(White) lies and (pieux) mensonges: ethnolinguistic elaborations on not telling the truth

Bert Peeters


The fact that most European languages have a word similar to the verb lie has led many to believe that lying is a universal cognitive category, that all human beings have an intuitive understanding of what it means to lie, and that all forms of discourse involving a lack of truth can be analysed as forms of lying, wherever they occur. This is a myth. Within Europe itself, there are differences, and these become more outspoken once we move further away. Even a Melanesian creole such as Bislama, in spite of being English-based, has no strict equivalent to the verb lie; the closest it gets is by means of the verb giaman, which, unlike to lie, refers to a fairly common, sometimes even a necessary course of action. On the other hand, whereas, at least from an Anglo point of view, lying is mostly felt to be morally reprehensible, there are instances that are not as straightforward. In English, lies that are deemed less bad than others are often referred to as white lies. Other terms exist, but this one is by far the commonest and has a high degree of cultural salience. Does the concept exist in other languages, e.g. French? The phrase pieux mensonge comes to mind. I propose to show that white lies and pieux mensonges are overlapping categories, but that they carry different connotations, which I will spell out using a tool known as the Natural Semantic Metalanguage.


lying; white lies; pieux mensonges; Natural Semantic Metalanguage; cross-cultural differences

Full Text:



Argo, Jennifer J. and Baba Shiv. 2012. Are white lies as innocuous as we think? Journal of Consumer Research 38: 1093–1102. DOI: 10.1086/661640

Béal, Christine. 1993. Les stratégies conversationnelles en français et en anglais: conventions ou reflet de divergences culturelles profondes? Langue française 98: 79–106. DOI: 10.3406/lfr.1993.5835

Béal, Christine. 2010. Les interactions quotidiennes en français et en anglais: de l’approche comparative à l’analyse des situations interculturelles. Bern: Peter Lang.

Biziou-van Pol, Laura, Jana Haenen, Arianna Novaro, Andrés Occhipinti Liberman and Valerio Capraro. 2015. Does telling white lies signal pro-social preferences? Judgment and Decision Making 10: 538–548. DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.2617668

Bryant, Erin M. 2008. Real lies, white lies, and gray lies: towards a typology of deception. Kaleidoscope: A Graduate Journal of Qualitative Communication Research 7: 23–48.

Coleman, Linda and Paul Kay. 1981. Prototype semantics: the English word lie. Language 57: 26–44. DOI: 10.1353/lan.1981.0002

Devers, G. 2001. Quand mentir devient un devoir. La lettre du cardiologue 346: 46–47.

Dor, Daniel. 2017. The role of the lie in the evolution of human language. Language Sciences 63: 44–59. DOI: 10.1016/j.langsci.2017.01.001

Erat, Sanjiv and Uri Gneezy. 2012. White lies. Management Science 58: 723–733. DOI: 10.1287/mnsc.1110.1449

Fainzang, Sylvie. 2016 [2006]. An Anthropology of Lying: Information in the Doctor-Patient Relationship. New York: Routledge. (French original: 2006. La relation médecins-malades: information et mensonge. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.)

Geets, Claude. 1984. Vérité et mensonge dans la relation au malade. Revue théologique de Louvain 15: 331–345. DOI: 10.3406/thlou.1984.2057

Gladkova, Anna. 2011. Cultural variation in language use. In Gisle Andersen and Karin Aijmer (eds.) Pragmatics of Society. 571–592. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. DOI: 10.1515/9783110214420.571

Goddard, Cliff. 1998. Bad arguments against semantic primitives. Theoretical Linguistics 24: 129–156. DOI: 10.1515/thli.1998.24.2-3.129

Goddard, Cliff. 2003. Whorf meets Wierzbicka: variation and universals in language and thinking. Language Sciences 25: 393–432. DOI: 10.1016/S0388-0001(03)00002-0

Goddard, Cliff. 2018. Ten Lectures on Natural Semantic Metalanguage: Exploring Language, Thought and Culture Using Simple, Translatable Words. Leiden: Brill.

Grmek, Mirko Dražen. 1964. Le pieux mensonge du médecin et le droit du malade à la vérité. I: Aperçu historique; II: La controverse actuelle entre médecins et juristes. Le concours médical 86: 3855–3858 (June 6), 4021–4030 (June 13).

Habib, Sandy. 2011. Angels can cross cultural boundaries. RASK (International Journal of Language and Communication) 34: 49–75.

Habib, Sandy. 2017. The meanings of ‘angel’ in English, Arabic, and Hebrew. In Zhengdao Ye (ed.) The Semantics of Nouns. 89–119. Oxford: Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198736721.003.0004

Hilferty, Joseph. 1997. Mothers, lies, and bachelors: a brief reply to Wierzbicka (1990). Word 48: 51–59. DOI: 10.1080/00437956.1997.11432462

Jutel, Annemarie. 2016. Truth and lies: disclosure and the power of diagnosis. Social Science and Medicine 165: 92–98. DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.07.037

Kalisz, Roman. 1998. Prototypes and invariants in linguistic categorisation. Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 33: 181–193.

Levisen, Carsten. 2016. The ethnopragmatics of speech acts in postcolonial discourse: “truth” and “trickery” in a transculturated South Pacific tale. In Christoph Schubert and Laurenz Volkmann (eds.) Pragmatic Perspectives on Postcolonial Discourse: Linguistics and Literature. 41–64. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Malloch, Kathy. 2001. The white lies of leadership: caring dishonesty? Nursing Administration Quarterly 25: 61–68.

Meibauer, Jörg. 2014. Lying at the Semantics-Pragmatics Interface. Berlin: de Gruyter Mouton.

Meibauer, Jörg. 2017. “Western” Grice? Lying in a cross-cultural dimension. In István Kecskés and Stavros Assimakopoulos (eds.) Current Issues in Intercultural Pragmatics. 33–52. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. DOI: 10.1075/pbns.274.03mei

Mondry, Henrietta and John R. Taylor. 1992. On lying in Russian. Language and Communication 12: 133–143. DOI: 10.1016/0271-5309(92)90003-R

Nau, Jean-Yves. 2017. Du pieux mensonge à l’émergence de la “post-vérité”. Revue médicale suisse 13: 338–339.

Parmentier, Michel Alfred. 2006. Dictionnaire des expressions et tournures calquées sur l’anglais. Québec: Presses universitaires Laval.

Pesmen, Dale. 2000. Russia and Soul: An Exploration. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Phillips, Nicky. 2010. No! Who would have thought! Seems telling fibs is universal. The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 May 2010. Retrieved 1 Dec 2017 from http://www.smh.com.au/national/no-who-would-have-thought-seems-telling-fibs-is-universal-20100518-vcae.html

Sacks, Harvey. 1975. Everyone has to lie. In Mary Sánches and Ben G. Blount (eds.) Sociocultural Dimensions of Language Use. 57–80. New York: Academic Press.

Saxe, Leonard. 1991. Lying: thoughts of an applied social psychologist. American Psychologist 46: 251–258. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066x.46.4.409

Travis, Catherine E. 2006. The communicative realisation of confianza and calor humano in Colombian Spanish. In Cliff Goddard (ed.) Ethnopragmatics: Understanding Discourse in Cultural Context. 199–229. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. DOI: 10.1515/9783110911114.199

Wierzbicka, Anna. 1985. Lexicography and Conceptual Analysis. Ann Arbor: Karoma.

Wierzbicka, Anna. 1990. ‘Prototypes save’: on the uses and abuses of the notion of ‘prototype’ in linguistics and related fields. In Savas L. Tsohatzidis (ed.) Meanings and Prototypes: Studies in Linguistic Categorization. 347–367. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Wierzbicka, Anna. 1991. Cross-cultural Pragmatics: the Semantics of Human Interaction. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. Reissued (2003) with a new preface. DOI: 10.1515/9783110220964

Wierzbicka, Anna. 1996. Semantics: Primes and Universals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wierzbicka, Anna. 2002. Russian cultural scripts: The theory of cultural scripts and its applications. Ethos 30: 401–432. DOI: 10.1525/eth.2002.30.4.401

Wierzbicka, Anna. 2006. English: Meaning and Culture. New York: Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195174748.001.0001

Wierzbicka, Anna. 2014. Imprisoned in English: The Hazards of English as a Default Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17951/et.2018.30.169
Data publikacji: 2018-08-17 07:51:35
Data złożenia artykułu: 2018-02-03 02:47:05


Total abstract view - 901
Downloads (from 2020-06-17) - PDF - 951



  • There are currently no refbacks.

Copyright (c) 2018

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.