Publication details [#59593]

Wierzbicka, Anna. 2015. A whole cloud of culture condensed into a drop of semantics. The meaning of the German word Herr as a term of address. International Journal of Language and Culture 2 (1) : 1–37.
Publication type
Article in journal
Publication language
Language as a subject
Place, Publisher
John Benjamins
Journal DOI


This paper investigates the meaning and use of the German word Herr as a form of address, in a historical and cross-linguistic perspective. The paper argues that despite their apparent insignificance, generic titles used daily across Europe, and in all the parts of the world to which European languages have travelled, can reveal complex and intricate webs of cultural assumptions, attitudes, and values, as well as how these assumptions, attitudes, and values change across time and space. Terms of address available for everyday use in a particular language can provide keys to the inmost recesses of the speakers’ cultural and mental worlds. But if one is to use these keys effectively, one needs some basic locksmith skills. Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM), with its stock of primes and molecules and its mini-grammar for combining these into semantic texts, provides both the necessary tools and the necessary techniques. It allows us to practice semantic microanalysis with rigor and accountability, while at the same time exploring big questions of values, history, and culture. There has been an upsurge of interest in nominal terms of address in recent years, but as illustrated by the rich and valuable recent volume S’adresser à autrui (2014), edited by Catherine Kerbrat-Orecchioni, research of this kind focuses on frequencies, forms, and functions, with virtually no mention of meaning — as if basic titles such as Monsieur and Madame, Signore and Signora, or Herr and Frau had no meaning at all. As a result, while formal and functional aspects are carefully examined, the secrets hidden in the meanings of such words (and in their semantic evolution) escape scholars’ attention. To uncover these secrets and to bring to light their cultural significance, one needs an appropriate methodology. By putting the German word Herr under the microscope, this paper demonstrates that NSM is a methodology that allows it to be done in illuminating and empirically verifiable ways.