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Imprisoned in EnglishThe Hazards of English as a Default Language$
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Anna Wierzbicka

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199321490

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199321490.001.0001

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Universal Words, Semantic Atoms, and Semantic Molecules

Universal Words, Semantic Atoms, and Semantic Molecules

(p.31) 4 Universal Words, Semantic Atoms, and Semantic Molecules
Imprisoned in English

Anna Wierzbicka

Oxford University Press

Starting from the premise that most words don’t match in meaning across language boundaries, this chapter introduces the idea that as empirical cross-linguistic investigations have established, some words in fact do match. As this chapter shows, there are two kinds of such “universal words,” comparable to atoms and molecules in chemistry. “Semantic atoms” are words like “see,” “hear,” and “know,” which occur in all languages and which are so simple in meaning that they cannot be defined through other words (at least not without circularity). “Semantic molecules” are words like “mother,” “father,” “water,” “fire,” and “hands,” which also occur in all languages but which are complex in meaning and can be defined through “semantic atoms.” This chapter introduces the idea of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage, based on universal words of both types, and illustrates it with examples from the domain of kinship.

Keywords:   semantic primes, semantic molecules, NSM, translatability, kinship terms, John Locke on words, Schopenhauer on concepts

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