A post at Taccuino di traduzione about the linguist Anna Wierzbicka and her “semantic primitives” led me to the natural semantic metalanguage (NSM) homepage, which provides a basic introduction to the theory:
The approach is based on evidence that there is a small core of basic, universal meanings, known as semantic primes, which can be found as words or other linguistic expressions in all languages. This common core of meaning can be used as a tool for linguistic and cultural analysis: to explicate complex and culture-specific words and grammatical constructions, and to articulate culture-specific values and attitudes (cultural scripts), in terms which are maximally clear and translatable. The theory also provides a semantic foundation for universal grammar and for linguistic typology. It has applications in intercultural communication, lexicography (dictionary making), language teaching, the study of child language acquisition, legal semantics, and other areas.
As someone trained in the more philological branches of linguistics, immersed in the maddeningly diverse variables of language in all their attested detail, I’m naturally suspicious of all notions of “universal grammar” and other universalities, but I do find the idea of “semantic primitives” (or “primes”) appealing, and I’m curious to see to what extent they can be found across the spectrum of languages; you can read about them, and see the current list (expanded from an original 14 to around 60) here. Some qualifications:
When we say that a semantic prime ought to be a lexical universal, the term “lexical” is being used in a broad sense. A good exponent of a primitive meaning may be a phraseme or a bound morpheme, just so long as it expresses the requisite meaning. For example, in English the meaning A LONG TIME is expressed by a phraseme, though in many languages the same meaning is conveyed by single word. In many Australian languages the primitive BECAUSE is expressed by a suffix.
Even when semantic primes take the form of single words, there is no need for them to be morphologically simple. For example, in English the words SOMEONE and INSIDE are morphologically complex, but their meanings are not composed from the meanings of the morphological “bits” in question. That is, in meaning SOMEONE does not equal “some + one” and INSIDE does not equal “in + side”. In meaning terms, SOMEONE and INSIDE are indivisible.
Semantic primes can also have variant forms (allolexes or allomorphs); for example, in English the word ‘thing’ functions as an allolex of SOMETHING when it is combined with a determiner or quantifier (i.e. this something = this thing, one something = one thing).
Exponents of semantic primes may have different morphosyntactic characteristics, and hence belong to different “parts of speech”, in different languages, without this necessarily disturbing their essential combinatorial properties.
And I find this quote from Goddard and Wierzbicka 1995 (Keywords, culture and cognition. Philosophica 55(1), 37-67) a useful way to think about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (I have changed “j” to “y” in the Russian quote):
Inye veshchi na inom yazyke ne myslyatsya ‘there are some things which cannot be thought in another language’, wrote the poet Marina Tsvetaeva… In a theoretical sense, this statement may be somewhat of an exaggeration, if, as the NSM theory contends, any culture-specific concept can be decomposed into a translatable configuration of semantic primes. … But in an important sense, Tsvetaeva’s statement remains true, because in practice it is impossible to formulate and manipulate thoughts of any sophistication without resort to the kind of conceptual ‘chunking’ enabled by the use of complex lexical items. Thoughts related to [Russian] dusha, for example, can be formulated in English only with great difficulty and at the cost of cognitive fluency, whereas in Russian they can be formulated more or less effortlessly.
I think it’s precisely the degree of difficulty, rather than the possibility, of formulation that lies at the heart of whatever truth there is in the hypothesis.