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Chapter 2 Meaning as sign


Text 5


Edward Sapir: Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture, and Personality. Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. University of California Press 1949, pages 157-9.


According to the principle of linguistic relativity, culture is encoded in the lexicon and the syntax of a language and the following examples illustrate this. We have to ask ourselves, however, if the very description in English of linguistic phenomena experienced by speakers of other languages in their respective languages can ever correspond to their own experience of their language. Linguistic relativity applies also to the description of linguistic phenomena.


When we observe an object of the type that we call a 'stone' moving through space towards the earth, we involuntarily analyze the phenomenon into two concrete notions, that of a stone and that of an act of falling, and, relating these two notions to each other by certain formal methods proper to English, we declare that 'the stone falls.' We assume, naively enough, that this is about the only analysis that can properly be made. And yet, if we look into the way that other languages take to express this very simple kind of impression, we soon realize how much may be added to, subtracted from, or rearranged in our own form of expression without materially altering our report of the physical fact.


In German and in French, we are compelled to assign 'stone' to a gender category; ... in Chippewa we cannot express ourselves without bringing in the apparently irrelevant fact that a stone is an inanimate object. If we find gender beside the point, the Russians may wonder why we consider it necessary to specify in every case whether a stone, or any other object for that matter, is conceived in a definite or an indefinite manner, why the difference between 'the stone' and 'a stone' matters. 'Stone falls' is good enough for Lenin, as it was good enough for Cicero ... The Kwakiutl Indian of British Columbia may ... wonder why we do not go a step further and indicate in some way whether the stone is visible or invisible to the speaker at the moment of speaking and whether it is nearest to the speaker, the person addressed, or some third party ... We insist on expressing the singularity of the falling object, where the Kwakiutl Indian, differing from the Chippewa, can generalize and make a statement which would apply equally well to one or several stones. Moreover, he need not specify the time of the fall. The Chinese get on with a minimum of explicit formal statement and content themselves with a frugal 'stone fall.' ... In the Nootka language the combined impression of a stone falling is quite differently analyzed. The stone need not be specifically referred to, but a single word, a verb form, may be used ... 'it stones down'.


¨ How far is Sapir's view here consistent with the remark in Text 4 that 'there is a strand of common sense that insists that a stone is a stone whatever you call it'? How common is common sense?

¨ What cultural meanings might be expressed by each of these different encodings of the stone-falling event?


Text 6


George Lakoff and Mark Johnson: Metaphors we Live By. University of Chicago Press 1980, pages 3-5.


Culture is encoded not only in the semantic structures of a language, but also in its idiomatic expressions that both reflect and direct the way we think. Different languages predispose their speakers to view reality in different ways through the different metaphors they use.


In most of the little things we do every day, we simply think and act more or less automatically along certain lines. Just what these lines are is by no means obvious. One way to find out is by looking at language ... Primarily on the basis of linguistic evidence, we have found that most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature...


To give some idea of what it could mean for a concept to be metaphorical and for such a concept to structure an everyday activity, let us start with the concept argument and the conceptual metaphor argument is war. This metaphor is reflected in our everyday language by a wide variety of expressions:



Your claims are indefensible

He attacked every weak point in my argument

His criticisms were right on target

I demolished his argument

I've never won an argument with him

You disagree? Okay, shoot!

If you use that strategy, he'll wipe you out

He shot down all of my arguments


It is important to see that we don't just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own ... Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war. Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle ... It is in this sense that the argument is war metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing.


Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different. It would seem strange even to call what they were doing 'arguing'.


¨ Do you think the examples given in Text 6 above could be interpreted differently than 'Argument is war'? And if so, what does that say about linguistic relativity?

¨ Can you think of a few metaphors that members of the culture mentioned in the last paragraph of this passage might use when referring to 'arguments'?

¨ Does Lakoff and Johnson's example mean that members of this fictitious culture never argue?


Text 1


Anna Wierzbicka: Semantics, Culture, and Cognition. Oxford University Press 1992, page 119.


In the search for a universal base from which various linguistic encodings could be compared across cultures (like, for Sapir, the universal perception of a 'stone falling'), linguists have often used human emotions, in the belief that emotions are universally human. Recently, this universality has been put into question.


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