Semantic primitives and conceptual decomposition

Thought-provoking discussion on semantic primitives and conceptual decomposition this morning at @in_interaction, led by Guillermo Montero-Melis. We went from Wittgenstein & Osgood via Rosch & Lakoff to Kemp & Tenenbaum and recent work by Mitchell, Binder, and others.

The paper that drew most attention was Binder et al. 2016’s ‘Toward a brain-based conceptual semantic representation’ (link). They present 65 semantic features (operationalised as human-rateable scales) with experiential roots & neurobiological plausibility — organisable into broad domains like vision, somatic, motor, spatial, temporal, causal, social, emotion, attention.

I thought of a very different corner of the language sciences, where Wierzbick, Goddard et al. have for decades refined Natural Semantic Metalanguage, a program for semantic decomposition in terms of a set of 65-odd semantic primitives — as here. On the face of it, the approaches could not be more different: NSM aims for human-readable reductive paraphrases of meanings in terms of semantic primitives thought to be lexicalised in all languages (a controversial claim:; on the other hand, Binder et al. aim to quantify meanings by placing them in a 65-dimensional space of experientially & neurobiologically motivated notions, some of which, to NSM adepts, may look too Anglo-specific and technical — here’s their take on ‘egg’, ‘bike’, ‘agreement’:

Contrast this with “eggs” in NSM (an explication published in…): readable if a bit verbose, and phrased mostly in terms of just 65 words (excepting things marked [m], which are ‘semantic molecules’ that themselves need explications — long story):

This would be worth a more detailed piece at some point but for now I simply want to note one thing: that these *wildly* different approaches to semantic primitives —at different levels of analysis & with different explanatory aims— still show some interesting convergences.

In particular, both postulate the relevance of broad domains like space, time, emotion, movement, body, speech, et cetera, though NSM is designed as a metalanguage (e.g., needing logical operators) while Binder et al. go more experiential and low-level (e.g. temperature). NSM scholars could have a field day with some of the Binder et al. features (e.g. Ekmanesque emotions, whose universal status is not uncontroversial) but they might also take a cue from solid neurobiological evidence for the importance of, say, sensorimotor features in meaning

TL;DR semantic primitives are fascinating & recent work suggests exciting directions for the study of conceptual semantics. I wish NSM open-sourced its explications; I’ve already been playing around with the Binder et al. open data from here.

‘big’ and ‘theory’ in terms of Binder et al. features

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