Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM)

Semantic primes are the vocabulary of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage. NSM grammar specifies how primes can be combined in ways that make sense and appear to be possible in all languages. This table displays the English exponents of the primes and some of their basic combinatorial possibilities. Many other, more complex combinations are possible, especially using operators and connectives like NOT, CAN, MAYBE, IF, and BECAUSE, and drawing on the complement-taking properties of KNOW, WANT and THINK. Primes can have two or more exponents (allolexes) in a given language, e.g. other and else in English. In some languages certain combinations of primes are expressed by a portmanteau, e.g. in Polish the combination ‘like this’ is expressed by a single word tak.

Using NSM in explications

  • Whenever possible, compose explications entirely in semantic primes. Don’t include any complex English-specific words, no matter how common and seemingly basic; e.g. andormake.
  • Ensure that you use semantic primes only in allowable syntactic frames. Don’t resort to non-NSM syntax even if English grammar allows it. For example, avoid ‘do something about it’ and ‘feel good/bad about something’; semantic primes DO and FEEL do not have any “about”-valency. Likewise, avoid ‘for a moment’; semantic prime MOMENT is incompatible with duration.
  • Avoid the following non-universal constructions: relative clauses (e.g. someone   who   I   know   well), comparative (e.g. better   thanmore   than),   indirect speech (e.g. this   someone   said   that   …).
  • Words of a similar semantic type tend to follow a common semantic template. Some explications require use of semantic molecules, in addition to primes. Semantic molecules are a well- defined set of non-primitive meanings that function as units in the meanings of more complex concepts.

Cliff Goddard <cgoddard@une.edu.au>4 January 2011

CategoryPrimes
SubstantivesI, YOU, SOMEONE, PEOPLE, SOMETHING/THING, BODY
Relational SubstantivesKIND, PART
DeterminersTHIS, THE SAME, OTHER~ELSE~ANOTHER
QuantifiersONE, TWO, SOME, ALL, MUCH/MANY, LITTLE/FEW
EvaluatorsGOOD, BAD
DescriptorsBIG, SMALL
Mental predicatesTHINK, KNOW, WANT, DON'T WANT, FEEL, SEE, HEAR
SpeechSAY, WORDS, TRUE
ActionsEventsMovementDO, HAPPEN, MOVE
ExistencePossessionBE (SOMEWHERE), THERE IS, BE (SOMEONE/SOMETHING), (IS) MINE
Life and DeathLIVE, DIE
TimeWHEN/TIME, NOW, BEFORE, AFTER, A LONG TIME, A SHORT TIME, FOR SOME TIME, MOMENT
SpaceWHERE/PLACE, HERE, ABOVE, BELOW, FAR, NEAR, SIDE, INSIDE, TOUCH (CONTACT)
Logical ConceptsNOT, MAYBE, CAN, BECAUSE, IF
Intensifier, AugmenterVERY, MORE
SimilarityLIKE/AS/WAY

NSM SEMNANTIC PRIMES

I, YOU

I don’t know, I want you to do/know something, something bad can happen to me/you, someone like me

HERE

something is happening here now

NOW

something is happening here now

SOMEONE

this someone, the same someone, someone else, this other someone

PLACE~WHERE

(in) this place, (in) the same place, somewhere else, (in) this other place, in some places, in many places,

in the place where …

TIME~WHEN

(at) this time, (at) the same time, at another time, at this other time, at some times, at many times,

at the time when …

SOMETHING~THING

this thing, the same thing, something else, this other something

PART

this part, the same part, another part, this other part, part of something, part of someone’s body, part of a place, this thing has two/many parts

KIND

this kind, the same kind, another kind, this other kind, something/someone of one/two/many kinds, people of one/two/many kinds

PEOPLE

many people, some people, people think like this, people can say

BODY

part of someone’s body, two kinds of bodies, body of one kind

WORDS

many words, other words, one word, say something with (not with) words, say these words, these words say something

THIS~IT

this someone (something), these people, at this time, in this place, this kind, this part, because of this, it is like this

THE SAME

the same someone, the same thing, the same part, the same kind, at the same time, in the same place, someone says/does/thinks/knows/wants/feels the same

OTHER~ELSE

someone else, something else, at another time, somewhere else, other parts, other kinds, this other part, this other kind, this other someone, this other thing

ALL

all people, all things, all parts, all kinds, at all times, in all places

ONE

one someone, one thing, one part, one kind, one of these things/people, something of one kind, at one time, in one place, one more thing

MUCH~MANY

many people, many things, many parts, many kinds, at many times, in many places much something of this kind (e.g. water), much/many more

SOME

some people, some things, some parts, some kinds, at some times, in some places, some of these things/people

TWO

two things, two parts, two kinds,

two of these things/people, two more things

LITTLE~FEW

few people, few things

a little something of this kind (e.g. water)

GOOD

something good, someone good, good people, something good happens, do something good (for someone), feel something good, this is good, it is good if ...

BAD

something bad, bad people, something bad happens, do something bad (to someone), feel something bad, this is bad, it is bad if ...

TRUE

this is true, this is not true

BIG

something big, a big place, a big part

SMALL

something small, a small place, a small part

VERY

very big, very small, very good, very bad, very far, very near, a very short time, a very long time

HAPPENDOSAY

something happens

something happens to someone something happens to something something happens in a place

someone does something (to someone else) someone does something to something (with

something else)

someone does something with someone else

someone does something good for someone else

someone says something (to someone) someone says something (good/bad)

(about someone/something) someone says something like this: “- -”

someone says something (not) with words

WANTFEELTHINK

someone wants something,

someone wants to do/know/say something, someone wants someone else to do/know

something

someone wants something to happen

someone feels something (good/bad) (in part of the body)

someone feels like this

someone feels something good/bad towards someone else

someone thinks (something good/bad) about someone/something

someone thinks like this: “- -”, many people think like this: “- -”

(at this time) someone thinks that ...

SEE

someone sees someone/something (in a place)

HEARKNOW
someone hears something

someone knows something (about someone/something)

someone knows when/where/who ... someone knows that ...

people can know this

someone knows someone else (well)

BE (specificational)

this someone is someone like me this is something of one kin

this is something big/small

someone can say who this someone is someone can say what kind of thing

this is …

THERE      IS

there is something in this place there is someone in this place there are two/many kinds of …

MOVE

someone moves (in this place) something moves in this place parts of this someone’s body move

BE (locational)

HAVE

someone has something (many things) someone has something of this kind

TOUCH
someone is in a place something is in a place someone is with someone else

something touches something else (in a place)

something touches someone (part of this someone’s body)

someone touches someone else (part of this other someone’s body)

LIVE

someone lives for a long time someone lives in this place many people live in this place

someone lives with someone else

DIE

someone dies at this time all people die at some time

MORE~ANYMORE

someone wants more, someone does more, someone wants to know/say more about it, one more, two more, many more not living anymore, not like this anymore

NOT~DON’T

I don’t know, I don’t want this, someone can’t do this, it is not like this, not good, not bad, not because of anything else

CAN

someone can (can’t) do something someone can’t not do something something (good/bad) can happen it can be like this

BECAUSE

because of this/it, it happened because this someone did something before

LIKE~WAY

do it like this, move like this, happen like this, do it in this way

think like this: “- -”, it is like this: …, like/as this someone wants someone like me

MAYBE

maybe it is like this, maybe it is not like this, maybe someone else can do it

IF

if it happens like this for some time, ..., if you do this, ..., if someone does something like this, ...

BEFORE

before this, some time before, a short time before, a long time before

A SHORT TIME

for a short time, a short time before, a short time after

FOR SOME TIME

it happens for some time, someone does this for some time

AFTER

after this, some time after, a short time after, a long time after

A LONG TIME

for a long time, a long time before, a long time after

MOMENT

it happens in one moment

ABOVE

above this place

NEAR

near this place, near someone

INSIDE

inside this something, inside part of someone’s body

BELOW

below this place

FAR

far from this place

ON ONE SIDE

on this side, on the same side, on one side, on two sides, on all sides

 

Key References

  • Wierzbicka, A. 1996. Semantics: Primes and Universals. OUP. ¦ Goddard, C. & Wierzbicka, A. Eds. 2002. Meaning and Universal Grammar. Vols I and II. Benjamins. ¦ Peeters, B. Ed. 2006. Semantic Primes and Universal Grammar: Evidence from the Romance Languages. Benjamins. ¦ Goddard, C. Ed. 2008. Cross-Linguistic Semantics. Benjamins. ¦ Goddard, C. 2011. Semantic Analysis [2nd edn]. OUP. ¦ Goddard, C. & Wierzbicka, A. In press. Words & Meanings. OUP. ¦ NSM Homepage: www.une.edu.au/bcss/linguistics/nsm

Using NSM in explications

  • Whenever possible, compose explications entirely in semantic primes. Don’t include any complex English-specific words, no matter how common and seemingly basic; e.g. and, or, make.
  • Ensure that you use semantic primes only in allowable syntactic frames. Don’t resort to non-NSM syntax even if English grammar allows it. For example, avoid ‘do something about it’ and ‘feel good/bad about something’; semantic primes DO and FEEL do not have any “about”-valency. Likewise, avoid ‘for a moment’; semantic prime MOMENT is incompatible with duration.
  • Avoid the following non-universal constructions: relative clauses (e.g. someone   who   I   know   well), comparative (e.g. better   than, more   than),   indirect speech (e.g. this   someone   said   that   …).
  • Words of a similar semantic type tend to follow a common semantic template. Some explications require use of semantic molecules, in addition to primes. Semantic molecules are a well- defined set of non-primitive meanings that function as units in the meanings of more complex concepts.

Cliff Goddard <cgoddard@une.edu.au>4 January 2011

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