especially fellow English-Dutch speakers.

I am wondering as to how we can attest that two modal particles in different languages share similar semantic attributes. Is there any metrics/theories to compare semantic attributes between lexicons of different languages? Consider the following example down below:

First, let us take the English modal particle "well", from this following sentence "well, it does not matter anyway". Let us determine that "well" has semantic attribute of x, y, and z.

And then let us take the Dutch modal particles "nou", from this following sentence "nou, het maakt toch niet uit". Let us determine that "nou" has semantic attribute of of x, y, and z.

How can we confidently attest, that these two modal particles, are indeed of similar semantic attributes and therefore can be used as translation equivalents? What metrics/theories can we base our observation with?

Thanks in advance, I hope my question is clear.

  • There is no such thing as equivalence in translation. There is only equivalent meaning.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 3 at 17:36
  • "Translation equivalence" is a well-known concept in computational linguistics, describing words that can be used to translate other words (depending on context/usage) Commented Jan 4 at 9:15

2 Answers 2


The way I would do it is:

  1. Get a (large-ish) corpus of sentence-aligned translated texts, both NL->EN and EN->NL.
  2. collect all sentences with well and then find their respective translations.
  3. In the translations, count how many sentences contain nou.
  4. Repeat the same process the other way, going from the Dutch sentences with nou, and counting occurrences of well in the translations.

If the particles are (near) identical, then the counts should be high, which would indicate that well is always translated as nou. If the counts between the two passes are different, then we have a semantic split one way, eg nou is sometimes translated as well, and other times as now, depending on context (well could still be always translated as nou, in theory).

  • 1
    Thanks for the comment! I have some experiences dealing with corpus linguistics, and I can see how I can elaborate with your insight.
    – pindakazen
    Commented Jan 4 at 7:31

To say that two utterances in one or more languages are semantically "similar", you have to have some kind of atoms of semantic representation. It is easy to find two sentences where someone will declare that the sentences are "completely different", but that is never true, there are always some semantic identities in any two sentences. Generally, people have in mind some kind of weighting where certain identifies are viewed as less important.

The neo-Richenbachian analysis of verb tense and aspect is a example of a weighting system, in that it is a theory with few possibilities and many actually-observed differences in the semantics of tense-aspect across languages are "downgraded" to the status of "being something else". In the context of that theory, we can (probably) say something about the equivalence of two utterances, w.r.t. tense-aspect. Without a theory of what it means to be "the same" vs. "different" in a specific respect, the idea of comparison is meaningless.

In this particular case, things are more difficult because the issue is whether it is socially felicitous to use "well" in a certain fashion, and articulating felicity conditions associated with words is unimaginably complicated (compared to mundane questions such as the meaning of "dog"). The inquiry would come down to saying when it is felicitous to say "well" (that particular use of "well", as a prefixed parenthetical, not "he painted the house well" or "he went to the well"), and doing the same for nou. Just coming up with contexts where it would be infelicitous to say "Well,..." in English is extremely difficult. In part that is because it's not clear which uses you have in mind, for example would you include "Well screw you!" as the same sense as "Well I suppose it might be better to wait"?

  • Thanks for the insight! This seems really complex :)
    – pindakazen
    Commented Jan 4 at 7:30

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