Natural Semantic Metalanguage

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Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) is a linguistic approach developed by linguist Anna Wierzbicka for semantic analysis, i.e. determining the meaning of linguistic utterances.

For this purpose, the phrase to be examined is broken down into ever smaller, less complex units of meaning. An essential difference to other semantic analysis methods (semantic decomposition ) is that the description of a complex term is only carried out in natural language - i.e. without neologisms , formal operators , abbreviations, etc., as they are mandatory for other semantic theories. At the end of this process there are so-called elementary concepts ( semantic primes or semantic primitives ). These primitives represent a series of “atoms of meaning” that cannot be analyzed further. According to the proponents of NSM, these semantic primes can be found universally in all human languages.

The NSM claims psychological reality - that is, that the human cognitive system actually stores meanings in the manner described.

The primitives

At present - subject to further research - around 60 primitives are assumed. The English terms in the following list are only to be understood as a linguistic realization of the underlying concept. In fact, NSM research assumes that concepts like me , good or good, can be found in any human language.

group Concepts German translations
Nouns I, YOU, SOMEONE, PEOPLE, SOMETHING / THING, BODY I, you, someone, people, something / thing, body
Determiners THIS, THE SAME, OTHER This, the same, another
Quantity ONE, TWO, SOME, ALL, MANY / MUCH One, two, some, all, many
rating GOOD, BAD Good Bad
description BIG, SMALL, (LONG) Big, small, (long)
intensity VERY Very
Mental activities THINK, KNOW, WANT, FEEL, SEE, HEAR Thinking, knowing, wishing, feeling, seeing, hearing
language SAY, WORD, TRUE Say, word, true
Actions DO, HAPPEN, MOVE Do, happen, move
Existence and possession THERE IS, HAVE There is, have
life and death LIVE THAT Live, die
time WHEN / TIME, NOW, BEFORE, AFTER, A LONG TIME, A SHORT TIME, FOR SOME TIME, MOMENT If / time, now, before, after, long time, short time, for a while, moment
room WHERE / PLACE, HERE, ABOVE, BELOW; FAR, NEAR; SIDE, INSIDE; TOUCHING Where / Place, Here, Over, Under, Far, Near, Side, Inside, Touch
Logical concepts NOT, MAYBE, CAN, BECAUSE, IF Not, Maybe, Can, Because, If
Increase, increase MORE More
Classification KIND OF, PART OF A kind of, a part of
similarity LIKE How

The analysis

Natural language terms are defined with NSM in script-like explanations from general to specific, as the following examples illustrate - again using the "English" primitives:

Plants : living things / these things can't feel something / these things can't do something ( living things / these things can't feel something / these things can't do something )

Himmel : 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” (something very big / people can see it / people can think of this like this: "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 (X is sad = X feels something / sometimes a person thinks this way: "Something bad has happened / if I didn't know it happened, I would say, 'I don't want it to happen' / I'm not saying this now because I know, 'I can't do anything'" / that's why this person feels bad / X feels that way)

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 ( I think this person did something bad / I don't want this person Doing things like this / that's why i want to do something)

The theory was successfully tested using numerous languages ​​(including German , English , Russian , Malay , Japanese and various North and South American Indian languages ).

The NSM serves to compare languages ​​both in terms of requirements and in practice. Since, according to their statement, the semantic primes must somehow be accessible to every speaker of a language, it should be possible to start comparisons of meanings after a fundamental understanding of these concepts.


Critics criticize the inadequate regularity of the analytical language and point out that despite all its efficiency, NSM cannot explain how the meaning of sentences and entire texts emerges from the individual word meanings.

The special relationships between some expressions, such as semantic oppositions in the case of NEAR – FAR , cannot be grasped because they are not based on common components of meaning.

The list cannot capture all the intended meanings of a language; in the case of polysemous primes (different meanings of a single lexeme), only one context is examined and then defined as prime.

E.g .: want - I want you to do something / This house wants painting

“Over the years, NSM researchers have often been challenged with the statement that 'primitive X is not found in language Y'”, writes Goddard (1998). However, the NSM claims universality. A single example of a functional language that one of the primitives doesn't know would shake the theory. In their opinion, NSM representatives have so far been successful in analyzing all such cases as misanalyses of the corresponding languages.

Minimal English

Minimal English is a new branch of research into Natural Semantic Metalanguage. The first major publication took place in 2018. It is a reduced form of English. It is designed to be clearly expressed so that any material it uses can be easily translated.

Minimal English extends the 'Semantic primes' and the proposed universal or almost universal molecules by a few more words.

There are also equivalents in other natural languages ​​such as B. Minimal French , Minimal Polish , 65 Sanaa ( Minimal Finnish ).

Minimal English differs from other simple English variants (such as Basic English ) in that it is specially designed with good translatability in mind.

See also

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Cliff Goddard: NSM overview diagram . Retrieved April 9, 2019.
  2. ^ A b Cliff Goddard (Ed.): Minimal English for a Global World . Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
  3. Cliff Goddard, Anna Wierzbicka: Global English, Minimal English position papers . Retrieved February 2, 2018.
  4. ^ Cliff Goddard: Minimal English . Retrieved February 2, 2018.
  5. Bert Peeters: Du bon usage des stereotypes en cours de FLE: le cas de l'ethnolinguistique appliquée [Making good use of stereotypes in the French foreign language classroom: the case of applied ethnolinguistics .] In: Dire . 9, 2017, pp. 43-60.
  6. Anna Wierzbicka: W co wierzą chrześcijanie? Opowieść o Bogu io ludziac [What Christians believe: The story of God and people] ( Polish ). Znak, Kraków ( Cracow ) 2017.