Cross-cultural pain semantics


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Abstract

SUMMARYCultures differ as to typical linguistic reports and classifications of pain. In some languages upwards of a dozen specific pain terms are in common use, each indicating a particular pain experience. In other languages a single inclusive term is the norm, perhaps with optional qualifiers added to make desired distinctions. Pain experience thus undergoes cognitive sorting of different types, and it is important to be aware of how obligatory or how optional imposed linguistic distinctions may be.Cultural responses to pain, including local medical practices, may be linked to such cognitive sorting. A bolder speculation (in line with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) would be to think of cognitive categorizations as exerting controls on affective perception itself through some type of neo-cortical monitoring or filtering of incoming neural messages.Before turning to these basic questions, more technical aspects of painterm semantics need to be studied and issues must be clearly formulated. The present paper examines in some detail a representative proliferated system (Thai) and then makes some comparisons with distinctions in other languages. Taxonomic and sequential contrast relationships are discussed and illustrated. In particular, it is proposed that varying types and degrees of looseness in semantic contrast cannot be ignored if revealing cross-cultural comparisons are to be made.

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