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Lingua Mentalis: The conceptual system in the human mind

The task of understanding languages in their cultural uniqueness and specificity has a long tradition

By Anna Wierzbicka

Anna Wierzbicka
Anna Wierzbicka
Ever since the great Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) put forward his famous tenet that "language is a system where everything hangs together" ("òu tout se tient"), linguists have looked at human languages through the prism of this idea. But as the scope of linguistics broadened, it became increasingly clear that natural languages, in their tremendous variability and adaptability to the changing needs of their speakers, were both systematic and "messy", orderly and disorderly, rule-governed and unpredictable. With time, the intuition that every language is in some sense a system "òu tout se tient" became increasingly difficult to defend - as a reality rather than a slogan.

The work which colleagues and I have been engaged in over the last three decades is based on the idea put forward in the mid-sixties by the Polish linguist Andrzej Boguslawski (also a Humboldtian) that the true "system" "òu tout se tient" - stable, orderly, and fully coherent - is to be found not so much in the particular languages, such as English, German, or Japanese, with all their richness and variability, as in the universal, innate "lingua mentalis" - the language of the human mind, which underlies all languages of the world.

In essence, this idea goes back to Leibniz, and to his notion of "an alphabet of human thoughts", that is, "the catalogue of those concepts which can be understood by themselves, and from whose combinations our other ideas arise". The developments in descriptive linguistics over the last few decades made it possible to pursue Leibniz's dream through empirical, cross-linguistic investigations. On the basis of these investigations, we have found that there gradually emerged a set of universal conceptual primes, which are present (in the form of specific words or word-like elements) in all languages, and in terms of which all meanings, and all ideas, can be clearly and intelligibly explained. The table of these elements, which may be seen as analogous to Mendeleev's table of elements in chemistry, includes sixty or so elements. Arranged in broadly thematic groups, they are:

  1. I, YOU, SOMEONE, SOMETHING, PEOPLE, BODY
  2. THIS, THE SAME, OTHER
  3. ONE, TWO, SOME, MANY/MUCH, ALL
  4. GOOD, BAD, BIG, SMALL
  5. THINK, KNOW, WANT, FEEL, SEE, HEAR
  6. SAY, WORD, TRUE
  7. DO, HAPPEN, MOVE
  8. THERE IS, HAVE
  9. LIVE, DIE
  10. NOT, MAYBE, CAN, BECAUSE, IF
  11. WHEN, NOW, AFTER, BEFORE, A LONG TIME, A SHORT TIME, FOR SOME TIME
  12. WHERE, HERE, ABOVE, BELOW, FAR, NEAR, SIDE, INSIDE
  13. VERY, MORE
  14. KIND OF, PART OF
  15. LIKE

The search for these "words", by trial and error, has been the main focus of my work since the mid-sixties, and it has also become the focus of the work of many students and colleagues. It was the main theme of several of my books, including "Semantic Primitives" published in 1972 (Frankfurt/M: Athenäum), "Lingua Mentalis" (Academic Press 1980), and "Semantics: Primes and Universals" (Oxford University Press 1996). It was also the main theme of a collective volume, edited by my colleague Cliff Goddard and myself, and based on the work of a large group of scholars: "Semantic and Lexical universals: Theory and empirical findings" (Amsterdam: John Benjamins 1994).

IllustrationIn more recent work, our attention has turned towards investigating the combinability of the empirically established conceptual primes, that is, their "universal grammar". The "natural semantic metalanguage" ("NSM"), based on sixty or so universal primes and their universal grammar, has been increasingly used by many scholars as a tool for describing meanings, and exploring and comparing languages and cultures.

Every language provides its speakers with a unique, intricate and constantly changing medium of expression. The structure of any language embodies a myriad of prepackaged meanings, a large proportion of which are language-and-culture specific, in two respects: first, in not having exact counterparts in other languages of the world, and second, in reflecting, embodying and helping to perpetuate a particular social, cultural and historical experience.

The task of understanding languages in their cultural uniqueness and specificity has been of pressing concern to language study from at least the time of Johann Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt. It was carried into American linguistics and anthropology in the early twentieth century by Franz Boas and then Edward Sapir. Similar concerns continued to occupy anthropology, especially cognitive and symbolic anthropology, in the second half of the twentieth century, but in linguistics these concerns became marginalized with the ascendency of Chomskyan generative grammar. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, the dominance of generative grammar began to wane, leading to what one commentator has dubbed "the greening of linguistics", with renewed interest in discourse studies, anthropological linguistics, and cross-cultural semantics. In a parallel development, mainstream psychology became more interested in ethnopsychology and in the new field of cultural psychology. These developments set the stage for a revitalization of enquiries into the interconnections between language, culture, and society.

The work carried out within the "NSM" approach to language study has been based on the conviction that the restricted and universal vocabulary of simple meanings can be used as a kind of "semantic bridge" in terms of which it is possible to articulate complex language-specific meanings and make them intelligible to outsiders. In my own work, I have tried to explore these issues in a number of thematic domains, including ethnobiology, emotions, values, human artefacts, speech acts, and religion. Two special themes which I have pursued for a long time are "cultural key words" and "cultural scripts".

We have tried to show that universal semantic primes can be used as a practical tool in analyzing and explaining meanings, ideas, and norms across domains, languages, and cultures and that they can also be used in cross-cultural education and communication.

In addition to this article, see also the comment by Willi Plöger.

20.03.2002
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Professor Dr. Anna Wierzbicka
Fachgebiet: Systemlinguistik
Förderprogramm: Humboldt-Forschungspreis
Gastuniversität: Universität Duisburg, Anglistik - Linguistik
Heimatuniversität: Australien National University, Department of Linguistics, School of Language Studies, Canberra/Australien

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