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Intercultural Pragmatics

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Volume 13, Issue 4


Making sense of terms of address in European languages through the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM)

Anna Wierzbicka
Published Online: 2016-11-04 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ip-2016-0022


Building on the author’s earlier work on address practices and focusing on the French words monsieur and madame, this paper seeks to demonstrate that generic titles used daily across Europe have relatively stable meanings, different in different languages, and that their semantic analysis can provide keys to the speakers’ cultural assumptions and attitudes. But to use these keys effectively, we need some basic locksmith skills. The NSM approach, with its stock of primes and molecules and its mini-grammar for combining these into explications and cultural scripts, provides both the necessary tools and the necessary techniques. The unique feature of the NSM approach to both semantics and pragmatics is the reliance on a set of simple, cross-translatable words and phrases, in terms of which interactional meanings and norms can be articulated, compared, and explained to linguistic and cultural outsiders. Using this approach, this paper assigns intuitive, intelligible and cross-translatable meanings to several key terms of address in French and English, and it shows how these meanings can account for many aspects of these terms’ use. The paper offers a framework for studying the use of terms of address in Europe and elsewhere and has implications for language teaching, cross-cultural communication and education.

Keywords: address practices; cultural scripts; intercultural communication; miscommunication; NSM-based pragmatics


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About the article

Anna Wierzbicka

Anna Wierzbicka, born and educated in Poland, is Professor of Linguistics (Emerita) at the Australian National University. Together with Cliff Goddard, Wierzbicka created the “Natural Semantic Metalanguage,” based on empirical cross-linguistic investigations, which can serve as a basis for comparing meanings across languages and cultures. Her latest books are Imprisoned in English: The Hazards of English as a Default Language (Oxford University Press 2014) and (with Cliff Goddard) Words and Meanings: Lexical Semantics Across Domains, Languages, and Cultures (Oxford University Press 2014).

Published Online: 2016-11-04

Published in Print: 2016-11-01

Citation Information: Intercultural Pragmatics, Volume 13, Issue 4, Pages 499–527, ISSN (Online) 1613-365X, ISSN (Print) 1612-295X, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ip-2016-0022.

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