# How far is Natural semantic metalanguage really natural?

The theory of Natural semantic metalanguage states there are about 70 words we need to describe anything. However, for example DEAD we could express like NOT LIVING and for instance Russian often doesn't use BE in the sentence - that indicates it's not perfect.

Could there be in theory some else language system? If it is called natural, was any simmilar universal expressions (like be, this, here) seen in animal communication?

Thank you.

• Just an interesting thing to note, it seems to have been developed by Polish people, and Polish has almost as much "be"-dropping as Russian. Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 19:11
• I'd recommend you look into it more, they know that some of their primes seem redundant, but argue they are necessary. In the case of DEAD vs NOT LIVING, a separate prime is needed to distinguish between things which were alive and now are not and things which never were alive. Similarly primes for both GOOD and BAD are needed, because as we all know, NOT GOOD does not necessarily imply BAD. Even these polar opposites have middles sometimes. Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 5:51
• @curiousdannii But they would save about half of the words if they had a word for "the opposite of", wouldn't they? Commented Nov 29, 2015 at 7:24
• @Probably They aren't motivated by what would be the shortest list of primes, but by what they think the evidence says our core concepts are. NOT is a core concept they think, but not "opposite". Opposites are derived concepts. Commented Nov 29, 2015 at 9:49
• @NikolayErshov Polish does not have "be"-dropping. Copula is basically always obligatory in Polish. Commented Oct 23, 2016 at 13:22

The "Natural" in Natural Semantic Metalanguage is intended to contrast with other semantic metalanguages which use non-linguistic symbols and syntax.

Here's an example, which apparently is describing the semantics of have to:

[[have to ϕ]]w,f,g = 1 iff for all v ∈ f(w) such that there is no v' ∈ f(w) such that g(w)(v',v),[[ϕ]]v,f,g = 1

In contrast, a NSM explication of have to is:

[A] Someone X has to do something (VP):
a.  it is like this:
b.   this someone X can’t not do something (VP)
c.   someone can know this

So rather than using mathematical/logical symbols (∀, ¬, ⊃, ∄), symbols taken from natural language are used (ALL, NOT, SOME, IF). And rather than using the syntax of functions or following the order of operations, the syntax of natural language is used, following (in English for example) the normal order of SVO, adjective-noun etc.

Whether this is a good idea, and whether it's successful is definitely still up for debate, but that's what the "Natural" means.

• I think you got to the heart of the question here. Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 6:28

The "natural" part of NSM comes from the fact that all of the items in the vocabulary are claimed to be found in all lexicalised in all languages and thus "universal". This is supposed to establish their status as 'semantic primes' - items that are further inexplainable and from which other meanings can be built.

This in itself is dubious because concepts such as "I, you" may appear as lexical items in all languages but they often do not describe the same oppositions as in English. Also, some of the verbs like 'do' and 'move' do not have the same level of generality across languages - so definitions using them in English tend to be a lot easier to deal with than those formulated in other languages. However, Goddard and Wierzbicka both claim that the primes also have universal 'combinatorial properties' but I'm not convinced.

Of course, there is nothing at all natural about the actual descriptions composed using these semantic primes. Just look at the example cited in Wikipedia which tries to explain the concept of Someone X killed someone Y as:

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

This is not natural but is intended to be universal. However, it doesn't take into account the differences in tense/aspect encoding, grammar of causality, etc. So in fact, if those descriptions had to be translated into another language, the translator would still have to interpret what was being said, rather than just mapping primes from one language onto the other. Again, the NSM proponents claim that this is not an issue but it strikes me as quite significant (at least from relatively casual reading of the NSM literature).

• NSM proponents are very upfront that the semantic primes only care part of the senses the words they are taken from carry (such as only the singular sense of you). Some of your other concerns may be real. Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 5:46
• @curiousdannii I don't know NSM well enough to judge. But they say that these key aspects are lexicalised in all languages. But it strikes me that it's really hard to say that because the lexicalisation of many of the items often includes other senses as well, so this is a very bold claim. But I'm sure Goddard or Wierzbicka addressed this somewhere - I just didn't read enough of their work. Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 6:04
• I remember reading something about inflection in explications, but I can't remember exactly what. I think it said that none of the inflections in an explication carry any meaning, and that if for example the pastness of a phrase is relevant then you would need to explicitly use the BEFORE NOW primes. Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 6:08