Houjun Liu

semantic prime

In NSM, semantic primes are the most fundimental “lexical units” (so they can be words, or morphemes, etc. the size doesn’t matter) across languages.

They are the “core of a universal mental lexicon”.

There are…

guidelines for identifying semantic primes

  1. A semantic prime has to be found in every(ish?) natural language
  2. A semantic prime has to be indefinable by other primes

proof for the existence of semantic primes

Proof: given if the Strong Lexicalization Hypothesis holds, semantic primes must exist.

Assume for the sake of contradiction no semantic primes exist.

Because Strong Lexicalization Hypothesis holds, there does not exist syntactic transformations which can take original single words and transform them into newly lexicalized words to express a different meaning.

At the same time, again because of the Strong Lexicalization Hypothesis, one must only leverage syntactic transformation on syntatic constituents when forming ideas.

Therefore, given a word to lexicalize, it has to be defined by an syntatic transformation on a set of previously lexicalized words.

(by definition) there are no words lexicalizable from the empty set of words.

Therefore, there exists some word that needs to be lexicalized by words that are not previously defined, which is absurd. (instead, these words are lexicalized via semantic primes.)


problems with semantic primes

  1. the list has grown over time
  2. the problem of allolexy: formal restrictions of a language resulting in the same concept needing to be radicalized multiple times (I vs. me)

finding semantic primes

According to (Geeraerts 2009), (Goddard 2009) provides a “practical” (though flawed) way of establishing primes. Something to do with large-scale comparisons in “whole metalanguage studies”, which requires pairwise language comparison

Locating primes are seen as an enforcement of NSM theories (Vanhatalo, Tissari, and Idström, n.d.). Recent prime locations: in Amharic (Amberber 2008), East Cree (Junker 2008), French (Peeters 1994), Japanese (Onishi 1994), Korean (Yoon 2008), Lao (Enfield 2002), Mandarin (Chappell 2002), Mangaaba-Mbula (Bugenhagen 2002), Malay (Goddard 2002), Polish (Wierzbicka 2002), Russian (Gladkova 2010, for the latest set, see the NSM home page), Spanish (Travis 2002), and Thai (Diller 1994).