DOI: 10.18413/2313-8912-2022-8-3-0-3

The triad conscience-shame-consciousness in Russian and French: a notional aspect


The central unit of anthropological linguistics is a concept as a verbalized cultural sense. This article aims to study conscience in the Russian and French languages. Conscience refers to the socially regulatory concepts studied by various scientists, including psychologists, philosophers and philologists. In order to determine national specifics of the semantics of the concept “conscience” in Russian and French we use a comparative analysis of the semantic relations between conscience, shame and consciousness in both languages. Modern dictionaries of the Russian language define conscience as a feeling of moral responsibility to oneself and others for one's actions. Responsibility to others brings conscience closer to shame, which acts as a companion of conscience in many aspects of the Russian language. Nevertheless, only socialized conscience can act as a synonym for shame. Dictionary definitions highlight sensual and rational principles in shame. The sensual principle brings shame closer to conscience, the rational principle – to consciousness. Russian lexicographic sources do not record any connection between conscience and consciousness. The analysis of French dictionaries shows that in the “conscience-consciousness” doublet, expressed by one lexeme conscience, consciousness is the dominant. The analysis of synonyms of the French lexeme conscience proves that the lexeme honte (shame) is not synonymous with the lexeme conscience. This statement is proved by the analysis of parallel texts from the National Corpus of the Russian language. The lack of semantic links between shame and conscience in French lexicographic sources can be explained by a more individual character of conscience in the French language compared to the Russian one.


Linguoculture (a term mainly used by Russian linguists) is defined as a culture fixed in its language; it is a culture expressed in the language and through the language. Linguoculture is studied by a special science – cultural linguistics. The very term “cultural linguistics” belongs to Russian science. Abroad, works performed in its field belong to anthropological linguistics, cognitive linguistics or sociolinguistics. Whatever it is called, linguoculture and the issues of linguistic consciousness and ethnic identity keep on attracting attention of researchers of modern ethno-, socio- and psycholinguistics (Tameryan, Zheltukhina, Sidorova, Shishkina, 2019).

The central unit of study of all these branches of linguistics is a verbalized cultural sense which is called a linguocultural concept. The concept as a term is an object of study in various sciences, but only linguists distinguish its components, among which they name notional, figurative, axiological and some other ones. “The notional component reflects the definitional and feature aspect of the concept, the figurative component fixes metaphors” (Vorkachev, 2002: 80), the axiological component fixes the cultural significance of the concept.

Let us consider conscience as one of the most important concepts that reflect moral and ethical aspects of the life of an ethnic group. Conscience belongs to the group of so-called socio-regulatory concepts. Conscience is recognized as a key concept for the Russian moral consciousness (Arutyunova, 2000: 70). However, it seems likely that the meaning and the role of conscience in other linguistic cultures may differ from the Russian one. In comparative linguistics, there is still no unambiguous answer to the question – “can we consider the meanings that have different ‘body incarnations’ in different languages as separate semantic entities, or are they hypostatic realizations of the same deep meaning?” (Vorkachev, 2016: 21)

In search of the answer to this question, scientists turn to general scientific knowledge about the concept, analyze information about it in encyclopedic, philosophical, psychological, sociological and other dictionaries, study scientific works and make up the so-called semantic prototype of the concept in the scientific mind. Further, the semantic prototype is compared with the meanings of the word in the explanatory dictionaries of the languages under consideration. In this way the notional component of the concept is investigated. In logic, the notional component corresponds to the content of the concept: a set of common and essential features of a class of objects, presented in the mind rationally and allowing the latter to separate this species from other species within the genus (Vorkachev, 2016: 19).

Main part

This paper aims to study national specifics of the semantics of the concept “conscience” in the Russian and French languages, conducting a comparative analysis of the semantic relations between conscience, shame and consciousness in both languages.

Research methods: discourse analysis, definitional analysis, elements of component analysis.

Although conscience has been studied for many hundreds of years, in the 21st century scientists continue to discuss this topic. Modern realities, such as the refusal of doctors to provide medical services for ethical reasons (conscience clause), or the individual's right to refuse vaccination against COVID-19 are viewed through the lens of conscience (Giubilini, Minerva, 2021). It is recognized that conscience has become a kind of magic argument that adds importance to any point of view (Giubilini, 2019).

A. Giubilini in his thorough study of conscience in the Western tradition focuses on four ways of conceptualizing conscience: “as a faculty for self-knowledge and self-assessment, as an ability to form moral beliefs, distinguishing the different possible sources of moral principles that inform such beliefs,  as a motivational force or as the source of our sense of duty, which already presupposes a body of moral knowledge or moral beliefs, and, finally, as the body of personal core and self-identifying moral beliefs which is often taken to be the basis of moral integrity” (Giubilini, 2016).

In recent decades, not only philosophers but also psychologists have begun to address to questions of morality and ethics. They recognize that the time has come to analyze such spiritual and moral categories as conscience in terms of psychology. Psychologists work mainly with guilt and shame as emotional manifestations of conscience. The science studies correlation of these three categories and offers methods of their investigation and measurement. Meanwhile, it is recognized that the main difficulty for researchers is the problem of the definition of these feelings (Ilyin, 2016: 9). Shame is seen as an emotional component of conscience and is not opposed to it. Unlike conscience, which can both allow and forbid, shame only forbids. Shame may have nothing to do with conscience: a person may experience it in embarrassment, in a funny or awkward situation that has nothing to do with morality. It is noted that shame is an important and necessary emotion of adaptation to society (Ilyin, 2016: 133).

The essential semantic features that make it possible to identify conscience and distinguish it from other categories are as follows:

1) personal-normative – the ability to formulate one’s moral obligations;

2) volitive – the ability to demand from oneself to fulfill these obligations;

3) reflective – the ability to assess critically one’s actions;

4) emotional – the ability to experience one’s inadequacy to moral norms. (Markevich, 2020: 26).

Conscience plays an important role in Russian linguoculture. The problem of conscience in the Russian language is studied in the works of many philologists, including Yu. D. Apresyan (1995), N. D. Arutyunova (2000), Yu. S. Stepanov (2004), V. V. Kolesov (2004), N. M. Dmitrieva (2017), V. I. Karasik (2020) and others. There are many studies where the linguistic image of conscience in Russian is compared with images of conscience in other languages. This work is also carried out in the field of comparative linguistics. The choice of French for this work is not accidental. Conscience has already been studied in French in the work of M. K. Golovanivskaya, where the author describes in detail the figurative component of the concept (Golovanivskaya, 2009).

In our work, the emphasis is placed on the notional component of the concept. In contradistinction to the Russian language, in French, the lexeme conscience means both conscience and consciousness. French is not an exception, there are other examples. In English, for example, they began to distinguish conscience and consciousness only in the 17th century (Kononova, 2012: 55).

The doublet nature of conscience-consciousness in the French language is an example of how the nationally-specific component of the linguistic picture of the world is capable of “being the result of reflection and perception of the image of the world in accordance with a grid of coordinates based on national culture. A variety of forms of human activity, a specific way of dividing the world lead to a discrepancy in the content of the collective experience of representatives of different linguistic cultures” (Gulinov, 2013: 281).

With the help of explanatory dictionaries and dictionaries of synonyms of the Russian and French languages, we try to determine the similarities and differences in the notional component of the concept “conscience” in the two languages.

Results and Discussion

The Russian word conscience comes from the Old Slavonic съвѣсть, which traces the Greek συνείδησις – “knowledge shared with everyone”. This word came into the Russian language from religious texts and it retains its religious meaning. In the doctrine of Christianity, conscience is an innate way of learning the divine will. According to religious teaching, God's will can be communicated to a person in two ways: by God’s voice heard from inside, which is supposed to be the conscience, or by means of Commandments and Revelations. The first way is considered internal and natural, the second – external and historical.

According to V. V. Kolesov, the word совесть (conscience) has transformed from a concrete sensory experience to an abstract moral norm. The word has long been used to express an external form of knowledge, referring not to the moral norm, but the knowledge gained (знание). Semantic evolution transformed this knowledge into common knowledge (со-знание) that in Russian is equal to the word consciousness. It was the second stage in the evolution of the word. In the religious interpretation of that time, conscience is an innate quality, it does not change and it is immortal like soul. A person either realizes it, and then he has conscience or does not realize, and then he has no conscience. At the third stage, consciousness turns into self-consciousness: conscience becomes a specific attribute of an individual (Kolesov, 2004: 108-113).

In most modern dictionaries of the Russian language, the lexeme совесть (conscience) has only one meaning. In some cases, it splits into two meanings. Most dictionaries define conscience as a sense of moral or ethical responsibility for one's behavior. The object of responsibility is often indicated. It can be either society or both society and individual. There is also a definition of conscience as “moral principles, views and beliefs”. Only two dictionaries define conscience as “feeling and consciousness.”

Responsibility to other people brings conscience closer to shame. For shame, a look from the outside is a requirement. Thus, responsibility makes conscience not only a part of the inner life of an individual but also of their social life. As N. M. Dmitrieva notes, responsibility transfers the concept “conscience” from the inner life of a person to their external life and somewhat neutralizes conscience’s ethical value (Dmitrieva, 2017: 286-287).

Thus, the definitions of the word совесть (conscience) contain a personal-normative feature of the concept, sometimes a reflective feature (when defining conscience as consciousness) and an emotional feature (when defining conscience as a feeling).

The word совесть (conscience) is very poorly represented in the dictionaries of synonyms of the Russian language. Only three classical dictionaries contain the entry “совесть”. The synonyms of the lexeme are стыд (shame), ответственность (responsibility), убежденность (conviction), моральнаяответственность (moral responsibility). Electronic dictionaries offer a wider range of synonyms: стыд (shame), ответственность (responsibility), убежденность (conviction), моральнаяответственность (moral responsibility), нравственность (morality), совестливость (conscientiousness), стыдливость (bashfulness), робость (shyness), застенчивость (timidity), вера (faith), убеждение (belief), ручательство (pledge). In all the sources, стыд (shame) is the first synonym for the lexeme совесть (conscience) and is listed as the most frequent one.

The word стыд (shame) came into Russian from Old Church Slavonic. The original meaning of the word is “what makes you shrink, numb” (initially from fear), that is why студеный (frozen), стужа (frost) and стыд (shame) are cognates. Cтыд (shame) in all the dictionaries is defined as a feeling of embarrassment from the consciousness of the reprehensibility of one’s actions or as dishonor. Only one lexicographical source adds to this definition a sense of responsibility for one's behavior, which equates shame to conscience. Dal’s Explanatory Dictionary, being the earliest lexicographic source, has the entry студ (an old word for shame) which compares shame and conscience, defining shame as an external manifestation of conscience or confession to conscience. In all the lexicographic sources, совесть (conscience) is offered as one of the first synonyms for the noun стыд (shame).

Thus, the dictionary definitions highlight the sensual and rational (comprehension of one’s actions) seeds in shame. The sensual seed brings shame closer to conscience, the rational seed – to consciousness.

Shame accompanies conscience in many aspects of the functioning of the Russian language. In addition to lexicography, they appear hand in hand (and sometimes replace each other) in phraseological units (e.g., нистыда, нисовести (no shame, no conscience); гдестыд, тамисовесть (where there is shame, there is conscience) and in proverbs (e.g., Стыдподкаблук, асовестьподподошву (Shame under the heel and conscience under the sole)) (Markevich, 2009: 28). According to N. D. Arutyunova, “both shame and conscience imply an internal ability of the Ego to respond to the assessment of its actions by Others. However, as a personality evolves, the psychic reaction to the assessment of the Others evolves from shame to conscience. Unlike conscience, shame presupposes a look from the outside” (Arutyunova, 2000: 57-58). In its evolution shame has become closer to etiquette, and conscience – to ethics. Thus, only a socialized conscience can act as a synonym for shame. It can be either an archaic understanding of conscience, in which it is still inseparable from the moral (possibly religious) norms of the society or a “collectivized” conscience imposed by the political regime which does not allow deviations from the dominant ideology (Markevich, 2020: 42).

We should note that the dictionaries do not offer the lexeme сознание (consciousness) as a synonym of the lexeme совесть. Meanwhile, according to V. I. Karasik, совесть (conscience) and сознание (consciousness) are in a complex relationship. Etymologically, they come from the synonymous verbs ведать and знать, both meaning “to know”. However, ведать suggested a deep insight into the essence of things and not just the possession of information. “The idea of knowledge as an informational understanding of the world, presented in the basic dyad of deep and superficial knowledge, is being developed in opposition of conscience and consciousness – understanding oneself in the world from the standpoint of the heart and mind” (Karasik, 2020: 33). The author studies conscience and consciousness as clustered but separate concepts, describing the notional, figurative and axiological components of each of them.

Unlike the word совесть (conscience), which came to the Russian language from Greek, the word сознание (consciousness) is a calque of the Latin conscientia, which literally also means “common knowledge”. Consciousness is considered as one of the most important categories of philosophy and psychology and is defined by scientists as “reflected and meaningful being, the state of a person's mental life expressed in the experience of events in the external world and the life of the individual, explicit and implicit knowledge about the world and about oneself, including sensory images, meanings and personal senses” (Karasik, Kitanina, 2019: 69). Discussion of the problem of consciousness in the philosophical field is “a discussion of the fundamental aspects of human existence: the richness and diversity of man's relationship to reality; the ability to perfectly reproduce reality; knowledge about the world, including the idea of the role and place of a person in it, about the ‘meaning of life’; about human freedom, sense of guilt and responsibility; about the direction of the world process, etc.” (Mescheryakov, Zinchenko, 2009).

In psychology, consciousness is a form of reflection of objective reality in the human psyche where the elements of social and historical practice act as an intermediate factor building objective pictures of the world. According to the modern French philosopher André Comte-Sponville, consciousness is considered as one of the most difficult words to be defined – perhaps because “any definition appeals to consciousness and implies consciousness” (Comte-Sponville, 2013). Nevertheless, the existing definitions of consciousness demonstrate the reflective feature (actualized in some knowledge of the world) and also the emotional one (actualized in the emotional experience).

In the dictionaries of the Russian language, consciousness has several meanings but all of them are associated exclusively with mental activity: the ability to perceive reality; thought; clear understanding; a state of sound mind and memory. Some sources add the meaning of “admitting one’s guilt”. None of the interpretations refers to conscience or morality. They actualize only the reflective feature of the semantic prototype.

The dictionaries give the following synonyms for the word сознание (consciousness) (including slang words): мысль (thought), чувство (feeling), дух (spirit), ум (mind), понимание (understanding), крыша (roof), мозг (brain), разум (mind), психика (psyche), осознание (awareness), исповедь (confession), покаяние (repentance)осмысление (comprehension), рассудок (reason), постижение (comprehension), разумение (understanding), сознательность (consciousness), правосознание (legal awareness), уяснение (clarification), умственныйвзор (mental gaze), чухалка (breath, sl.), пуруша (spirituality), уразумение (enlightenment). The lexeme совесть (conscience) is not mentioned here.

You can see how conscience, shame and consciousness relate to each other in Figure 1.


Figure 1. Semantic relations between conscience, shame and consciousness in the Russian language


In French, as previously stated, there are no separate lexemes for conscience and consciousness: the lexeme conscience combines these meanings, which in linguistics is an example of syncretism. The word conscience is derived from the Latin conscire – “to know together, knowledge shared with everyone”. Like the Russian word совесть (conscience), it also underwent evolution – from clear knowledge within a person to an intuitive understanding of what is good and bad, which remained the only meaning until the 17th century. The meaning of consciousness (conscience psychologique) was first used only in 1676 when philosopher Nicolas Malebranche first used it in the meaning of “an inner feeling about something about which it is impossible to form a clear and precise idea”[1].

In all modern dictionaries of the French language, the first meaning of the lexeme is “consciousness”, its description and detailing occupy most of the dictionary entry. In total, the word conscience has from 6 to 19 meanings. They form several semantic clusters: 1) consciousness/awareness; 2) moral consciousness; 3) a person with principles, convictions; 4) diligence, conscientiousness, incl. professional; 5) technical terms. Clusters 2, 3 and 4 retain semantic relations with the concept “conscience”. All the definitions from the clusters above can be narrowed down to: intuitive feeling/knowledge of good and evil; the ability to evaluate one’s actions from the point of view of morality; the ability to act according to one's convictions; internal requirement of moral purity (Markevich, 2020: 108).

It is easy to see that the dominant definitional feature of the lexeme conscience presented in the French dictionaries is reflective (when defining the lexeme as consciousness/awareness). The dictionaries also indicate the volitive feature (when defining the lexeme as a requirement) and the personal-normative feature (as the ability to act according to one's convictions).

Depending on the lexicographic source, the lexeme conscience can have up to 37 synonyms. One of the electronic dictionaries, for example, offers the following options: advertence (advertence), âme (soul), application, attention, cœur (heart), connaissance (knowledge), courage, croyance (belief), délicatesse (delicacy), dévouement (dedication), esprit (mind/spirit), estime (esteem), être (being), exactitude (accuracy), foi (faith), for intérieur (inner self), honnêteté (honesty), idée (idea), intuition, lucidité (lucidity), minutie (thoroughness), moralité (morality), notion (concept), pressentiment (presentiment), probité (probity), régularité (regularity), remords (remorse), représentation (representation), scrupule (scruple), sens (sense), sens moral (moral sense), sentiment (feeling), sérieux (seriousness), soin (care), zèle (zeal). None of the lexicographic sources mention the lexeme honte (shame) as a synonym for the lexeme conscience.

Let us consider the word honte (shame) in the French dictionaries. They give its three meanings: 1). opprobrium effect caused by a fact, an action transgressing an ethical norm or a convenience (of a social group/society), or by an action considered demeaning in relation to the norm; 2). feeling of painful humiliation from the realization of one's own inferiority, imperfection in the face of someone or something; 3). painful feeling, embarrassment experienced at the idea of breaking certain social, cultural or moral rules or at the idea of acting against one's dignity or decency.

The noun déshonneur (dishonor) is synonymous with the first meaning, the noun confusion – with the second meaning. For a Russian-speaking researcher, at first glance, the third interpretation of the word seems synonymous with the word conscience, but this opinion is erroneous – it is synonymous with the Russian word совесть (conscience) but not the French word conscience. The synonyms for the third interpretation of the lexeme honte (shame) are the lexemes confusion, pudeur (modesty), réserve (reserve).

The electronic dictionary mentioned above lists 52 synonyms for the noun honte (shame): abaissement (degradation), abjection, abomination, affront, bassesse (baseness), chose deplorable (deplorable thing), chose regrettable (regrettable thing), component, confusion, contrainte (constraint), crainte (fear), déchéance (degradation), dégoût (disgust), dégradation, démenti (denial), démérite (demerit), déshonneur (dishonor), disgrâce (disgrace), échec (failure), embarrass (embarrassment), fessée (spanking), flétrissure (stigma), gêne (embarrassment), horreur (horror), humiliation, humilité (humility), ignominie (ignominy), indignité (indignity), infamie (infamy), insuccès (failure), malaise, modestie (modesty), opprobre (opprobrium), pitié (pity), pudeur (modesty), regret, remords (remorse), repentir (repentance), répugnance (repugnance), réserve (reserve), respect, retenue (restraint), scrupule (scruple), tache (stain), timidité (shyness), turpitude, vergogne (shame), vilenie (villainy), vitupère (vituperation). As you can see, despite many synonyms, there is no lexeme conscience among them.

Figure 2 shows how conscience, shame and consciousness relate to each other in the French language.


Figure 2. Semantic relations between conscience, shame and consciousness in the French language


Let us consider semantic links between conscience, consciousness and shame in the parallel corpus of the Russian and French languages, which is a part of the National Corpus of the Russian language. The total number of examples containing the lexeme conscience in the original or translated texts is 686. They can be found in 37 works, of which 22 works are in Russian, 15 are in French.[2]

In the translation of the French texts, the translation equivalents of the lexeme conscience are совесть (20 examples) and сознание (consciousness) (6 examples), осознавать (to realize) (4 examples), душа (soul) (3 examples) and чувство (feeling) (2 examples). Cамосознание (self-consciousness), мысли (thoughts), осознание (awareness), понимать (to understand), отдаватьсебеотчет (to realize), прийтивсебя (to regain consciousness) and добросовестно (conscientiously) can be seen only once each.

In the translation of the Russian texts, the French equivalents of the lexeme совесть are conscience (30 examples), remords (remorse) (5 examples) and âme (soul) (1 example).

The analysis of the examples from the reverse translation shows that the French lexeme conscience is used to translate the following Russian words and word combinations: сознание (consciousness) and its derivatives сознательно (consciously), осознать (to realize), осознание (awareness), сознавать (to realize), самосознание (self-consciousness) (67 examples), совесть (conscience) and совестливый (conscientious) (31 examples), чувствовать/ощущатьсебя (feel) (4 examples), забыться (to forget oneself) (4 examples), очнуться/прийтивсебя (to wake up/come to one’s senses) (2 examples), опомниться (to come to one’s senses) (2 examples), понимать (to understand) (2 examples) and one example each for ответственность (responsibility), душа (soul), добросовестно (in good faith) and the following phrases – вбеспамятстве (in unconsciousness), ценитьсебя (to appreciate oneself), одуматься (to change one's mind), отдавать (себе) отчет (to be aware of),  терятьсебя (to lose oneself), впонятии (understanding), оглянуться (to look around) (Markevich, 2020: 171) .

So, it can be seen in the corpus that most of the lexemes used for the translation of conscience and совесть belong to the rational sphere.  However, the lexeme remords (remorse) used for the translation of совесть into French proves that, unlike Russian совесть, French conscience is not linked to shame.


The analysis of lexicographic sources shows that the relationships between conscience, shame and consciousness in the Russian and French languages are different. The difference is due to the semantic content of each lexical unit. In Russian, responsibility brings conscience closer to shame, which thereby becomes the first synonym for conscience. Besides responsibility, shame and conscience have another common origin – fear. In the lexeme стыд (shame), fear is traced at the etymological level. The connection between fear and conscience is extensively represented in metaphors, which form the figurative component of the concept.

Rational consciousness is weakly connected with conscience in Russian dictionaries and is not at all represented among the synonyms of the word совесть (conscience). However, сознание (consciousness) in the Russian language has semantic connections with стыд (shame).

Conscience as a linguocultural concept in the Russian language at the notional level is marked primarily by emotionality. The feature of rationality is weakly expressed in the concept. The personal-normative and volitive features are not represented at all.

In French, there is a semantic doublet “conscience-consciousness” represented by the lexeme conscience. The dominant of the doublet is the meaning of “consciousness”. In the lexicographic sources, no links were noted between the lexemes conscience and honte (shame).

Consequently, in the French language, the reflective feature prevails in the concept, but the personal-normative and volitive features are also actualized. The emotional feature is not actualized in the lexicographic sources.

It seems that such a difference can be explained by a much more personal character of the French conscience, and, conversely, by the social character of the Russian conscience, the latter being greatly influenced by the collectivist ideology of the last century. Moreover, rationality has traditionally been considered part of the French mentality. For the Russian national character, rationality is not typical. Religious fear preserved in the concept in the Russian language brings conscience closer to shame. To confirm this theory, it is advisable to study the triad “conscience-shame-consciousness” in the figurative and axiological aspects.


[1]Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé, available at: https://www.le-tresor-de-la-langue.fr/ (Accessed October 4 2021). (In French)

[2] Национальный корпус русского языка, available at: https://ruscorpora.ru/new/search-para.html (Accessed October 24 2020).


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