The Utility of Meaning: What Words Mean and Why (Hardcover)
This book argues that the complex, anthropocentric, and often culture-specific meanings of words have been shaped directly by their history of 'utility' for communication in social life. N. J. Enfield draws on semantic and pragmatic case studies from his extensive fieldwork in Laos to investigate a range of semantic fields including emotion terms, culinary terms, landscape terminology, and honorific pronouns, among many others. These studies form the building blocks of a conceptual framework for understanding meaning in language. The book argues that the goals and relevancies of human communication are what bridge the gap between the private representation of language in the mind and its public processes of usage, acquisition, and conventionalization in society. Professor Enfield argues that in order to understand this process, we first need to understand the ways in which linguistic meaning is layered, multiple, anthropocentric, cultural, distributed, and above all, useful. This wide-ranging account brings together several key strands of research across disciplines including semantics, pragmatics, cognitive linguistics, and sociology of language, and provides a rich account of what linguistic meaning is like and why.
N. J. Enfield is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney, and a senior staff scientist at the Max Planck Institute, Nijmegen. He has carried out extensive field work in mainland Southeast Asia, especially Laos, with a focus on language, culture, cognition, and social interaction. His books include Ethnosyntax (OUP 2002), Linguistic Epidemiology (Routledge 2003), A Grammar of Lao (Mouton de Gruyter 2007), The Anatomy of Meaning (CUP 2009), Relationship Thinking (OUP 2013), and The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology (with P Kockelman and J Sidnell, 2014). He has published over 100 academic articles and reviews.