Cross-Cultural Differences in Slavic Languages: A Tentative Taxonomy

Cross-cultural and cognitive-linguistic approaches have been used as a general framework for the analysis in this paper. That is, I have adopted the view that: “In natural language meaning consists in human interpretation of the world. It is subjective, it is anthropocentric, it reflects predominant cultural concerns and culture-specific modes of social interaction as much as any objective features of the world ‘as such’” (Wierzbicka, 1988:2). Furthermore, the analysis will use the etic:emic distinction and the set of ideas behind it, recently discussed in Pike (1996). Another two adopted propositions stem from cognitive linguistics. I assume that: 1) language is primarily symbolic in its nature, and 2) that grammatical structures cannot be viewed as autonomous from the lexicon. These two propositions are well known from Langacker (1991), and there is no need to elaborate on them here.

The methodological framework mentioned above has been used to analyze the data from the project called Slavic Cross-cultural Linguistics conducted in the Slavic Department of the Adam Mickiewicz University since 1994. This data, primarily from contrastive Polish-Serbo-Croatian studies, has been used to build a taxonomy of those differences in Slavic languages, which may be related to the differences in different Slavic cultures. The following taxonomy has been proposed:

              Cross-cultural difference
    1 metalinguistic-----+--2 linguistic
       2.1 interactional------+--2.2 conceptual
           |                         |
     2.1.1 form of address     2.2.1 range of symbolization
     2.1.2 naming              2.2.2 lack of symbolization
     2.1.3 pragmatic formulae                  |
     2.1.4 pragmatic operators one-level
                               2.2.3 scene building
                               2.2.4 lack of links
                               2.2.5 anisomorphic scales
                               2.2.6 density of the fields
                               2.2.7 wider conceptual

Under the rubric of metalinguistic differences I mean a situation where a community consciously shape its language, such as in the process of developing the standard form language, or any particular terminology. In all those cases the cultural norms, which are not incorporated in the language, influence the form of language as independent factors. On the other hand, linguistic differences refer to cases where language and culture are interwoven, where cultural traits are incorporated into the substance of language. Among linguistic differences one can differentiate interactional differences, those that come into existence in speech acts and in no other circumstances, and, on the other hand, conceptual differences, which influence one’s cognitive functioning as a whole.

All the categories in the taxonomy are exemplified using Polish and Serbo-Croatian cultural differences. Furthermore, the consequences of those differences in applied linguistics (in foreign language teaching, translation, and bilingual lexicography) are discussed. Finally, more general claims about the relations of culture and language are proposed in support of some fundamental ideas within cross-cultural linguistics.


Langacker, R.W. 1991. Concept, Image, Symbol: The Cognitive Basis of Grammar. Berlin-New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Pike, K.L. 1996. Talk, Thought, and Thing. Dallas: SIL.

Wierzbicka, A. 1988. The Semantics of Grammar. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.