The case of religious people who are unable to categorise stuff rationally, and demand that their beliefs be accommodated and supported by SECULAR state or the SECULAR educational system, that is, obviously,  creationists is widely publicised and widely known.

There are, of course, people in other professions for whom their religion becomes a hindrance, and who demand the accommodation of their beliefs, such as the pharmacists in the US who refused to sell contraceptives.

But. To this day(1) I was unaware of a linguist(2)  whose flaunting of their religion in a completely inappropriate manner lead to logical fallacies, wishful thinking and special pleading(3).


Anna Wierzbicka, I’d known you were religious even before I read any of your articles. The reason was:

1) Your book about Jesus

2) Somebody told me

This wasn’t, however, a problem, at least initially. I liked her articles about cross-cultural linguistics, I liked her book about keywords important in various cultures, and I found her arguments contra and pro (yes, both at the same time) prototypes  in Semantics: Primes and Universals well thought-out and extremely persuasive. However.

Is it really necessary to quote the Bible in every other example sentence? Seriously? Linguistics paper: it’s not the place for your confession of faith.

However! As usual, it got worse:

Referring to the use of the word ABOVE used in descriptions of social position and power, Wierzbicka adds:

“It is quite likely that the metaphorical use of the notion ABOVE with reference to people is universal, and that for example, the idea that God is “above all people” can be rendered, and be understood, in all languages.”

I’m so very glad (NO) that she supports the efforts of missionaries to convert the pagan (NO) masses all over the world (NO), especially in developing countries (NO and NO), but maybe the place to express her support is not page 136 of Semantics: Primes and Universals, chapter 3, Universal Grammar?

A bit earlier on, Wierzbicka discusses the use of the semantic primitive GOOD FOR which can be defined as:

This was good for me. =

because of this, something good happened for me

Well, I obviously can’t tell whether this definition is the best possible one with anywhere near 100% certainty (although I would actually lean towards it being correct), and I’d need some more time to think,  and people to bounce ideas off, but here’s what Wierzbicka writes:

But I don’t think that this analysis is valid. From a moral point of view, it may be important to distinguish something that is “good for a person” from “something good that has happened to a person”.

A feeling of acute WTF was accompanying as I read the above words, because for the last 130 pages or so  I was absolutely convinced I was reading a book about semantics not ~*morals*~. My bad!

For example, for many moral teachers it may be important to be able to say things such as:

When something bad happens to you, it may be good for you.

If good things always happen to a person it may be bad for that person.

A language which wouldn’t be capable of expressing such ideas could be regarded as impoverished, and we can hypothesize that all languages are capable of expressing them.

1. She should just give up the “moral teachers”. We all know you mean “Jesus”; obfuscation is futile.

2. “for many moral teachers it may be important to be able to say” is not an argument, it’s wishful thinking (I’m not saying that it’s not important for them, or that they can’t say what’s important to them; just that “it may be important” is extremely weak not-even-an-argument).

3. “a language which wouldn’t be capable of expressing such ideas could be regarded as impoverished” – well, a definition of “impoverished” in Wierzbicka’s idiolect would have to be something like:

Impoverished =

such that is doesn’t allow for making an argument that would contain or that would be based on a theodicy that is embraced by a part of an international Christian sect with whose views I personally agree

you can’t say what I want to say in a language

therefore this language is impoverished

its speakers may or may not want to say what I want to say

Otherwise, her value judgement would have to be  incorrect(4).

Cherry on top of the fail pie, from page 40:

Who created the world? – God

God is someone infinitely good and merciful

FFS STFU. This is only correct in the case of the interpretation offered by a particular Christian sect to which Wierzbicka belongs(5); there are many Gods who don’t fit the criteria she offers.

Be a good linguist, don’t flaunt your religion where it’s inappropriate.

(The whole post was actually prompted by an article about Christian bias in dictionaries, and the fail in my own dictionary that translated a completely neutral non-Christian term for an object of worship as “idol”. I’m collecting examples for a separate post at the moment, may Cthulhu eat them last — actually, not my examples, but people who are responsible for their existence in the first place)

(1) Metaphorically speaking.

(2) Well, I thought there was also this computational linguist guy who was a creationist, but: I forgot his name, and also, it didn’t stop from doing his job. As far as I remember, which is: not very far at all.

(3) To be fair: at least not in 20 century =______=

(4) There are in fact religions in which the problem of the existence of evil is not central, because, for instance, their god is not deemed to be omnipotent, or is not a creator, etc etc etc.

The whole argument is pointless in any case, because the Christian sects Wierzbicka is so eager to support can make words mean new things anyway.

Additionally, what I don’t understand is why she had to mention religious morality in the first place? There is folk wisdom stuff and proverbs that say stuff along the lines of “too much good is bad for you”, and mentioning those would seem much less like major case of special pleading, so.

(5) No, I have no idea which.

  1. Nachasz says:

    From which article you took this quotations?

  2. @czescjacek

    Yeah, I know :( The cross-cultural stuff is seriously brilliant, and actually the semantics stuff is sort of brilliant too, when there’s no talk about god or religion. It’s like there’s a set of keywords that make her lose her mind completely :( :( :( (If you’re interested in the semantics stuff, the way she criticised some research about the prototypes, and some of Lakoff’s comments about fuziness is really fantastic. But then surprise!god :( :( :()

    [I’d go with “second-hand embarrassement” or “embarrassement by proxy” =.=]

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