Dec 182009

justdoitWhen is a suggestion just a suggestion, and when is it a request or an order? So if someone says it’s a good idea to do this or that, can we be sure they are just throwing out an idea, or might it mean they are asking or telling us to do it?

Presumably the answer can depend on things like whether it’s our best friend or boss making the suggestion, and it’ll vary from context to context.

When we want to talk about the different forms we might use to get someone to do something in an English class, we can run into problems. Descriptions may involve words like ‘direct’, ‘indirect’, ‘imposition’, ‘polite’, ‘consideration’, ‘formal’ and ‘informal’  and they don’t have universal meanings that match in all languages. Each one comes with some of our cultural baggage attached.

 Enter Anna Wierzbicka. She advocates using ‘semantic primitives’ to explain and compare meanings – so limiting ourselves to words that we know have shared concepts in all languages. Here’s how Anna compares ordering, asking and advising someone to do something using semantic primitives.


Source: page 202 of Cross-Cultural Pragmatics: The Semantics of Human Interaction (Trends in Linguistics: Studies & Monographs), Mouton de Gruyter, 2003 by Anna Wierzbicka

The idea is that with descriptions like this and lots of different contexts (so here, it would be lots of different situations in which different folks might order, ask and advise) we can compare what we’d say in different languages and discuss cultural differences without misunderstanding. She’s so utterly logical and it’s a brilliant book. I just wish there were more semantic primes we could use. See here for a list.

 Posted by at 7:37 am

  4 Responses to “Semantic primes”

  1. Thank you very much, Vicki, I think this is a book I’m going to have to read.

  2. Be aware that Anna Weetabix’s work, though interesting, is also controversial, and a lot of linguists have no time for it.

  3. Curiosity raised: What aspects are controversial, John?

  4. The whole idea of cross-language, cross-cultural irreducible semantic elements.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>



This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.