A perfect soul in a perfect body: different conceptualizations of physical and spiritual phenomena in language

Valentina Apresjan, Russian Language Institute, Moscow, Russia

Parallelism between physiological and psychological phenomena is the focal point of many linguistic studies (Wierzbicka, Lakoff and Johnson, Kovecses), which have demonstrated that there is a general linguistic tendency to metaphorically liken inner life and bodily life. However, along with this parallelism, there also is considerable discrepancy in the linguistic conceptualization and understanding of physical and psychological phenomena. One of the areas where this discrepancy is strongest is the sphere of what might be called “the linguistic ideal of beauty”. In every culture, there are certain ideals of both physical and spiritual beauty, and not surprisingly they find their reflection in language. The purpose of this paper is to reconstruct a fragment of Russia linguistic mentality dealing the ideals of body and soul.

The first task was partly undertaken in the work of E.Uryson, who examined various Russian words and expressions denoting a person’s size, both vertical and horizontal (words such as tolstyj, xudoj, vysokij, nizkij, tonkij ‘thick’, ‘thin’, ‘tall’, ‘short’ etc.). She analyzed positive and negative connotations of the items in this lexical group and showed that the ideal of physical beauty in Russian language has been gradually changing since the XIX century, more or less in accordance with trends in modern fashions. Thus, in XIX century Russian equivalents of the words like plump, lush, portly had positive connotations, but by the end of XX century they either become obsolete or develop negative connotations, whereas Russian equivalents of the words like thin, spindling, tucked-up, bony etc. lose their negative connotations or become positive.

Our task is to examine linguistic data reflecting the Russian ideals of a “perfect soul” as compared to those of a “perfect body”. Apart from linguistic interest, we expect our findings to be of a more universal cultural value. The preliminary findings indicate that all linguistic that can be used to describe both body and soul fall into two types. In the first type, the ideal body and the ideal soul are referred to by the same terms. To this type belong such words as tonkij, neznyj ‘fine’, ‘tender’, etc., which are used to describe perfection of body and soul, and words such as slabyj, xilyj, grubyj ‘weak’, ‘feeble’, ‘coarse’ etc., used to describe flaws of body and soul.

In the second type, the same term acquires different interpretations when used in reference to body or soul. To this type belong such expressions as bol’soj ‘big’, which is neutral or negative when speaking about body, but is positive in reference to soul and heart; malen’kij ‘small’ which can be positive in reference to female body, but is negative in reference to soul and heart. Another example of this asymmetry are certain diminutive suffixes (-onk, -isk etc.), neutral or positively connoted in reference to physical appearance (domisko ‘little house’, sobaconka ‘little dog’), but negatively connoted in reference to inner characteristics (dusonka ‘petty soul’, pisateliska ‘authorling’). If we further try to reconstruct the ideal of physical and spiritual in Russian language, we’ll find more evidence of this asymmetry, with the tendency for ideal physical objects to be proportionate, and ideal spiritual objects to be disproportionate, namely, bigger than average.

This asymmetry between the ideals of physical and moral beauty finds interesting parallels in various spheres of culture. Consider Russian iconography with its disproportionate figures of saints, or children’s drawings with their big-sized “good” characters, or clichéd characters of mass literature with its good-natured fat and malicious thin characters etc. We expect that the linguistic stereotype we have discovered “big is morally good, morally good is big”, inherent in Russian language (and possibly extending across many other languages) can provide explanation for various other psychological and cultural stereotypes and clichés.