Anna Wierzbicka’s English: Meaning and Culture

In English: Meaning and Culture, Wierzbicka argues that such words as “fair,” “reasonable” and “right” are so specific to Anglophone culture that they can’t be adequately translated into other languages. An example she gives from personal experience —

“… my daughters, growing up in Australia, used to say to me (in Polish), to nie fair (‘that’s not fair!’), and I used to reply, in exasperation, that I didn’t think in such terms. These bilingual children, who were speaking both English and Polish every day and who were thinking in terms of the English word fair (a key concept of their dominant Anglo Australian culture), knew that there was no Polish word for fair, so they used the English word fair in their Polish sentence. And I, as a blilingual but culturally predominantly Polish person, knew that I found the concept of ‘fair’ both alien and (in a family situation) offensive and hurtful. One of my daughters used to say, with some resentment, ‘You hate the word fair.’ (This is a good example of how cultures clash in cross-cultural and bilingual families.)”

Contra Stephen Pinker and James Wilson, Wierzbicka claims that fairness is not a universal concept and cannot even be translated into non-English languages – the closest equivalent in most other European languages would be better translated as “just,” the implicit appeal made being to principles other than that of equality. This claim seemed very counter-intuitive to me – Wierzbicka says it seems counter-intuitive to most native English speakers – but I’ve asked a few friends who grew up speaking other languages, and their responses seem to provide some support for Wierzbicka. The ALTA blog has links to further perspectives on whether “fair” is translatable.

Wierzbicka makes an analagous claim about “reasonable” — the French “raisonable” for example is apparently better translated as “justifiable.” Hence Wierzbicka denies that such crucial concepts as “fair trial” and “reasonable doubt” can be adequately translated into languages other than English. She believes such concepts flowered within the world of sport and games, then developed in tandem with England’s common law tradition. She quotes from George Fletcher’s Basic Concepts of Legal Thought — “The English common law has flourished in countres where English is the language of legal discourse… There is no way to convey the connotations of ‘due process,’ ‘reasonable doubt,’ and ‘malice aforethought’ in any language except English.'”

Analyzing modern English words more pedantically than a native English speaker could probably manage, Wierzbicka argues that — while other languages have equivalents of “good” and “bad,” and “true” and “false” — only English has “right” and “wrong,” terms rooted in a more empirical and pragmatic epistemology. She traces these peculiarities of English to the influence of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and argues that anyone who learns English becomes in the process educated in “the tradition of British empiricism, of the emphasis on personal experience, on the limitations of one’s knowledge, and on tolerance for diverse points of view and respect for everyone’s ‘personal opinion.’”

Some of her related points — English has unusually many ways of expressing degrees of uncertainty; people speaking English say “I think” and “probably” more frequently than people speaking other languages use equivalent terms, and English has more terms to distinguish different levels of epistemological certainty. Also, the English verbs used for “forcing” or “requiring” or “getting” or “permitting” another person to do something tend to imply something about how the other person feels about it, which is often not true of the related verbs in other Germanic languages.

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