Two levels of verbal communication, universal and culture-specific

Anna Wierzbicka*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

    9 Citations (Scopus)


    The "naïve" (non-scientific) models of the human person embedded in everyday language differ a great deal across languages and often lead us to the heart of the shared cultural values of the speech community in question. Even within Europe the models of the human person embedded in different languages are quite diverse. Remarkably, all human cultures appear to agree that human beings have a body (that people can see) and "something else" (that people can't see). The construal of this "something else", however, differs a great deal across languages, cultures, and epochs. For speakers of modern English, this "something else" is usually interpreted as the 'mind'; and in the era of global English, the model of a human being as composed of a body and a mind is often taken for granted by Anglophone humanities and social sciences (and even by cognitive and evolutionary science). Yet 'mind' is a conceptual artefact of modern English - an ethno-construct no more grounded in reality than the French esprit, the Danish sind, the Russian duša, the Latin anima, or the Yolngu birrimbirr. The reification of the English 'mind' and its elevation to the status of a "scientific" prism through which all other languages, cultures, indigenous psychologies, and even stages in the evolution of primates can be legitimately interpreted is a striking illustration of the blind spot in contemporary social science which results from the "invisibility" of English as a more and more globalised way of speaking and thinking. This paper demonstrates that the meanings hidden in such language-specific cultural constructs can be revealed and compared, in a precise and illuminating way, through universal semantic primes brought to light by NSM semantics (cf. e.g., Wierzbicka 2014; Goddard and Wierzbicka 2014.) It also shows how the understanding of such culturally central concepts can lead to better communication across languages and cultures.

    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationVerbal Communication
    Publisherde Gruyter
    Number of pages35
    ISBN (Electronic)9783110255478
    ISBN (Print)9783110394696
    Publication statusPublished - 7 Mar 2016


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