Natural semantic metalanguage
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The Natural semantic metalanguage (NSM) is a linguistic theory that reduces lexicons down to a set of semantic primitives. It is based on the conception of Polish professor Andrzej Bogusławski. The theory was formally developed by Anna Wierzbicka at Warsaw University and later at the Australian National University in the early 1970s, and Cliff Goddard at Australia's Griffith University.
The Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) theory attempts to reduce the semantics of all lexicons down to a restricted set of semantic primitives, or primes. Primes are universal in that they have the same translation in every language, and they are primitive in that they cannot be defined using other words. Primes are ordered together to form explications, which are descriptions of semantic representations consisting solely of primes.
Research in the NSM approach deals extensively with language and cognition, and language and culture. Key areas of research include lexical semantics, grammatical semantics, phraseology and pragmatics, as well as cross-cultural communication.
Dozens of languages, including representatives of 16 language groups, have been studied using the NSM framework. They include English, Russian, Polish, French, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Malay, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Ewe, Wolof, East Cree, Koromu, at least 16 Australian languages, and a number of creole languages including Trinidadian creole, Roper River Kriol, Bislama and Tok Pisin.
Apart from the originators Anna Wierzbicka and Cliff Goddard, a number of other scholars have participated in NSM semantics, most notably Bert Peeters, Zhengdao Ye, Felix Ameka, Jean Harkins, Marie-Odile Junker, Anna Gladkova, Jock Wong, Carsten Levisen, Helen Bromhead, Adrian Tien, Carol Priestley, Yuko Asano-Cavanagh and Gian Marco Farese.
Semantic primes (also known as semantic primitives) are concepts that are universal and primitive. Universal indicates that they can be translated literally into any known language and retain their semantic representation. They are primitive as they are proposed to be the most simple linguistic concepts and are unable to be defined using simpler terms .
Proponents of the NSM theory argue that every language shares a core vocabulary of concepts. In 1994 and 2002, Goddard and Wierzbicka studied languages across the globe and found strong evidence supporting this argument.
NSM primes can be combined in a limited set of syntactic frames that are also universal . These valency options specify the specific types of grammatical functions that can be combined with the primes. While these combinations can be realized differently in other languages, it is believed that the meanings expressed by these syntactic combinations are universal.
Example of valency frames for SAY (from Semantic Analysis  )
- someone said something→[minimal frame]
- someone said: '––'→[direct speech]
- someone said something to someone→[plus 'addressee']
- someone said something about something/someone→[plus 'locutionary topic']
A semantic analysis in the NSM approach results in a reductive paraphrase called an explication that captures the meaning of the concept explicated . An ideal explication can be substituted for the original expression in context without change of meaning.
For example: Someone X killed someone Y:
- someone X did something to someone else Y
- because of this, something happened to Y at the same time
- because of this, something happened to Y's body
- because of this, after this Y was not living anymore (archived at )
Semantic molecules are intermediary words used in explications and cultural scripts. While not semantic primes, they can be defined exclusively using primes. Semantic molecules can be determined as words that are necessary to build upon to explicate other words . These molecules are marked by the notation [m] in explications and cultural scripts. Some molecules are proposed to be universal or near-universal, while others are culture- or area-specific.
Examples of proposed universal molecules:
|Body parts||hands, mouth, eyes, head, ears, nose, face, teeth, fingers, breast, skin, bones, blood|
|Physical||long, round, flat, thin, hard, soft, sharp, smooth, heavy|
|Biosocial||children, men, women, be born, mother, father, wife, husband|
Minimal English is a derivative of the natural semantic metalanguage research, with the first major publication in 2018 . It is a reduced form of English designed for non-specialists to use when requiring clarity of expression or easily translatable materials. Minimal English uses an expanded set of vocabulary to the semantic primes. It includes the proposed universal and near-universal molecules, as well as non-universal words which can assist in clarity . As such, it already has counterparts targeted at speakers of other natural languages, e.g. Minimal French, Minimal Polish, 65 Sanaa (Minimal Finnish):225-258 and so on. Minimal English differs from other simple Englishes (such as Basic English) as it has been specifically designed for maximal cross-translatability.
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- Goddard, Cliff; Wierzbicka, Anna, eds. (2002). Meaning and Universal Grammar: Theory and Empirical Findings. John Benjamins. ISBN 9781588112644.
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- Ye, Zhengdao, ed. (2017). The Semantics of Nouns. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198736721.
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- Goddard, Cliff (2011). Semantic Analysis. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199560288.
- Goddard, Cliff. "The Natural Semantic Metalanguage Approach" (PDF). Griffith University. Retrieved 27 May 2013.
- Goddard, Cliff. "The Natural Semantic Metalanguage Approach" (PDF). Internet Archive Wayback Machine. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 July 2017. Retrieved 13 October 2018.
- Levisen, Carsten; Waters, Sophia, eds. (2017). Cultural Keywords in Discourse. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. ISBN 9789027256829.
- Goddard, Cliff. "Semantic Molecules". NSM Homepage. Retrieved 2 February 2018.
- Goddard, Cliff, ed. (2018). Minimal English for a Global World. Palgrave Macmillan.
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- Peeters, Bert (2017). "Du bon usage des stéréotypes 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]". Dire (in French). 9: 43–60.
- Wierzbicka, Anna (2017). W co wierzą chrześcijanie? Opowieść o Bogu i o ludziac [What Christians believe: The story of God and people] (in Polish). Kraków (Cracow): Znak.
- Semantic Decomposition and Marker Passing in an Artificial Representation of Meaning, Doctoral Thesis of Johannes Fähndrich at the Technischen Universität Berlin 2018 https://d-nb.info/1162540680/34
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- Harkins, Jean & Anna Wierzbicka. 2001. Emotions in Crosslinguistic Perspective. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
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