Semantics, Culture, and Cognition: Universal Human Concepts in Culture-Specific Configurations

Semantics, Culture, and Cognition: Universal Human Concepts in Culture-Specific Configurations

Semantics, Culture, and Cognition: Universal Human Concepts in Culture-Specific Configurations

Semantics, Culture, and Cognition: Universal Human Concepts in Culture-Specific Configurations

Synopsis

Not everything that can be said in one language can be said in another. The lexicons of different languages seem to suggest different conceptual universes. Investigating cultures from a universal, language-independent perspective, this book rejects analytical tools derived from the English language and Anglo culture and proposes instead a "natural semantic metalanguage" formulated in English words but based on lexical universals. The outcome of two and a half decades of research, the metalanguage is made up of universal semantic primitives in terms of which all meanings--including the most culture-specific ones--can be described and compared in a precise and illuminating way. Integrating insights from linguistics, cultural anthropology, and cognitive psychology, and written in simple, non-technical language, Semantics, Culture, and Cognition is accessible not only to scholars and students, but also to the general reader interested in semantics and the relationship between language and culture.

Excerpt

Language is a tool for expressing meaning. We think, we feel, we perceive--and we want to express our thoughts, our feelings, our perceptions. Usually we want to express them because we want to share them with other people, but this is not always the case. We also need language to record our thoughts and to organise them. We write diaries, we write notes to ourselves, we make entries in our desk calendars, and so on. We also swear and exclaim--sometimes even when there is no one to hear us. The common denominator of all these different uses of language is not communication but meaning.

But if language is a tool for expressing meaning, then meaning, at least to some extent, must be independent of language and transferable from one language to another. Yet this essential separateness--and separability--of meaning from language has sometimes been denied. For example, the eighteenth-century German thinker Johann Gottfried Herder maintained that thinking is essentially identical with speaking and therefore differs from language to language and from nation to nation. "The human spirit thinks with words", he maintained (1877-1913, v. 21:19). "What is thinking? Inward language. . . . [T]alking is thinking aloud" (v.21:88). Consequently, "every nation speaks . . . according to the way it thinks and thinks according to the way it speaks". Thoughts cannot be transferred from one language to another because every thought depends on the language in which it has been formulated.

Profound semantic differences between languages were also emphasised by Wilhelm von Humboldt, who saw different languages as bearers of different cognitive perspectives, different worldviews. He wrote:

[E]ach language . . . contains a characteristic worldview. As individual sound mediates between object and person, so the whole of language mediates between human beings and the internal and external nature that affects them. . . . The same act which enables him [man] to spin language out of himself enables him to spin himself into language, and each language draws a circle around the people to whom it adheres which it is possible for the individual to escape only by stepping into a different one. (1903-36, v.7:60) . . .

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