SEMANTIC PRIMITIVES.

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.

Comments

  1. The list seems heavily skewed toward representational language vs. “emotive” or interpersonal, language — please, thank you, I love you, I hate you, do [this] (command), etc.
    This is characteristic of AI people; they write the impersonal objectivity required to do good AI work into the intelligence they’re producing. Likewise it’s characteristic of much modern philosophy since Locke/ Descartes, especially of the possitivist sort. You still frequently have people who divide mental behavior into “rational” (narrowly defined) and “irrational” — with irrational meaning defective or harmful.
    Historically and functionally I think that this is a descriptive error. One of the evolutionary advantages of language was the enabling of cooperative action within groups defined in terms of affection, relationship, and heierarchy.

  2. I quite agree with you, and I’m surprised the bias has lasted this long — another aspect of the “two cultures” divide, I guess.

  3. this sort of thing has long been a
    staple of conlangers–Lojban & Vorlin
    having made significant compilations–
    but when i actually look at such a list,
    i find myself coming up with exceptions
    almost at once. KNOW–many Romance
    languages distinguish know-from-experience
    from know-by-being-told: & i can’t see
    that this is any less basic than DOG vs.
    CAT. but it is interesting to try it, all
    the same…

  4. This reminds me of Swadesh-type basic-word lists. Not very useful, perhaps, in strictly realistic terms. But they are beautiful lists, though:
    I
    thou
    we
    this
    that
    who
    what
    not
    all
    many
    one
    two
    big
    long
    small
    woman
    man
    person
    bird
    dog
    louse
    tree
    seed
    leaf
    root
    bark
    skin
    meat
    blood
    bone
    fat (n.)
    fire
    egg
    horn
    tail
    feather
    fish
    hair
    head
    ear
    eye
    fingernail
    nose
    mouth
    tooth
    tongue
    foot
    knee
    hand
    belly
    neck
    breast
    heart
    liver
    drink
    eat
    bite
    see
    hear
    know
    sleep
    die
    kill
    swim
    fly (v.)
    walk
    come
    lie
    sit
    stand
    give
    say
    sun
    moon
    star
    water
    rain
    stone
    sand
    earth
    cloud
    smoke
    ashes
    burn
    road
    mountain
    red
    green
    yellow
    white
    black
    night
    warm
    cold
    full
    new
    good
    round
    dry
    name

  5. I don’t know about the Swadesh list but some lists of this type are very useful, e.g. for missionaries or anthropoligists trying to puzzle out a totally unknown language. You can use it to organize the research and coinstruct a kind of pidgin.

  6. Expressions such as “love” are not excluded from the primatives list because they were not considered. I’d venture to say that most, if not all, languages have something more-or-less equivalent. Rather, they are not included because the words can be broken down into a “cultural script” which unambiguously describes their essential properties to both native speakers and foreigners. Even though some properties of the word “love” might be shared between many different cultures, other properties might need a surprisingly long explanation. For example, imagine a culture in which it is “loving” to kill someone rather than to let him live dishonored.

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