If you study linguistics, you will probably come across Anna Wierzbicka’s Cross-Cultural Pragmatics, perhaps as an undergrad, but definitely if you go into the fields of pragmatics or semantics. It’s a seminal work for reasons I will get into soon. The problem is that most of the data used to draw the conclusions are oversimplifications. This review is written for people who encounter this book in their early, impressionable semesters.
What’s it all about?
With Cross-cultural pragmatics, Wierzbicka was able to change the field of pragmatics for the better. Her basic argument runs like this: the previous “universal” rules of politeness that govern speech acts are wrong. The rules behind speech acts should instead be formulated in terms of cultural-specific conversational strategies. Also, the mechanisms of speech acts are culture-specific, meaning that they reflect the norms and assumptions of a culture. Wierzbicka argues that language-specific norms of interaction should be linked to specific cultural values.
At the time Cross-cultural pragmatics was written, this needed to be said. There was more involved in speech acts than scholars were acknowledging. And the explanations used for speech acts in English were not entirely appropriate to explain speech acts in other languages or even other English-speaking cultures, although they were being used to. So Wierzbicka gets credit for helping to advance the field of linguistics.
So what’s wrong with that?
The problem I have with this book is that Wierzbicka lays out a research method designed to avoid oversimplifications, but then oversimplifies her data to reach conclusions. Wierzbicka’s method in Cross-cultural pragmatics is what can be seen as a step in the development of semantic primes, which aims to explain all of the words in a language using a set of terms or concepts (do, say, want, etc.) that can not be simplified, their meanings being innately understood and their existence being cross-cultural.
For example, Wierzbicka analyzes self-assertion in Japanese and English. She says that Japanese speakers DO NOT say “I want/think/like X”, while English speakers DO. She then translates the Japanese term enryo (restraint) like this:
X thinks: I can’t say “I want/think/like this” or “I don’t want/think/like this”
Someone could feel bad because of this
X doesn’t say it because of this
X doesn’t do some things because of this
This is all fine and good, but you can probably see how such an analysis has the potential to unravel. Just taking polysemy and context into account means that each and every term must be thoroughly explained using the above system.
But whatever. Let’s just say that it’s possible to do so. Semantic primes are still discussed in academia and I’m not here to debate their usefulness. What I want to talk about is how Wierzbicka oversimplifies the language and cultures that she compares. Although there are many examples to choose from, I’ll only list a few that come in quick succession.
Those manly Aussies
In describing Australian culture, Wierzbicka says that “Shouting is a specifically Australian concept” (173). And yet she doesn’t explain how it is any different from buying a round or why this concept is “specifically Australian” She then describes the Australian term dob in but does not tell us how it differs from snitch. Finally, she notes that the Australians use the term whinge an awful lot. Whinge is used to bolster Wierzbicka’s claim that Australians value “tough masculinity, gameness, and resilience” and that they refer to British people as whingers .
First of all, how Wierzbicka misses the obviously similarities between whinging and whining is beyond me. She instead compares whinge to complain. Second, British people refer to other British people as “whingers”, so how exactly is whinge “marginal” in “other parts of the English-speaking world”? (180) Finally, wouldn’t using a negative term like whinge show more about the strained relations between the Australians and British than it would about any sort of heightened “masculine” Australian identity? Does stunad prove that Italian-Americans have a particular or peculiar dislike of morons compared to other cultures?
We should have used a corpus
In other parts of Cross-cultural pragmatics, Wierzbicka seems to be cherry-picking the speech acts that she uses to evaluate the norms and values of the cultures she compares. This can be seen from the following passage on the differences between (white) Anglo-American culture and Jewish or black American culture:
The expansion of such expressions [Nice to have met you, Lovely to see you, etc.] fits in logically with the modern Anglo-American constraints on direct confrontation, direct clashes, direct criticisms, direct ‘personal remarks’ – features which are allowed and promoted in other cultures, for example, in Jewish culture or in Black American culture, in the interest of cultural values such as ‘closeness’, ‘sponteneity’, ‘animation’, or ‘emotional intensity’, which are given in these cultures priority over ‘social harmony’.
This is why, for example, one doesn’t say freely in (white) English, ‘You are wrong’, as one does in Hebrew or ‘You’re crazy’, as one does in Black English. Of course some ‘Anglos’ do say fairly freely things like Rubbish! or even Bullshit!. In particular, Bullshit! (as well as You bastard!) is widely used in conversational Australian English. Phrases of this kind, however, derive their social force and their popularity partly from the sense that one is violating a social constraint. In using phrases of this kind, the speaker defies a social constraint, and exploits it for an expressive purpose, indirectly, therefore, he (sometimes, she) acknowledges the existence of this constraint in the society at large. (pp. 118–9)
Do we know whites Anglo-Americans don’t say “You are wrong” or that they say it less than Jewish people? I heard a white person say it today, but that is just anecdotal evidence. Obviously, large representative corpora were not around to consult when Wierzbicka wrote Cross-cultural pragmatics, but it would be nice to see at least some empirical data points. Instead we’re left with just the assertion that black Americans” “You’re crazy” and Anglo-Americans” “Bullshit!” are not equal, which to me is confusing and misguided. Also, aren’t black people violating a social norm by saying “you’re crazy”?
Wierzbicka’s inability to consult a corpus (because there wasn’t one available at the time, granted) is why I am not consulting one right now, but just off the top of my head, I can think of other (common) expressions from both cultures that would say the exact opposite of what Wierzbicka claims. For example, as Pryor (1979) pointed out, whites have been known to say things like “Cut the shit!” How is this different from Black English’s “You’re crazy!”?
This leads me to the final major problem I have with Cross-cultural pragmatics: While classifications of speech acts based on “directness,” etc. were insufficient for the reasons that Wierzbicka points out, her classifications suffer from not being able to group similar constructions together, which is one of the goal in describing a large system such as language. They are too simplistic and specific to each construction. There are always certain constructions that don’t fit the mold that Wierzbicka lays out, which seems to me a similar problem to the one she’s trying to solve. So the problem gets shifted instead of solved.
Still, I think Wierzbicka was justified in changing the ways that researchers talked about speech acts. I also think she was right in shattering the Anglo-American and English language bias which was prevalent at the time. It’s those points that make Cross-cultural pragmatics an important work. The lack of empirical data and the over-generalizations are unfortunate, but so are lots of other things. Welcome to academia, folks.
Up next: Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye