Page 1 of 1

Semantic Primes - Fascinating!

Posted: October 7th, 2019, 5:57 am
by Paul-Nitz
Semantic primes are a set of words a linguist (Wierzbicka) created that are meant to be universal concepts across all languages.
Using this set (currently, 64 words) to define a concept is called an explication (via the process, called reductive paraphrasing). This is said to avoid the typical problems with using more complicated words to define simpler, or using forms of a word to define the word.

Here's my attempt to do reductive paraphrasing on προσκυνῆσαι resulting in this explication:
Explication of προσκυνῆσαι
Not all people are big and good.
Many people are small and bad.
When I know that you are someone big and good, inside me, I think I am small, because you are not like me.
I want to be under you. I think it is good to be near you.
If I think all this, I move near you and under you.
Maybe I say something to you and to people. I say something like, you are good, you are big

I find this fascinating. I wonder, though, what are the implications for Greek lexicology? I can't see a whole dictionary written in this way. Too laborious to write and too tiresome to read. But maybe there would be a call for distinguishing between two similar Greek words.

In Greek pedagogy, I can imagine several applications. Explications or Minimal Greek* could be a great way to create the first level of an embedded reading.** It might be a good exercise to have students write in Minimal Greek. I wonder if these semantic primes should be the basis for a core need-to-know vocabulary and form checklist. It might be far superior to frequency based lists, such as Major’s list of 65 words that he claims make up 50% of any Greek text.***

Website explaining "semantic primes" and "explications." ... plications

My introduction to this was from Chapter Six of the following:
Dirven, René, and Marjolyn Verspoor, eds. Cognitive Exploration of Language and Linguistics. 2nd rev. ed. Cognitive Linguistics in Practice v. 1. Amsterdam ; Philadelphia: J. Benjamins Pub. Co, 2004.

Wierzbicka, Anna. Semantics: Primes and Universals. Oxford [England] ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Re: Semantic Primes - Fascinating!

Posted: October 7th, 2019, 8:43 am
by Eeli Kaikkonen
"Fascinating" is a good work to describe the idea. I've read the book which I think is "Primes and Universals" you mentioned. As you said, it's too impractical, but gives some nice ideas. Yes, it would be interesting to create a small simple vocabulary and then use it to describe other words. The vocabulary should be large enough, though, to avoid long-winded tedious descriptions - much larger than her "primes". Maybe so that each entry (in the complete dictionary) would be at most one, two or three steps away from the core vocabulary, and the entries could be relatively short. Some hundreds could be closer to the practical core vocabulary. In practice it should at least include more than (cross-linguistic) "universals".

Even though it's impractical, the book is worth reading. The criticism towards current real world dictionaries hits the nail on the head. And those descriptions of words are strangely beautiful, like poetry. Even though a Koine lexicon would probably be useless for scholars it could be invaluable for learning and undestanding.

Re: Semantic Primes - Fascinating!

Posted: October 7th, 2019, 1:06 pm
by Paul-Nitz
Eeli Kaikkonen wrote:
October 7th, 2019, 8:43 am
it could be invaluable for learning and undestanding.
Yes, for example, how about this?

τί σημαίνει τὸ προσκυνῆσαι;
οὐ πάντες ἄνθρωποι μεγάλοι καὶ καλοί.
πολλοὶ εἶσιν μικροὶ καὶ κακοί.
ὅτε οἴδα ὅτι σὺ εἶ μέγας καὶ καλός, ἐν μοι φρονῶ ὅτι μικρός εἰμὶ. σὺ οὐκ εἶ ὡς ἐγώ.
θέλω εἶναι ὑπὸ σε. φρονῶ καλὸν ἐστιν εἶναι ἐγγὺς σου.

εἰ φρονῶ ταῦτα πάντα, ἔρχομαι ἐγγὺς σου καὶ ὑπὸ σε. ποιεῖν δὲ τοῦτο προσκυνῶ.
τάχα λέγω τι σοι καὶ ἀνθρώποις. λέγω ὡς σύ εῖ καλός, σύ εῖ μέγας.

Re: Semantic Primes - Fascinating!

Posted: October 7th, 2019, 6:15 pm
by Stephen Carlson
Yes, Wierzbicka's notion of semantic primes is fascinating.

Advantage: it should be possible to write definitions in Koine, using her method.

Disadvantage: her notion shifts the complexity of semantic description from the use of individual words to the writing of (rather involved) definitions. It is not clear if anything is actually gained by this.

Re: Semantic Primes - Fascinating!

Posted: October 8th, 2019, 6:29 am
by Eeli Kaikkonen
BTW, I was suprised when I found biblical exegesis by Wierzbicka. ... /downloads
The semantics of metaphor and parable: Looking for meaning in the Gospels (PDF 61k). Anna Wierzbicka. 2002. Theoria et Historia Scientiarum IV(1), 85-106. (Special issue on metaphor, edited by Tomasz Komendzinski.)