I am trying to extract all components ("atoms") of meaning of the concept "friendship" in a certain language (actually in Russian). By components of meaning I mean, for example: "girl"="human"+"female"+"young". But the concept "friendship" is more complex. One possible way is to use explanatory dictionaries (but entries may not be complete). The other way is to review proverbs and idioms used in Russian. What other linguistic methods may be useful here? Any ideas are welcome.

  • Perhaps atomism is not a good way of dealing with semantics...can you define (not illustrate) what such a component is and what it is not?
    – Cerberus
    Commented Oct 10, 2013 at 2:27
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    Hasn't Anna Wierzbicka done something similar already?
    – Alex B.
    Commented Oct 10, 2013 at 2:38
  • Wouldn't the concept of ontologies help with this? Commented Oct 10, 2013 at 6:14
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    Wittgenstein demonstrated how difficult (probably impossible) this is for the word game in Philosophical Investigations (gormendizer.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/…). The moral of the story is that if you try to come up with necessary+sufficient conditions for the meaning of a word you'll run into trouble pretty quickly. See also Fodor (1998 - 'Concepts') on the impossibility of giving necessary+sufficient conditions for the word paint.
    – P Elliott
    Commented Oct 10, 2013 at 11:56

1 Answer 1


The Natural Semantic Metalanguage is a controversial approach to semantics. The idea is that there is a limited set of semantic primes which are themselves undefinable and also universal. But with that set of primes, every other meaning can be defined/explicated.

Conveniently, someone has already made an NSM definition for friend! These definitions are always a work in progress, but it might give you a good place to start your investigation.

(my) friend =
I think about this person like this:
    I know this person well
    when I do things with this person, I feel something good
    when I am with this person, I feel something good
I know this person thinks the same about me

Source: Concise Encyclopedia of Semantics

  • I think he's actually after a componential analysis. Is that right @Alex.rft? Commented Oct 10, 2013 at 7:31
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    Alex does start by asking about componential analysis, but also talks about dictionary definitions and asks if there are any other linguistic methods.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Oct 10, 2013 at 7:35
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    I thought he was asking about ways to discover the components. I guess it's not clear precisely what he's after. Commented Oct 10, 2013 at 9:35
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    This is Wierzbicka and Goddard's theory, and, speaking as a semanticist, I think it's a very good job. For one thing, it's comprehensible without advanced mathematics, which is rare enough. For another, it represents meaning as personal, rather than as an abstraction.
    – jlawler
    Commented Oct 10, 2013 at 17:44

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