The best books on meaning and language and why it matters

Anna Wierzbicka Author Of What Christians Believe: The Story of God and People in Minimal English
By Anna Wierzbicka

Who am I?

I am professor of linguistics (Emerita) at the Australian National University. I was born in Poland, but having married an Australian I have now lived for 50 years in Australia. In 2007, my daughter Mary Besemeres and I published Translating Lives: Living with Two Languages and Cultures, based on our own experience. I have three big ideas which have shaped my life’s work, and which are all related to my experience and to my thinking about that experience. As a Christian (a Catholic) I believe in the unity of the “human race”, and I am very happy to see that our discovery of “Basic Human” underlying all languages vindicates this unity.

I wrote...

What Christians Believe: The Story of God and People in Minimal English

By Anna Wierzbicka,

Book cover of What Christians Believe: The Story of God and People in Minimal English

What is my book about?

My book explains Christian faith, as distilled in the Nicene Creed of 325 and 381 A.D., through Minimal English, which is the English version of a slightly expanded form of “Basic Human”. The “Story of God and People” told in Minimal English shows the power and versatility of simple words, which, evidence suggests, all languages share.

As the book shows, with the help of such “universal human words”, supplemented by a small inventory of words important to a particular culture, a very rich and sophisticated set of ideas can be explained in a way intelligible to anyone, regardless of their background and beliefs. There are well over two billion Christians in the world, about one third of the world’s total population.

The books I picked & why

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An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

By John Locke, Kenneth P. Winkler (editor),

Book cover of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Why this book?

I have just checked the index to my OUP 2006 book and I found that the number of references to John Locke (mostly, to his Essay) comes to 36. Apart from references to A.W., this beats everyone else; the next much quoted author being Shakespeare (27), and then, Cliff Goddard (18). As these figures illustrate, Locke’s Essay is in my view foundational for the study of meaning. One enormously important idea is developed in the following stunning passage:

“A moderate skill in different languages will easily satisfy one of the truth of this, it being so obvious to observe great store of words in one language which have not any that answer them in another. Which plainly show that those of one country, by their customs and manner of life, have found occasion to make several complex ideas, and given names to them which others never collected into specific ideas… Nay, if we look a little more closely into the matter, and exactly compare different languages, we shall find that, though they may have words which in translation and dictionaries are supposed to answer one another, yet there is scarce one in ten amongst the names of complex ideas.. that stands for the same precise idea which the word doesn’t that in dictionaries it is rendered by.”

As discussed in my 2014 OUP book, in the globalised world of the 21st century, dominated by English, this lack of correspondence between words of different languages leads, inter alia, to catastrophic Anglocentrism in the social sciences, with English concepts being routinely taken for granted as the voice of reason itself.

Cultural Semantics and Social Cognition: A Case Study on the Danish Universe of Meaning

By Carsten Levisen,

Book cover of Cultural Semantics and Social Cognition: A Case Study on the Danish Universe of Meaning

Why this book?

This book is about “The Danish universe of meaning,” or, the view of the world as it is has been captured by Danish words and meanings. The work includes deep semantic analysis of cultural constructs such as hygge, roughly, ‘pleasant togetherness’ and tryghed, roughly, ‘sense of security, peace of mind,’ as well as cognitive verbs, emotion adjectives, personhood constructs, and rhetorical keywords. But Levisen’s aim is not only to study Danish—at heart, the book is about cultural semantics at large. The aim is to use Danish as a case study and to provide a new model for comparative research into the diversity and unity of meaning in European languages. To my mind, this book wonderfully succeeds in achieving this aim.

The Reign of Truth and Faith: Epistemic Expressions in 16th and 17th Century English

By Helen Bromhead,

Book cover of The Reign of Truth and Faith: Epistemic Expressions in 16th and 17th Century English

Why this book?

This book takes the reader back to another speech world, that of 16th and 17th century English, albeit one on which we have some purchase through the plays of William Shakespeare. Where someone today may hedge their words with I suppose or probably, people in this time peppered their speech with expressions conveying certainty like verily and forsooth. This contrast represents the ethos of truth and faith that reigned at this time before it was replaced by a modern spirit of epistemic detachment ushered in by the British enlightenment. Yet a by my troth was not interchangeable with a by my faith, and each chapter of the book opens the door on the specifics of an epistemic expression in 16th and 17th century English through colourful examples, cultural evidence and a statement of its meaning. I love this book.

The Semantics of Nouns

By Zhengdao Ye (editor),

Book cover of The Semantics of Nouns

Why this book?

This is a pioneering book which raises some fundamental questions about nouns and the concepts that they embody—not abstract nouns, but concrete nouns like ‘brother’, ‘angel’, ‘bee’, ‘foot,’ and ‘pond’? How can we study and compare such concepts across languages in a truly meaningful way that does not privilege the categories of one language over those in other languages? This collective volume seeks to provide answers to these questions and show how in-depth meaning analysis, anchored in a cross-linguistic and cross-domain perspective, can lead to unexpected insights into the common and particular ways in which speakers of different languages conceptualise, categorise and order the world around them. Many languages are included in the volume, including Arabic, Chinese, French, Hebrew, and the Papuan language Koromu.

Minimal Languages in Action

By Cliff Goddard (editor),

Book cover of Minimal Languages in Action

Why this book?

Minimal languages are based on words which are clear, accessible and easy-to-translate. This book presents a diverse and fascinating range of studies, illustrating this new approach to meaning and communication. The authors show, how they are putting minimal languages into service; for example, to help language learners understand the invisible culture behind French or Korean ways of speaking; to improve “easy language” materials for people with linguistic and cognitive troubles; to inform better health communication about cancer or COVID-19. One of my favourite chapters shows how a pediatric tool for assessing mother-infant emotional connection was adapted into simply-worded versions in English, Finnish, Chinese, and four other languages.

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