I know about semantic primitives but I was curious about a usable system where you actually construct words out of those primes.

The idea is to have a keyboard of the primes and to build concepts by combining the primes. However, for compactness, each concept can be given an image, like a Chinese character, but in our time likely an emoji or GIF.

There would be no need for standardization like we all must use this symbol for that concept. You can make your own if you can understand it, and people can contribute their emojis, symbols and GIFs to public repos where they get tagged/labeled and voted on, so you can search and bring up various popular ones.

So, is there any practically usable language right now using semantic primes?

  • 4
    This would also make a perfect question for Constructed Languages Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 10:42
  • 2
    Reminiscent of Heinlein's novella Gulf, where a one-concept-per-phoneme "Speedtalk" was discussed. It was used only between geniuses in the story, and has been extensively criticized as unworkable in the linguistic literature. Conlangers are now rediscovering it all, apparently.
    – jlawler
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 16:16

3 Answers 3


Toki Pona is probably the closest example.

It claims to have a lexicon of somewhere in the region of 120-137 words. In principle words for more specific concepts can be constructed ad hoc or based on pragmatics.

In practice though, many of these more specific concepts have conventional lemmata with their meanings not necessarily uniquely following from their etymology. Essentially, these lemmata have been lexicalised, and it actually has a much larger lexicon, albeit one constructed solely from a very small number of morphemes.

It has two writing systems that function similarly to how you describe, sitelen pona & sitelen sitelen (or sitelen suwi).

From the 2021 census of the Toki Pona community, about 61% of respondents to the question who responded in English, rather than Toki Pona (who make up the vast majority of respondents, but are presumably the less active members), said they know sitelen pona, 43% that they use it, and 18% that it's their preferred system. About 31% said they know sitelen sitelen, 11% that they use it, and 4% that it's their preferred system.

Of those who responded in Toki Pona, rather than English (who are presumably the more active members of the community), about 81% said they know sitelen pona, 59% that they use it, and 28% that it's their preferred system. About 37% said they know sitelen sitelen, 13% use it, and 4% that it's their preferred system.


I think the Ancient language from Heaven's Vault qualifies. It's based on a set of 40-50 symbols, most of which have an individual meaning, and combines them to form longer words.

For example, the word for overseer or master breaks down into person + robot + judge. The word for robot itself breaks down into mineral + creature + knowledge, And judge breaks down into (verb) + truth + motion + person.

That master includes robot is a reference to a forgotten era of the game world's history when humans were enslaved by robots.

It's a fairly practical language, and people on the game's discussion forums have written poetry in it.


Yes, there are some.

On the pictographic level that is elaborated in the question text, there is Blissymbolics.

A more pure approach building on semantic primitives but designed as a spoken language is Toki Pona.

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