"Sometimes People Think Something Like This": Anna Wierzbicka´s Semantic Primitives - An Introduction to the Theory of Semantic Indefinables

Seminar Paper, 2003
17 Pages, Grade: 2,0 ("Good")


Table of Contents


1. "Sometimes someone thinks something like this" - the history of a theory

2. “Thinking This, Someone Could Say Something Like This” – A theory in Practice

3. ”Thinking of This I Think Something Like This “ -- Discussion: A Semantic Primitive Dictionary?

4. A few concluding words



For the past twenty something years, hardly a theory has caused as much uproar and discussion in Semantics as Anna Wierzbickas theory of the Semantic Primitives. Her theory, inspired by te works of Leibniz and other inquiries into the relation between language and thought, and first set out in detail in 1972 in her work “Semantic Primitives”, was among the first serious attempts to "establish" a semantic explanation for the connection between the meaning of words in human language and human thought processes: since humans use language as their only known tool to formulate thoughts, it followed that the meaning of words in any given language could only be explained using other words. Wierzbicka took up this idea but concluded that in this process of substitution, that is, of explaining words with other words, it would be logical to try to explain complex terms in ever less complex terms until, at some point, one would end up with a set of words that could not, and needed not be, explained further, words that would yet suffice to explain every other word in a language. Through experimenting, she devised such a set of words and called these the "Semantic Primitives", in reference to their basic simplicity and fundamental position in the relation of thought and language. Over the years, Wirzbicka has constantly refined her theory, and updated the list of Semantic Primitives, and a ever growing number of scholars of Semantics has begun to adopt Wierzbickas theory, making it one of the more popular and widely accepted subcurrents in Semnatics.

In this paper, I will try to give a short comprehensive overview on the theory of the Semantic Primitives, try to work out where the strengths and benefits of this theory lie, and where it faces difficulties, and attempt to determine how, or whether, it can be applied for the creation of a Semantic Dictionary.

1. "Sometimes someone thinks something like this" - the history of a theory

Up to the sixties / seventies of the past century, the discussion of meaning in language was still largely dominated by the idea that the only possible way to represent the meaning of words was to devise a set of signs or symbols to represent the semantic features of each given word. However, no clear and unified concept on just how such signs should look like and exactly what meanings or parts thereof they should represent, had been reached. In the late sixties, the semanticist Anna Wierzbicka baegan to look for another appraoch to the subject. She was inspired to her research, primarly, by the works of Leibniz, who, in the seventienth century already had tried to devise a theory to explain the connection between the use of language and human mental processes. In his studies, Leibniz attempted to demonstrate that the meaning of all language could be condensed and reduced until one reaches the irreducible core of meaning, which Leibniz called the “Alphabet of Human Thought” or “lingua mentalis”. For a long time, Leibniz´s theories were disputed and slowly slipped out of the center of attention, until Anna Wierzbicka picked up his ideas when she tried to work out the exact relation and interaction between thought and language processes. In her research, she was inspired greatly by Leibniz´ concept of a "lingua mentalis". Building on this theory, Wierzbicka began to try and trace the way from thought into language, and contrary to the then common semantic standard, she did not think that the key to understand these processes lay in devising an abstract set of symbols to represent for specific meanings, as was common then - Wierzbicka was convinced that arbitrary signs and symbols could do little to clarify the meaning of a word, since they were, at best, abbreviations for other, often complex concepts which, in order to be understood, had to be deciphered back into natural, regular language, making the whole affair rather circular and thus effectively useless. Therefore, Wierzbicka set out to prove that the key to finding the irreducible core of meaning lay in natural language.

In order to overcome the fact that, naturally, the meaning of words could only be explainded using other words, and to avoid the circularity encountered in other contemporary theories, she undertook her own investigations into the “lingua mentalis” and concluded that in the underlying structures of language, where all words are defined in terms of other words, there have to be certain words which represent concepts so basic and fundamentally inherant to the human mind that they can not be further decomposed or defined, and that these indefinables can be used to define every other word.

In Semantic Primitives (1972), her first draft of a list of semantic indefinables produced a set of fifteen words: want, something, don´t want / diswant, feel, think of, imagine, say, become, be a part of, someone, I, you, world, and this. This set has constantly received updating, in “Linga Mentalis”, published in 1985, feel was dropped from the list of semantic primitives ( Wierzbika 1980, 29 )*. The current ( 1996 ) list has again undergone some changes,and now includes the following elements: I, you, someone, something, this, want, not want, think (of), say, imagine, know, place, part, world, and become ( Wierzbicka 1972, ´80, ´85).

These primitives are, contrary to other semantic formulae, to be used like natural language, that is, connect to more or less normal sentences, forming phrases like thinking of this I think or I want you to think this etc. – and in a nutshell, these basic phrases – or their representations in other languages - can be used to capture the meanings of every other word or expression.

It is notable that this theory is radically different from other existing semantic theories in the sheer simplicity of its outset, that is, capturing the meaning of words in a semantic metalanguage which is, basically, self explanatory.[1] - Just how simple and easily understandable this theory really is compared to other theories will be discussed in a later section of this paper


* It was argued that feel was in its use too restricted to the field of “emotional” descriptions, and this lack of versatility ultimately ruled it out as a semantic primitive for Wierzbicka

[1] It is conceivable that part of the criticism on Wierzbickas theory is due to the fact that her metalanguage could indeed be understood by non-linguists – some semanticists seem to be offended by the thought of “outsiders” swiftly learning the “secrets” of semantics – it´s a bit like telling how a magicians tricks work

Excerpt out of 17 pages


"Sometimes People Think Something Like This": Anna Wierzbicka´s Semantic Primitives - An Introduction to the Theory of Semantic Indefinables
Free University of Berlin
Meaning in Language
2,0 ("Good")
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
414 KB
Sometimes, People, Think, Something, Like, This, Anna, Wierzbicka´s, Semantic, Primitives, Introduction, Theory, Indefinables, Meaning, Language
Quote paper
Heiko Kumsteller (Author), 2003, "Sometimes People Think Something Like This": Anna Wierzbicka´s Semantic Primitives - An Introduction to the Theory of Semantic Indefinables, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/71987


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