Natural Semantic Primitives

I find this theory that all meaning can be broken down into 61 semantic primitives — atoms of thought, if you will — intriguing.

I’m not sure this theory is about language, so much as it is about thought, however.  Could it be that we conceive of only sixty-one main ideas?

More interestingly, it’s about culture — it seems a clever tool for unpacking meaning, and whether these 61 words are the atoms of thought or not, it’s a handy algebric notation for trying to undertand a complex concept.

I’m tempted to try my hand at it.  Keeping in mind, of course, that I haven’t really read much of the theory in any formal sense, just surfed the page and glanced at a few articles at this point, so I’m probably doing it wrong.


I want something to happen.

I do something like this thing.
This thing happened because I did something.

But something’s wrong there, I think.  Because this script could work for lots of things.  I mean, it could work for writing a letter.

I want to say something.

I cannot say something.

I do something like saying something.

Or it could work for superstition.  Or any number of other ideas.  What is it about magic that makes it not superstition and not writing a letter or acting in a play or doing some other symbolic action?

And of course each paradigm of magic would write a different script.  For example, the spirit paradigm:

I want something.

I say words to something/ something does not have a body/ something does not live/ something thinks.

Something makes something happen.

Or the energy paradigm:

I want something

I move something/ something often does something/ something does not live/ something does not think/ someone cannot touch something/ something is inside all things/ because of this, things happen.

This something makes something happen.

I’m sure I’m doing this wrong, but it is sort of revealing.  After all, the closest I can come to the energy paradigm makes me wonder if this isn’t just the same as the spirit paradigm.  I wonder if we boil down all paradigms to primitive semantic units, we might not find that they’re all the same.

I might have to pick up her books.


2 Responses to “Natural Semantic Primitives”

  1. Lavanah Says:

    Who, her?

  2. Anna Wierzbicka.

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