Natural semantic metalanguage

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Contents

Introduction

The Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) is an approach to semantic analysis based on reductive paraphrase (that is, breaking concepts/words down into combinations of simpler concepts/words) using a small collection of semantic primes. The semantic primes (below) are believed to be atomic, primitive meanings present in all human languages.

Words from ordinary language are analyzed in NSM by means of script-like explications as the following examples illustrate:

plants: living things / these things can't feel something / these things can't do something
sky: something very big / people can see it / people can think like this about this something: "it is a place / it is above all other places / it is far from people"
sad: X feels sad = X feels something / sometimes a person thinks something like this: "something bad happened / if I didn't know that it happened I would say: 'I don't want it to happen' / I don't say this now because I know: 'I can't do anything'" / because of this, this person feels something bad / X feels something like this
anger: I think this person did something bad / I don't want this person to do things like this / I want to do something because of this

Anna Wierzbicka originated the NSM theory in the early 1970s (Wierzbicka 1972). The initial inventory consisted of only 14 primitives. In the following years it slowly grew. As of 2002, the list consists of 61 semantic primitives and is not yet regarded as complete.

Other linguists who have participated in NSM research include Cliff Goddard, Felix Ameka, Hilary Chappell, David Wilkins and Nick Enfield. NSM is commonly used in cross-cultural semantics.

Definition of a prime grammar, that describes how these prime words can be combined into sentences, is a work in progress.

Semantic Primitives

The English exponents of the 61 Semantic Primitives (addition of LONG is proposed)

substantives 
I, YOU, SOMEONE, PEOPLE, SOMETHING/THING, BODY
determiners 
THIS, THE SAME, OTHER
quantifiers 
ONE, TWO, SOME, ALL, MANY/MUCH
evaluators 
GOOD, BAD
descriptors 
BIG, SMALL, (LONG)
intensifier 
VERY
mental predicates 
THINK, KNOW, WANT, FEEL, SEE, HEAR
speech 
SAY, WORD, TRUE
actions, events and movement 
DO, HAPPEN, MOVE
existence and possession 
THERE IS, HAVE
life and death 
LIVE, DIE
time 
WHEN/TIME, NOW, BEFORE, AFTER, A LONG TIME, A SHORT TIME, FOR SOME TIME, MOMENT
space 
WHERE/PLACE, HERE, ABOVE, BELOW; FAR, NEAR; SIDE, INSIDE; TOUCHING
"logical" concepts 
NOT, MAYBE, CAN, BECAUSE, IF
augmentor 
MORE
taxonomy, partonomy 
KIND OF, PART OF;
similarity 
LIKE

The assumption that these primes are present in all languages was tested extensively against these 9 languages: Polish, Mandarin, Malay, Lao, Spanish, Korean, Mangaabe-Mbula (Papua language), Cree (Canadian Indian language), Yankunytjatjara (Australian language).

Further Reading

Bibliography

  • Boguslawski, Andrzej. 2001. 'Reflections on Wierzbicka's Explications'. Lingua Posnaniensis 43, pp. 49-88.
  • Goddard, Cliff (ed.). 1997. Studies in the syntax of universal semantic primitives. Special issue of Language Science 19, 3.
  • Goddard, Cliff. 1998. 'Bad arguments against semantic primitives (http://www.une.edu.au/arts/LCL/disciplines/linguistics/BadArguments5.publ.pdf)'. Theoretical Linguistics 24, 2-3, pp. 129-156.
  • Goddard, Cliff. 2001. 'Conceptual primes in early language development'. In Putz, Martin, Niemeier, Susanne, & Dirven, Rene (eds.). Applied Cognitive Linguistics I: Theory and Language Acquistition. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 193-227.
  • Goddard, Cliff. 2002. 'The search for the shared semantic core of all languages (http://www.une.edu.au/arts/LCL/disciplines/linguistics/Goddard_Ch1_2002.pdf)'. In Goddard & Wierzbicka (eds.) Meaning and Universal Grammar - Theory and Empirical Findings volume 1, pp. 5-40, Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Goddard, Cliff and Wierzbicka, Anna (eds.). 1994. Semantic and Lexical Universals - Theory and Empirical Findings. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Goddard, Cliff and Wierzbicka, Anna (eds.). 2002. Meaning and Universal Grammar - Theory and Empirical Findings (2 volumes). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Wierzbicka, Anna. 1972. Semantic Primitives. Frankfurt a. M.: Athenäum.
  • Wierzbicka, Anna. 1989a. 'Semantic primitives and lexical universals'. Quaderni di Semantica X, 1, pp. 103-121.
  • Wierzbicka, Anna. 1989b. 'Semantic primitives: the expanding set'. Quaderni di Semantica X, 2, pp. 309-332.
  • Wierzbicka, Anna. 1992a. 'The search for universal semantic primitives'. In: Pütz M. (ed.), Thirty Years of Linguistic Evolution. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp. 215-242.
  • Wierzbicka, Anna. 1995. 'Universal semantic primitives as a basis for lexical semantics'. Folia Linguistica 29, 1-2, pp. 149-169.
  • Wierzbicka, Anna. 2002. 'The semantics of metaphor and parable: Looking for meaning in the Gospels (http://www.une.edu.au/arts/LCL/disciplines/linguistics/SEM_METAPH_PAR.pdf)'. Theoria et Historia Scientiarum 4, 1, pp. 85-106.

External link

de:Natural Semantic Metalanguage pl:Naturalny metajęzyk semantyczny nl:Natural Semantic Metalanguage

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