Book week: English - meaning and culture

(For more about Book Week, see the first post of the week.)

Free book 5:  English: meaning and culture

I do believe that this was the first book I ever received as a blogger. Yes, it is 10 years old. Yes, I am only just writing about it. Yes, I am contrite.

What's kept me from writing about it is that I haven't read it cover to cover. This is very common with me and academic books. I get a sense of the argument, a sense of the contents and then I know where to go when I need more specifics on that kind of content. When I read books for review in academic journals, I do read cover-to-cover (except for reference books, for which I set up a sampling scheme). What's got(ten) Book Week going is that I've relieved myself of the duties of print book reviews. I am freeing myself to say things about books that I'm reasonably familiar with.

English: meaning and culture is by the mind-bogglingly productive Anna Wierzbicka, and like most of her books it uses elements of her particular approach to language, Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM). I'm going to suggest right now that you let your eyes glaze over a bit at the NSM explications (unless you're a super linguist nerd). That to me is not the fun part.

The fun part is watching how Wierzbicka's (I'm just going to type W from now on, please excuse), mind works in shaping an argument--particularly in the wide range of linguistic and cultural evidence she brings to bear on the argument.

Essentially, she takes an opposite position to that of this blog. While I'm here saying "look at how different American and British language/culture are", W is saying "those differences are piddling; the important difference is between how Anglos [her term for English speakers of the "inner circle"] think and how other cultures think. She is, of course, more correct than I am. I'm looking at what's easy to look at--the more similar things are, the more easy it is to specify their differences. She's looking at a much bigger picture, and she (as a Polish immigrant to Australia) has a great outsider-insider vantage point. The book starts with a chapter that's really stayed with me: "Anglo cultural scripts seen through middle-eastern eyes". In it W examines the experience of Abraham Rihbany, a Syrian theologian who immigrated to the US, and discovered how becoming enculturated there affected his ways of perceiving his home culture. Though Rihbany was writing about these things in 1920, the observations are fundamental enough that they ring true today--about the valuing of accuracy in English speech. Accuracy trumps other possible values like positivity or effusiveness, which Rihbany found to be more important in his homeland.

The 'meaning and culture' of this book mostly has to do with how Anglo epistemology--what we count as knowledge and truth and how we use those things--pervades the language and vice versa. The rationalism of Anglo culture, essentially. The desire for accuracy. The need to say I think  or I suppose when we're not 100% sure of something, the belief that the world can be divided (by us) into right and wrong or correct and incorrect, the need to be "reasonable". She shows how many of these concepts don't map exactly to the "equivalents" that are offered in bilingual dictionaries.  These concepts are the kinds of thing that we take so much for granted in our culture that it takes a lot of pointing out--a lot of evidence--for us to get it through our English-thinking heads that this is not a natural way to be. This is a cultural way to be.

A more recent book of W's is called Imprisoned in English: The Hazards of English As a Default Language, which gives the hint that she sees English lingua-francaism as a potential problem. This is the theme of the conclusion of English, and W looks at some case studies of problems for international English. For example, harking back to chapter 5, about the concept of "fairness", W questions whether fair-use copyright laws can be interpreted in the same way in different cultures. Non-"Anglo", i.e.  "outer circle" Englishes--things like Singaporean English or Nigerian English-- are a different matter. Their differences from Anglo English indicate to W that the language had to meet their home cultures part-way. But where English is used as a lingua franca, it's supposed by many to be "neutral", and W is having none of that.

There's just too much in this book to do it full justice here--so order it from your library and see what you think.

The book (like most of W's books) is published by Oxford University Press. Unfortunately, their website is not working well tonight, so I have not been able to link directly to a "buy" page. But I'm sure you're resourceful enough to find it...


  1. I fail to see this obsession with accuracy in English speech. Compared with French, say, the language gives a significant degree of choice to speakers/writers to use whatever works. This is surely empirical rather than rational.

    And those concepts of fairness and reasonableness are fudges that work. I wonder whether the wellspring of their importance is the English Common Law — exported to the rest of those countries that W calls 'Anglo'.

    And admitting that you're uncertain is, for me, a matter of honest truth-telling — stemming from the Helleno-Roman intellectual tradition filtered through the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. (Many would include a Christian Scholastic ingredient in that mix, perhaps also a Talmudic.) Most of this tradition was conducted in languages other than English.

  2. Sounds an interesting book, but it is also a basic anthropological focus: being 'cultural' is the natural way to be, for everyone.

  3. David Crosbie, the issue of honesty can be resolved if the speaker and listener don't assume precision. For instance, in speech we quote people all the time and if we get a word wrong no one thinks anything of it as long as the meaning is the same. In writing we couldn't use quotation marks for that.

  4. I'd recommend reading the book, rather than my poor description of it, before coming to conclusions. As I say, her evidence is detailed and very interesting.

  5. Debby, for me there's a difference between precision and commitment to truth value. I don't mean a moral commitment, but rather a shared assumption that applying a truth test will achieve practical results.

  6. Having received some journalistic training, I prize accuracy. When someone said my writing was fair and accurate, I considered that the highest compliment. W's ideas as presented by Lynne are a bit jarring, but I welcome the insight. It reminds me of a psalm that says, "Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other." I used to think that it was just pretty poetry, but I've realized that mercy and truth can be in conflict. And other cultures may prize mercy over truth in communication, or, as Lynne said, accuracy vs. positivity. Nutritious food for thought!

  7. I'm ashamed to admit that after reading this review, the main thought in my mind was that new (to me) word "lingua-francaism" seems like an excellent site for intrusive R.

  8. The question of accuracy is an interesting one. As a British emigrant to the US, with no experience of any other culture, what stand out to me (and no doubt to you too, Lynne) are the differences between US and UK usage. My sense is that Americans are fonder than the British of fixed rules about certain usages. Examples: the that/which and less/fewer distinctions; the US difference between 'healthy' and 'healthful,' the latter being more or less unknown in the UK, I think; the US 'rule' that 'between' can only apply to two things, so you must use 'among' for three or more.

    By contrast, Brits seem to be more agitated by new words of allegedly US origin -- normalcy, winningest, proactive, etc etc -- words that the Simon Heffers of this world object to on the grounds that they're not real words at all.

    But you might argue that both these attitudes -- and of course I'm generalizing hugely -- are driven by a desire for accuracy. On the American side, accuracy in the form of usage rules; on the UK side, accuracy in the form of a fixed vocabulary that isn't to be messed with.

    You can expect my academic treatise on this subject any decade now.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)