Anna Wierzbicka (1979-1997) explains that although language can be considered to be the way into human thought, language is not a transparent mirror to thought and meaning, it “ doesn’t reflect the world directly, it reflects human conceptualisation, human interpretation of the world” (Wierzbicka, 1992:7). What language conveys is not what exists in the outside world, but the world dressed in meaning formed by human thought. This is then shaped by culture.
The Natural Semantic Metalanguage devised by Wierzbicka and her associates cuts away this dressing. It seeks to present thought or the core meaning of language through rigorous and systematic analysis, stripping away unnecessary elements of meaning. Thought cannot be transferred across languages and cultures easily because it is dependent upon the language and culture used to shape it.
Semantic primitives are the basic alphabets of human thought and the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) intends to build a system of isomorphic building blocks for meaning and understanding that is universal to all languages and cultures. Through this system, the core meaning of an aspect of one language can be deconstructed into its basic elements then reconstructed in a different language using the building blocks in that language. This can serve as basis of comparison between L1 and L2. When enough of these comparisons have been made, they can serve as a basis for comparative analysis of the culture of L1 and the culture of L2, and through this, better cross-cultural communication and understanding can be achieved.
I am personally biased towards the NSM because it seems to me that it counters two persevering tendencies in linguistic studies:
1. Obscurity and circularity: words are defined by means of other unclear words creating a vicious circle of obscure definitions. Goddard (1998:27) illustrates this point with the definition of the word ‘demand’as it appears in the Oxford English Dictionary:
demand. v.t. 1. To ask for with authority; claim as a right: to demand something of or from a person.
The words in the definition are by no means useful to non-native speakers in order to understand the meaning of the word ‘demand’. Obscure definitions fail in its task of making the meaning explicit and intelligible. The NSM, instead, attempts to decompose complex meanings without circularity by using a combination of other meanings (Goddard 1994:8).
2. Ethnocentrism: Wierzbicka’s project moves away from ethnocentric cultural studies, where English language and methodology are the sole instruments of analysis. And in fact, Wierzbicka (1992:25-26) points at the widespread belief among many psychologists and anthropologists that concepts such as mind, anger, fear or depression are essential aspects of human nature, rather than culture-specific concepts. Philosophers too, rely on concepts like freedom, courage, justice or promise without even suspecting that these concepts are creations of a particular culture.
In order to compare key concepts in vocabularies throughout the world such as fate, destiny and so on, we need language and culture independent analytical tools and we need to stop postulating vague and unverifiable universals in terms of English folk concepts and stop making sweeping cross-cultural generalisations formulated in terms of opposing dichotomies.
Goddard, C., 1998. Semantic analysis: A practical introduction. Oxford Textbooks in Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wierzbicka, A., 1992, Semantics, Culture and Cognition, New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.