Prototypes in semantics and pragmatics: Explicating attitudinal meanings in terms of prototypes

Anna Wierzbicka*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Citations (Scopus)


This paper shows how ‘pragmatic meanings’ encoded in different forms of address (such as titles, ‘polite pronouns’, and personal names, including their expressive derivates) can be portrayed in a rigorous and illuminating way in a ‘natural semantic metalanguage’ in which any other kind of meaning can also be explicated, and that such explications allow us to make the similarities and the differences between different pragmatic categories clear and explicit - both within a language and across language and culture boundaries. It is argued that abstract features such as ‘solidarity’,’familiarity’, ‘(in) formality’, ‘distance’, ‘intimacyand so on do not provide adequate tools for the description and comparison of pragmatic meanings, because they are not self-explanatory and because they don't have any constant, language-independent value. (For example, the ‘distance’ implied by the English title Mr. is different from that implied by the French title Monsieur; and the familiarity’ implied by Russian forms such as Misa or Vanja is quite different from that implied by English forms such as Mike or John.) It is shown that many pragmatic meanings have a ‘prototypical’ semantic structure; that is, that they present emotions and attitudes in terms of certain prototypical human relationships, rather than in terms of fully specified mental states and social relations. In particular, social and existential categories, such as children, women, and men, or people whom one knows well and people whom one doesn't know, provide important signposts in the universe of human relations encoded in language. The exact role which such prototypes play in different pragmatic categories can be shown in a precise and illuminating way in verbal explications constructed in the proposed metalanguage.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)731-769
Number of pages39
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1989


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