Opposites in language and thought: A Chinese perspective

There is a strong view held by many semanticists that ‘oppositeness' is lexically embodied in every language (e.g. Cruse, 1986, 2011; Lyons, 1977; Murphy 2003). This suggests that antonymous thought may be an inherent feature of human cognition. However, in the available literature on the sense relations of opposites, most of the analyses in English focus on adjectives, in particular gradable adjectives. How ‘oppositeness of meaning' is actually construed by speakers from other languages and cultures, in particular by those from non-Indo European languages, has largely been unexplored. This paper fills the gap by providing a Chinese language perspective. It first illustrates the critical role opposites play in the word and conceptual formation in Chinese. It then offers a fined-grained case analysis of two pairs of culturally salient complementary noun opposites designating social categories as a way of gaining insight into varied construals and conceptualisations of the nature of ‘oppositeness of meaning'. A central methodological concern is how culturally distinctive ways of thinking about the relationships between the two members of a complementary pair can be reflected and captured. The paper proposes that the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM), in particular its ‘cultural scripts' theory branch, provides a possible solution. Related methodological issues discussed in the paper include subtypes of complementary opposites, cultural scripts vs. logical formulation, the issue of markedness, and the role of culture in the semantics of Chinese opposites.

Keywords: antonymy, complementary noun opposites, semantic relations, markedness, Chinese opposites, cultural scripts


Centre for Chinese Linguistics, Peking University. (2009). CCL Corpora.   http://ccl.pku.edu.cn:8080/ccl_corpus.

Cruse, D. A. (1976). Three classes of antonyms in English. Lingua, 38, 281-291.

Cruse, D. A. (1986). Lexical semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cruse, D. A. (1992). Antonymy revisited: some thoughts on the relationship between words and concepts. In A. Lehrer & E. F. Kittay (Eds.), Frames, fields, and contrasts: new essays in semantic and lexical organization (pp. 289-306). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Cruse, D. A. (2011). Meaning in language: an introduction to semantics and pragmatics (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cruse, D. A., & Togia, P. (1995). Towards a cognitive model of antonymy. Journal of Lexicology 1, 113-141.

Fung, Y.-l. (1952). A history of Chinese philosophy (D. Bodde, Trans. Vol. 1). London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Givón, T. (1978). Negation in language: pragmatics, function, ontology. In P. Cole (Ed.), Syntax and semantics: Volume 9 (Pragmatics) (pp. 69-112). New York: Academic Press.

Goddard, C. (2008). Natural semantic metalanguage: the state of the art. In C. Goddard (Ed.), Cross-linguistic semantics (pp. 1-34). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Goddard, C. (2009). Cultural scripts. In G. Senft, J.-O. Ostman & J. Verschueren (Eds.), Culture and language use (pp. 68-80). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Goddard, C. (2010a). The Natural Semantic Metalanguage approach. In B. Heine & H. Narrog (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of linguistic analysis (pp. 459-484). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goddard, C. (2010b). Semantic molecules and semantic complexity. Review of Cognitive Linguistics, 8(1), 123-155.

Goddard, C. (2011). Semantic analysis: a practical introduction (Revised 2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goddard, C., & Wierzbicka, A. (Eds.). (1994). Semantic and lexical universals: theory and empirical findings. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Goddard, C., & Wierzbicka, A. (Eds.). (2002). Meaning and universal grammar: theory and empirical findings Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Goddard, C., & Wierzbicka, A. (2007). NSM analyses of the semantics of physical qualities: sweet, hot, hard, heavy, rough, sharp in cross-linguistic perspective. Studies in Language, 31(4), 765-800.

Goddard, C., & Wierzbicka, A. (in press). Men, women and children: the semantics of basic social categories. In C. Goddard & A. Wierzbicka (Eds.), Words and meanings. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Hale, K. (1971). A note on a Walbiri tradition of antonymy. In D. D. Steinberg & L. A. Jakobovits (Eds.), Semantics: an interdisciplinary reader in philosophy, linguistics and psychology (pp. 472-484). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hanks, P. (2008). General introduction. In P. Hanks (Ed.), Lexicology: critical concepts in linguistics (Volume I) (pp. 1-35). London: Routledge.

Hanks, P. (2008). General introduction. In P. Hanks. (Ed.), Lexicology: Critical Concepts in Linguistics (Vol. I, pp. 1-35). London: Routledge.

Jones, S., Murphy, L., Paradis, C., & Willners, C. (2012). Antonyms in English: construals, constructions, and canonicity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lakoff, G. (2004). Don't think of an elephant! Know your values and frame the debate. Burlington, VT: Chelsea Green.

Lehrer, A. (1985). Markedness and antonymy. Journal of Linguistics, 21(2), 397-429.

Lehrer, A., & Lehrer, K. (1982). Antonymy. Linguistics and philosophy, 5, 483-501.

Li, C., & Thompson, S. (1981). Mandarin Chinese: A functional reference grammar. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lyons, J. (1963). Structural semantics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lyons, J. (1977). Semantics (Vol. 1). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mettinger, A. (1994). Aspects of semantic opposition in English. New York: Oxford University Press.

Muehleisen, V. & Isono, M. (2009). Antonymous adjectives in Japanese discourse. Journal of    pragmatics, 41 (11), 2185-2203.

Murphy, M. L. (2003). Semantic relations and the lexicon: antonymy, synonymy, and other paradigms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Paradis, C. (2001). Adjectives and boundedness. Cognitive Linguistics, 12 (1/2), 47-66.

Paradis, C. & Willners, C. (2011). Antonymy: from conventionalization to meaning-making. Review of Cognitive Linguistics, 9(2), 367-391.

 Peeters, B. (Ed.). (2006). NSM exponents and universal grammar in Romance languages. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Peng, K., Spencer-Rodgers, & Zhong, N. (2006). In U. Kim, K.-s. Yang & K.-k. Hwang (Eds.), Indigenous and cultural psychology: understanding people in context (pp. 247-262). New York: Springer.

Sapir, E. (1944). Grading: a study in semantics. Philosophy of Science, 11(2), 93-116.

Verhagen, A. (2005). Constructions of intersubjectivity: discourse, syntax and cognition.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wierzbicka, A. (1992). Semantics, culture, and cognition: universal human concepts in culture-specific configurations. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wierzbicka, A. (1996). Semantics: Primes and universals. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wierzbicka, A. (2006). English: meaning and culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Wierzbicka, A. (2009). The theory of mental lexicon. In S. Kempgen, P. Kosta, T. Berger & K. Gutschmidt, (Eds.), The Slavic languages: An international handbook of their structure, their history and their investigation (pp. 848-863). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Willners, C. & Paradis, C. (2010). Swedish opposites: a multi-method approach to antonym canonicity. In P. Storjohann (Ed.), Lexical-Semantic Relations: theoretical and practical perspectives (pp. 15-47). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Ye, Z. (2004). Chinese categorization of interpersonal relationships and the cultural logic of Chinese social interaction: an indigenous perspective. Intercultural Pragmatics 1(2), 211-230.

Ye, Z. (2007). Taste as a gateway to Chinese cognition. In A. Schalley & D. Khlentzos (Eds.), Mental states (Vol.2): language and cognitive structure (pp. 109-132). Amsterdam:  John Benjamins.

Ye, Z. (in press). Understanding the conceptual basis of ‘old friend' formulas in Chinese social interaction and foreign diplomacy: a cultural script approach. (special issue on 'Semantics and/in social interaction', guest edited by Cliff Goddard) Australian Journal of Linguistics.

Ye, Z. (forthcoming). Meaning relations, social categories and complementary noun opposites: a case study in Chinese. In Z. Ye (Ed.), People, Places, and Things: the complexity of the semantics of nouns.

Zhang, Z., & Zhang, Q. (Eds.). (2010). Xīnhuá fányìcí cídiăn [Xinhua dictionary of antonyms]. Beijing: Commercial Press.


Download full text of the article as PDF