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Intercultural Pragmatics

Editor-in-Chief: Kecskes, Istvan

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Volume 7, Issue 1 (Jan 2010)


Cross-cultural communication and miscommunication: The role of cultural keywords

Anna Wierzbicka
Published Online: 2010-03-15 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/iprg.2010.001


The experience of immigrants and other people who live transcultural lives (cf. Besemeres and Wierzbicka eds. Translating lives: Living with two languages and cultures, University of Queensland Press, 2007) confirms that different societies and lingua-cultures have different tacit norms for interpersonal communication; and that such differences matter a great deal in many people's lives. Every lingua-culture inherits, and transmits, historically and culturally-shaped ways of thinking. This applies to English-speaking societies no less than to any other. Given the massive scale of past and on-going immigration to English-speaking countries as well as the growing domination of English in the global world it is particularly important to recognize that English, too, is saturated with historically-transmitted cultural assumptions.

It is, above all, ‘Anglo English’—the common core of the “Englishes of the inner circle” (Kachru 1985)—which tends to be mistaken for a culture-neutral medium of communication. As a result, ‘Anglo English’, which greatly facilitates cross-cultural communication in today's world, is also a major source of miscommunication and cross-cultural failure.

This paper takes as its starting point one of the most illuminating cross-cultural novels, Nabokov's Pnin, described by Mary Besemeres (Translating one's self: Language and selfhood in cross-cultural autobiography, Peter Lang, 2002) as “the portrait of a Russian emigrant whom fate has left dangling in the alien English language”. The author surveys a number of “anomalies” in “Pninian English” which had an impact on Pnin's life in America. Then the paper moves beyond Pnin, but stays with Nabokov, and explores one area of immigrant linguistic condition: the loss of cultural keywords.

I focus in particular on the Russian key cultural concept of ‘sud’ba' and on Nabokov's continued reliance on this concept in his books created, through the English medium, by his post-Russian authorial self. My overall purpose, however, is not to talk about Nabokov, but to illuminate the immigrant condition and the miscommunication inherent in cross-cultural communication. In my analysis, I rely on the ‘NSM’ methodology of semantic analysis, which allows us to analyse intercultural communication and miscommunication from a neutral, non-Anglocentric perspective.

About the article

Published Online: 2010-03-15

Published in Print: 2010-03-01

Citation Information: Intercultural Pragmatics, ISSN (Online) 1613-365X, ISSN (Print) 1612-295X, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/iprg.2010.001.

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