SOMEONE/SOMETHING) specification MOJ/MOJA/MOE possession (IS) MINE ŽIT’, UMERET’ life and death LIVE, DIE KOGDA~VREMJA, SEJČAS, DO, POSLE, DOLGO, KOROTKOE VREMJA, NEKOTOROE VREMJA, MOMENT WHEN~TIME, NOW, BEFORE, AFTER, A LONG TIME, A SHORT TIME, FOR SOME TIME, MOMENT time GDE~MESTO, ZDES’, NAD, POD, DALEKO, BLIZKO, STORONA, VNUTRI, KASAT’SJA place WHERE~PLACE, HERE, ABOVE, BELOW, FAR, NEAR, SIDE, INSIDE, TOUCH NE, MOŽET BYT’, MOČ’, POTOMU ČTO, ESLI logical concepts NOT, MAYBE, CAN, BECAUSE, IF OČEN’, BOL’ŠE~EŠČE intensifier, augmentor VERY, MORE KAK~TAK similarity LIKE~AS Notes: • Exponents of primes can be polysemous, i.e. they can have other, additional meanings. • Exponents of primes may be words, bound morphemes, or phrasemes. • They can be formally complex. • They can have language-specific combinatorial variants (allolexes, indicated with ~). • Each prime has well-specified syntactic (combinatorial) properties. 2 The NSM Homepage is a good source of updated information on the approach. It has downloadable materials and a full bibliography of NSM-based publications. They constitute the core of human lexicon and can be used to explicate more complex meanings. Apart from words, these meanings can be expressed by bound morphemes or phrasemes. These meanings equal lexical units (cf. Apresjan 1992, Mel’čuk 1988). This means that if a word is polysemous, the meaning of a prime equals only one meaning of this word. To distinguish the meaning of a prime from the other meanings of a given word (in printed text), the primes are, by convention, represented by small capital letters (e.g., THINK, GOOD, PEOPLE). Wierzbicka’s inspirational ideas about the universal metalanguage have been tested by different scholars in a number of typologically divergent languages: Malay, Mandarin Chinese, Polish, Spanish, Lao, Mangaaba-Mbula (in Goddard and Wierzbicka eds. 2002), Hawaii Creole English (Stanwood 1997), Korean, Amharic, Cree (in Goddard ed. 2008), French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese (in Peters ed. 2006), Russian (Gladkova 2010), Arabic, Hebrew (Habib 2011), Finnish (Vanhatallo et al. 2014). Partial studies of NSM primes and syntax have been conducted on the basis of another two dozen languages (e.g., Goddard and Wierzbicka eds. 1994). 2.2. Universal grammar The primes constitute a metalanguage because they have an ability to combine with each other in different ways. As Wierzbicka (1996: 19) notes: Despite its obvious limitations, Leibniz’s old metaphor of an “alphabet of human thoughts” is still quite useful here: conceptual primitives are components which have to be combined in certain ways to be able to express meaning. The primes are united by a governing syntax. That is, each prime is identified as being able to combine with certain other primes. They form a mini-language which lies at the core of every language. The syntactic properties of primes are revealed in their valency options. For example, the prime SAY allows a universal valency option of “addressee” and “locutionary topic” - ‘someone (X) said something to someone else (Y)’ and ‘someone (X) said something about something (Z)’. Similarly, the exponent of SAY in Russian - GOVORIT’/SKAZAT’ - has the same syntactic properties as its English exponent. In Russian these sentences with GOVORIT’/SKAZAT’ are ‘kto-to (X) skazal čto-to komu-to drugomu (Y)’ and ‘kto-to (X) skazal čto-to o čem-to (Z)’ respectively. The ‘syntactic properties’ of the primes are identified in the list of canonical contexts or canonical sentences (Goddard and Wierzbicka eds. 1994, 2002). Canonical contexts are combinations of primes which reflect their syntactic properties and which can be used in semantic explications. The prime SAY has the following canonical sentences (Goddard and Wierzbicka 2002: 60): X said something X said something about something X said: “---” X said something to someone X said some words (these words) X said something with (or in) some words Most recent overview of canonical sentences is presented in Goddard and Wierzbicka (2014b). 2.3. Reductive paraphrase principle and semantic explications The primes in their canonical combinations are used to explicate meaning in the form of reductive paraphrase. Wierzbicka (1996) identifies the importance of paraphrase in semantic studies as follows: Semantics can have an explanatory value only if it manages to “define” (or explicate) complex and obscure meanings in terms of simple and self-explanatory ones. If a human being can understand any utterances at all (someone else’s or their own) it is only because these utterances are built, so to speak, out of simple elements which can be understood by themselves (Wierzbicka 1996: 11). Semantic explications written in NSM present formulae which can be substituted for the meanings explained. A formula of this kind is written in the form of a mini text with each component presented on a new line. Each component is related to the previous component, more precisely, it has an anaphoric relationship with the previous components. The following is an example of a semantic explication of the English word happy worded in NSM (Goddard and Wierzbicka 2014a: 103): He was happy 1. this someone thought like this for some time at that time: 2. “many good things are happening to me now as I want 3. I can do many things now as I want 4. this is good” 5. because of this, this someone felt something good at that time 6. like people feel at many times when they think like this for some time The universality of the “primitive” concepts and their syntactic properties used in the NSM allows for the explications to be translatable into any language without any loss or addition in meaning. The Russian version of this explication would be: He was happy 1. ėtot kto-to dumal tak nekotoroe vremja v to vremja: 2. “mnogo xorošix veščej proisxodit so moj sejčas kak ja xoču 3. ja mogu delat’ mnogo veščej kak ja xoču 4. ėto xorošo 5. poėtomu, ėtot kto-to čuvstvoval čto-to xorošee v ėto vremja 6. kak ljudi čuvstvujut často, kogda oni dumajut tak nekotoroe vremja Similarly, this explication can be represented in any version of NSM without any change of meaning due to universality of the metalanguage. The NSM has developed into a versatile tool that has been successful in the analysis of a large variety of linguistic phenomena. Wierzbicka and her followers have applied it in the study of emotions (e.g., Wierzbicka 1992, 1999, 2009, 2017), social categories (Wierzbicka 1997), speech act verbs (Wierzbicka 1987), mental states (Wierzbicka 2006), artefacts and animals (Wierzbicka 1985), verbs of motion (Goddard, Wierzbicka and Wong 2016), kinship terms (Wierzbicka 2015) (to name just a few). It has also served in explications of meanings of grammatical constructions (e.g., Wierzbicka 1988, 2006, Goddard and Wierzbicka 2016)3. With the pool of knowledge acquired from the analysis of diverse vocabularies and grammars, especially in a cross-linguistic perspective, Wierzbicka developed a way of applying her approach to the study of cultural phenomena embedded in language. This led to the idea of the salience of cultural key words (Wierzbicka 1997) and cultural scripts (Wierzbicka 2002, 2003). We will cover these aspects of Wierzbicka’s approach and work in the next issue of the Russian Journal of Linguistics. 3. THE ARTICLES OF THIS ISSUE The current issue comprises articles written by Anna Wierzbicka’s colleagues, friends and collaborators who either directly use her approach of linguistic analysis or are considerably influenced by it. The first article is written by Igor Mel’čuk (Montreal, Canada), the creator of the Meaning-Text linguistic approach (Mel’čuk 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016). In this article he argues that the main contribution of Anna Wierzbicka to linguistics is the idea of semantic decomposition-that is, representing meaning in terms of structurally organized configurations of simpler meanings. He further demonstrates how this idea can be applied using two Meaning-Text mini-models for English and Russian at four levels-semantic, deep-syntactic, surface-syntactic, and deep-morphological. Examples of formal rules relating the representations of two adjacent levels are presented. In the next article, Cliff Goddard (Brisbane, Australia) - a long-term Anna Wierzbicka’s collaborator and a co-developer of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage, follows the seminal work of Wierzbicka (1985, 2013), and proposes and discusses a set of semantic analyses of words from three different levels of the English ethnozoological taxonomic hierarchy: creature (unique beginner), bird, fish, snake, and animal (life-form level), dog and kangaroo (generic level). The research is conducted using the analytical framework of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage approach (Wierzbicka 1996, 2014, Goddard and Wierzbicka 2014a). The work implements NSM constituents - semantic primes, semantic molecules and semantic templates (Goddard 2012, 2016). Other issues considered include the extent to which cultural components feature in the semantics of ethnozoological categories, and the extent to which semantic knowledge may vary across different speech communities. Sally Rice and John Newman (Edmonton, Canada) investigate the usage in English of basic verbs of ideation (think, know) and physical activity (strike, hit, go, run) as they take on new epistemic meanings and functions. The choice of words and meanings overlaps with some semantic primes from Wierzbicka’s Natural Semantic Metalanguage. The authors find that many verbs and phrasal expressions, ideational or not, seem 3 A full bibliography of Anna Wierzbicka’s work is available on her ANU webpage and the NSM Homepage. to be associated with rather narrow collocational patterning, argument structure, and inflectional marking in almost idiom-like and constructional fashion. Moreover, it is argued that expressions associated with 1SG and 2nd person “cognizers” are, to a large extent, in complementary distribution, giving rise to fairly strong semantic differences in how I and you “ideate”. This study demonstrates the extent of inflectional and collocational specificity for verbs of cognition and physical activity and discuss implications that lexico-syntactic idiosyncracy has for cognitive linguistics. Jock Onn Wong (Singapore) demonstrates how the Natural Semantic Metalanguage can be applied in language teaching. In particular, he uses it to capture the meaning of three logical connectors, therefore, moreover and in fact for English language teaching purposes. He demonstrates that the knowledge and understanding of the meaning of these words is essential for constructing logical texts and building logical connections. The author explains that the advantages of using simple universal concepts for explicating such words for pedagogical purposes are their accessibility and non-ethnocentric nature. The paper by Ekaterina Rakhilina (Moscow, Russia) and Aimgul Kazkenova (Almaty, Kazakhstan) also relates to the issues of language pedagogy and deals with a well-known problem of the distribution of grammatical markers within a certain category and whether this distribution is motivated semantically or not. It discusses the choice of singular and plural forms of nouns in Russian texts. The paper builds on Anna Wierzbicka’s seminal work recognizing that the rules which regulate the usage of number markers in Russian are language-specific (Wierzbicka 1988). The research relies on data from Kazakh-Russian bilinguals. The paper demonstrates that the deviations in nominal number marking in the texts of bilinguals are not arbitrary but semantically motivated. They follow semantic strategies which are characteristic of speakers appealing to both systems at once. The paper argues that the violation of standard usage observed in the learner corpus can specify the rules governing Russian number usage which have been violated. Anna Zalizniak and Elena Paducheva (Moscow, Russia) address their article to the analysis of discourse markers with the meaning “speaker’s opinion about a certain state of affairs”. The paper builds on Wierzbicka’s research discussing the presence of the speaker in the utterance (e.g., Wierzbicka 1972, 1987, 2003[1991]). The paper presents an analysis of three Russian discourse words pozhaluj, nikak, vsjo-taki based on the National Corpus of Russian data. The study offers the prospect of an integral research of discourse words which combines methods of classical semantic analysis, contextual-semantic method, conceptual analysis and narratology. Valentina Apresjan (Moscow, Russia) presents a corpus-based study of Russian reduplicated constructions with colour terms. The study establishes that absolute frequencies of non-reduplicated colour terms in Russian reflect both Anna Wierzbicka’s “universals of visual semantics” (Wierzbicka 1990, 2005), as well as certain language and culture-specific tendencies. Her findings establish the importance of corpus methods in the study of colour terms and reduplication, demonstrate that the use and interpretation of lexical and syntactic items hinges both on semantic and pragmatic factors, and add to the understanding of semantics and pragmatics of Russian colour terms and reduplication construction. The article by Alexei Shmelev (Moscow, Russia) deals with the Russian words referring to ‘freedom’ (svoboda, volja, and their derivatives svobodnyj, vol’nyj, vol’nost’, etc.) in both synchronic and diachronic aspects. It seeks to elaborate and to refine the analysis given in some earlier publications by Wierzbicka (1997) and Shmelev (Shmelev 2003, 2013). The paper analyzes the spatial dimension in the meaning of the words under consideration, the contrast between svoboda and volja before the Revolution, their semantic development during Soviet times and their current semantic status. In addition, the author considers the use of the words in question in the translations of various texts into Russian (with reference to the parallel corpora of the Russian National Corpus). The issue concludes with a Review Article by Elizaveta Kotorova (Zielona Góra, Poland). The author reviews three recent articles by Anna Wierzbicka on kinship terminology. It demonstrates how Wierzbicka introduces a novel way of analysing the semantics of kinship terms by using the methodology of Natural Semantic Metalanguage. It is shown that this kind of approach allows the researcher to successfully overcome Eurocentrism in studying kinship terminology in diverse languages by relying on universals of human cognition. 1. CONCLUDING REMARKS The Special Issue dedicated to Wierzbicka in recognition of her contributions to linguistics will be continued in the next issue. It will focus on Anna Wierzbicka’s research aimed at the relationship between language and culture and other applications of her approach to studying meaning. We would like to express sincere gratitude to all authors contributing to this issue. We would also like to congratulate again Anna Wierzbicka on her anniversary and to thank her for her inspiring work, generosity, moral support and kindness.

Anna N Gladkova

Monash University; Australian National University

Author for correspondence.
Email: angladkova@gmail.com
20 Chancellors Walk, Clayton Campus, Monash University; Melbourne, VIC 3800, Australia

Lecturer in English as an International Language at Monash University and an Honorary Lecturer in Linguistics at the Australian National University. She received her PhD in Linguistics from the Australian National University. Her research interests include semantics, pragmatics, language and culture interface, cognitive linguistics and Natural Semantic Metalanguage. She has taught linguistics and applied linguistics at the Australian National University and University of New England (Australia) as well as University of Sussex and University of Brighton (United Kingdom). She is member of the Editorial Board of Corpus Pragmatics and Yearbook of Corpus Linguistics and Pragmatics (Springer).

Tatiana V Larina

Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (RUDN University)

Email: tatiana_tv@rudn.ru
6, Miklukho-Maklaya, 117198, Moscow, Russia

Full Professor at RUDN University, and is the Editor-in-Chief of the Russian Journal of Linguistics. Her research interests embrace language, culture and communication; intercultural pragmatics, intercultural communication, communicative ethnostyles, and (im)politeness theory. Key publications: Kategoriya vezhlivosti i stil' kommunikatsii: sopostavlenie angliiskikh i russkikh lingvokul'turnykh traditsii, Moscow, 2009; Anglichane i russkie: Yazyk, kul'tura, kommunikatsiya, Moscow, 2013; Osnovy mezhkul'turnoi kommunikatsii, Moscow, 2017; Culture-Specific Communicative Styles as a Framework for Interpreting Linguistic and Cultural Idiosyncrasies // International Review of Pragmatics, 7 (3), 195-215, 2015.

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