Cultural Keywords

What languages reveal about cultures

Posted Nov 08, 2017

Source: CC0/Unsplash

Imagine that we are chefs, leaning over our simmering pots with kitchen towels over our shoulders, as we concoct our feasts and fates with our most magical ingredients: our words. We have plenty of them (there are 171,476 entries in The Oxford English Dictionary), fit for every dish, every occasion. These words that we speak and write, these flavorful processions of curvy and skinny letters, have a remarkable authority on our thoughts, emotions and behavior. We cherish them like we cherish our most treasured ingredients. We cherish them for what they stand (grace), for how they sound (brouhaha), for how they make us feel (serene). Often, we toss our words around mindlessly, with no recipes and no rules to follow – a dash of salt here, a handful of rice there. Other times, we weigh our words carefully - each crumb of bread, each crystal of sugar – as if the outcome of our narratives depended on them. (And it often does: our words can seduce and inspire; nurture love and spread hate. They can destroy, and they can save.) Then sometimes, despite our overflowing pantries and vocabularies, we find no words (“…there are certain meanings that are lost forever the moment they are explained in words,” writes Murakami). 

Source: CC0/Unsplash

Learning a new language is like stepping into a new kitchen. As we stand by the door bewitched by the novel smells and sights, we watch the other chefs work seamlessly with their native ingredients. Some look familiar. There is sugar and rice, and although they are called by a different name in this kitchen, we know exactly how they will taste. But there are also others that we have never seen before. The natives use them generously in their dishes and conversations, with enviable ease. A bit of amae here, a dash of toska there (amae is a Japanese word for the desire to be loved and dependent on someone; toska is a Russian word that Nabokov likened to spiritual anguish). We try to emulate them, dissect them with our dictionaries. But they remain foreign and untranslatable. They are the gatekeepers of the foreign languages. Once we understand their taste and their meaning, we can begin to unravel the secrets of the new kitchens. And the new cultures.

These cultural keywords hold a prominent place in most languages, by embodying cultural values and ways of thinking and feeling. They may be small and modest, like ginger or cinnamon, but they carry on their shoulders the soul of a culture. According to renowned linguist Anna Wierzbicka, these keywords are like “coins in a shared conceptual and communicative currency – they shape and organize the way people think about themselves and others.” Dr. Sophia Waters, the co-editor of Cultural Keywords in Discourse, thinks of them as culture specific words around which entire discourses revolve, or “a framework and a backdrop by which people evaluate and interpret the world.”

Source: CC0/Unsplash

Take, for instance, the Danish word hygge, or one of its succinct attempts at an English definition – “pleasant, cozy togetherness” (Levisen, 2012).  According to Waters, hygge qualifies as a cultural keyword for Danish because it is made with the perfect recipe: it is salient, ubiquitous, untranslatable, and reflects Danish cultural values. Furthermore, it embodies numerous discourse rituals that Danes have around hygge-related concepts. There is apparently a hygge way to part, and a hygge way to talk. There is even a hygge way to be (this often involves candlelight, I imagine). In short, the concept of hygge is a cultural keyword in Danish because of its firm (and cozy) place in Danish “cultural cognition.”

So what are we to do, when we find ourselves in other kitchens? Can we learn to cook with those culturally-laden ingredients like the native chefs around us? Can we, as second-language learners, surpass the limits of our own worlds to grasp the essence of concepts that lack semantic equivalents in our own languages? Yes, assures Waters - thanks to Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) - we can.

According to 17th century German polymath and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, humans are innately equipped with universal linguistic and cognitive concepts. Leibniz referred to it as the “alphabet of human thought,” which is analogous to Mendeleev’s periodic table in chemistry. Research on NSM pioneered by Professor Wierzbicka  and her Australian colleague Professor Cliff Goddard shows that there are around 60 terms that are translatable across most languages. These concepts, which include good, bad, think, want, people, true are the “bedrock of human languages and thought” as Wierzbicka writes, and can be used to explain the essence of all words within and across languages. Even those seemingly untranslatable foreign keywords that have soaked up the flavors and fragrances of the cultures they epitomize. This discovery, incidentally, has been one of the biggest insights of Wierzbicka’s prolific and influential research career in linguistics.

So what are some keywords that Wierzbicka and her colleagues have identified over the years? In English, the word fair is a central one, along with fun and nice. In Japanese, there is kawaii (cute), in Mexican Spanish there is rosa mexicano (Mexican pink), in Brazilian Portuguese there is subúrbio (suburb), in Hong Kong Cantonese there is mong4 (busy) (Levisen & Waters, 2017). For Russian, Wierzbicka writes about the word dusha (soul) as one of the “leitmotifs of Russian literature and Russian conversation” (Wierzbicka, 1992).

All these keywords encompass a “deep emic logic” – they describe a shared reality of speakers and reveal what they pay attention to. As Waters points out, these words “capture what is central, unavoidable and vehicular for everyday life. They take us right to the heart of a particular worldview and its cultural logics of good and bad, and how thinking, feeling and living are organized locally.”

While poets and philosophers continue to marvel at the extraordinary power of our ordinary words, our words may bear veritably more weight than we suspect. Even when they appear deceptively inconspicuous (nice) or semantically impermeable (toska), as vessels for our thoughts and feelings, words not only transmit our inner worlds to those around us, but also embody entire cultures. “Cultural keywords are testament to diversity in ways of living and thinking about the world,” says Waters. “They’re part of what makes us interesting.”

And it’s part of what makes them – the ingredients of our narratives - magical.

Many thanks to Professor Anna Wierzbicka and Dr. Sophia Waters for being generous with their time and insights. Anna Wierzbicka is a Professor in Linguistics (Emerita) in the School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics at the Australian National University. In her 1972 book "Semantic Primitives" she launched a theory of "NSM" (Natural Semantic Metalanguage), which is now internationally recognized as one of the world's leading theories of language and meaning. Her work spans a number of disciplines, including anthropology, psychology, cognitive science, philosophy and religious studies as well as linguistics.

Dr. Sophia Waters is a Lecturer in Writing at the University of New England, Armidale, Australia. She specializes in semantics and cross-cultural communication using the Natural Semantic Metalanguage approach.


Levisen, C. (2012). Cultural Semantics and Social Cognition: A Case Study on the Danish Universe of Meaning. De Gruyter Mouton.

Levisen, C. & Waters, S. (Eds.). (2017). Cultural Keywords in Discourse. John Benjamins Publishing.

Goddard, C. & Wierzbicka A. (2014). Words and Meanings: Lexical Semantics Across Domains, Languages, and Cultures. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wierzbicka, A. (1992). Semantics, Culture, and Cognition: Universal Human Concepts in Culture-Specific Configurations. Oxford University Press.