- Imprisoned in English: The hazards of English as a default language by Anna Wierzbicka
Few books these days go to the core of the linguistic enterprise, questioning what we do, how we do it, and why we do what we do. Wierzbicka’s Imprisoned in English is one such book—it [End Page 969] questions the key assumptions at the heart of the social sciences and offers a definitive version of the author’s long-standing argument that English is a misleading and unreliable guide to ‘independent reality’ and should not be used as a ‘transparent medium’ of science. The premise alone makes the text worth reading, and the reading is made all the more pleasurable by the perky and engaging style and a rich array of examples from many languages and disciplines.
The book is also notable for the way the author addresses her critics. All of us have strategies for dealing with our academic opponents—some ignore their detractors, others feel hurt by the disagreements, some ‘agree to disagree’, and others go on the offensive. W takes inspiration in objections and critiques and opens the book with a statement that the negative reactions and the ‘derision, incredulity, and skepticism’ (ix) of some of her colleagues have been a great stimulus in writing the book and a way to hone and fine-tune her ideas.
Imprisoned in English consists of eighteen chapters subdivided into six parts. Part 1, ‘Every language draws a circle … ’, links W’s views with Whorf’s (2012 ) argument that implicit reliance on linguistic tools is perilous for the scientist, ‘constrained to certain modes of interpretation even while he thinks himself most free’ (274). Whorf, however, did not go into specifics, while W does, offering a biting critique of theories whose universal claims are grounded in English-language words, such as color or emotion. The author then offers a way out of this conundrum through the natural semantic metalanguage (NSM), a mini-language whose mini-lexicon of sixty-five words (semantic primes) is purportedly shared by ‘all languages’ (based on the table on p. 247 and the NSM website, the sixty-five words are actually documented in eighteen languages from different language groups). The NSM primes are then used to articulate definitions that capture ‘the idea’ of each semantic category in a ‘neutral’, ‘unbiased’, and ‘language-independent’ way. Part 2, ‘Emotions and values’, features case studies of individual terms, and Part 3, ‘ “Politeness” and “Cooperation” ’, case studies of cultural scripts, which give W an opportunity to rearticulate her critique of the Anglocentrism of Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson’s (1987) politeness theory.
The arguments then heat up in Part 4, ‘Entering other minds’, which raises the question of how we enter the realm of other languages and ensure that our glosses and dictionary entries reflect the actual meanings of the target language. W’s answer stresses the need for linguists working with native-speaker consultants to divest themselves from their own meanings. To show how this could be accomplished, she offers an expanded critique of ways in which other linguists have glossed and explicated words from Aboriginal and Native American languages, followed by her own NSM alternatives. What is lacking, however, is any discussion of the ways in which she arrived at these alternative interpretations; this is an issue to which I return later.
The last chapter in this section, ‘Chimps and the evolution of human cognition’, at first looks like a digression yet, at a closer view, offers the most novel aspect of W’s arguments—a long-awaited response to her critics’ questions about the ontological status of semantic primes. Intriguingly, it turns out that the NSM is but another term for the Ur- or Proto-language, arrived at independently from explorations in historical and Indo-European linguistics. W even postulates the stages of emergence of semantic primes, with ‘think’, ‘two’, ‘body’, and ‘people’, for instance, attributed to the proto-humans of one million year ago (an expanded version of the same...