Words, meaning, and thought 2: a poverty of primes

Following my first article looking at problems with linguistic relativity and ‘missing words’, I continue to work through ideas put forward in the book Words & Meanings, by Cliff Goddard and Anna Wierzbicka (Oxford UP, ISBN 978 0 19 966843 4).

I now move on to a central concern, that of semantic primes.

Goddard and Wierzbicka accept that not all thinking is verbal in nature:
“This is not to say that people cannot think without words. To some extent, they can – or so the evidence of natural discourse suggests.” (op. cit. p 3.)

However they establish a set of 65 “universal words” which represent “the complete inventory of simple universal concepts that are embedded in the lexicons of all (or most) human languages.” (op. cit. p. 11.)

The primes which I am going to consider here include quantifiers (ONE, TWO, SOME, ALL, MUCH-MANY, LITTLE-FEW), evaluators (GOOD, BAD), and “mental predicates” (KNOW, THINK, WANT, DON’T WANT, FEEL, SEE, HEAR). A detailed table is given here.

Unfortunately Goddard and Wierzbicka insist that their primes are so atomic that they cannot be defined, only instantiated as ‘exponents’ in different languages. Whilst the idea that these are such fundamental concepts that they cannot be reconstituted in some sort of definition is attractive, it makes it very hard to establish what each means.

Those meanings are very important, because we are supposed to be able to construct – using ‘explications’ written only using primes (and ‘molecules’ themselves derived from explications consisting only of primes and molecules) – any other words in our, or any other, lexicon.

This causes me a lot of difficulties, because they are, for instance, enigmatic over the meaning of the prime FEEL. They recognise that the English word has polysemy which includes ‘feel by touch’, but make it clear that the prime FEEL is illustrated in the simple sentences
(When this happened), I felt something good/bad.
I don’t feel well today.
I often feel like this.
At that time (then), I didn’t feel anything.

Although the second of those may involve some element of internal or somatic sensation (such as a headache), I think that it is reasonable therefore to take it that FEEL does not include sensory meanings, either narrow
I felt the cloth with my fingers
or more broadly
We feel with our senses.

There are thus only two primes – SEE and HEAR – which concern themselves with the perception of sensations, and those are specific to just two of our senses.


We now know a great deal about sensation, both from a psychophysical and neurophysiological view. We can distinguish six different sensory systems:

  • vision, which is stereoscopic, and in all but the darkest of ambient light, in colour,
  • hearing, which is directional, and in which we are able to discriminate pitch and other properties of sounds quite precisely
  • chemical taste, which has several different modalities which are combined to produce very fine discrimination,
  • olfaction, or chemical smell, which has very fine discrimination,
  • somatic sensation of stimuli from a range of modalities, including touch, pressure, temperature, vibration, and pain,
  • internal sensation, which includes proprioception, balance, and pain.

Although Goddard and Wierzbicka provide primes to support the first two senses, no primes are provided to describe the sensed properties such as colour (either in a narrow sense as hue, or a more general everyday sense) or pitch.

There is an irony here which does not escape me: Wilhelm von Humboldt, whose philosophy of linguistics Goddard and Wierzbicka hold in such esteem, died when Hermann von Helmholtz, the physician and physicist who laid the foundations for much of the scientific understanding of sensation, was just 13 years old. Both were born in Potsdam, Prussia.

But Goddard and Wierzbicka do not even get to the complexities and controversies of colour terms before they run into difficulties with sensation. Take thermal sensation, a fairly simple and (dare I suggest it) primitive form of somatic sensation.

Somatic thermal sensation is reduced in molecules to hot, warm, cool, and cold, despite general knowledge that we are capable of much finer discrimination, and extensive neurophysiological evidence to explain how. If that were the case, then parents who can, with a little practice, quite reliably fill a baby’s bath to a temperature of 38˚C to 40˚C on the strength of their sensation alone, would be achieving the impossible. We are also most of us capable of touching the skin of someone and making quite a reliable determination as to whether they are febrile or hypothermic, a similar degree of temperature discrimination.

I would be very interested to see how, using their current semantic primes, Goddard and Wierzbicka could express the simple sentence:
This bath feels to be about 39˚C.
However that is the sort of task that millions of us accomplish every day.

Diversion – number

Indeed, whilst I am considering numeric values, I see further holes in that vital area.

The only numbers which are included in the list of semantic primes are ONE and TWO (arithmetic zero is also omitted, as is any prime which might equate to it). Yet there is no prime which allows the operation of numerical addition. Whilst it might be possible to generate the common English meaning of a dozen or 12 using some hierarchical arithmetic
1 + 2 → 3
3 + 3 → 6
6 + 6 → 12
without the mental arithmetical prime of addition, no numbers between TWO and MANY can be generated. Besides there is not a shred of evidence that our minds represent the number 12 by such a decomposition.

Such arithmetic skills may appear Anglocentric (if you ignore Chinese, Indian, Arab and other advanced mathematical systems), but for a lot of people around the world are key components in their everyday thought and speech. Perhaps it would be appropriate to suggest that this omission indicates that NSM is linguist-centric?


To return to the topic of sensation, I would next like to consider the issue of acoustic pitch.

This is well documented as a human universal, in that (with a very few scattered exceptions) normal healthy humans of any culture, linguistic origin, or anything else that you care to invoke, not only can perceive pitch in sound, but recognise differences in pitch.

Not all cultures have sound-generating devices (such as musical instruments) which produce sounds pure enough to demonstrate pitch, but nature, particularly in the form of bird song and animal noises, and our own voices (intimately involved in speech, of course, in which pitch may play a crucial part) all manifest acoustic pitch which is important to their interpretation and meaning.

I suspect that relatively few languages have been sufficiently analytical in an ‘Anglocentric’ (really ‘Indo-Euro-centric’) way to separate pitch from the other properties of heard sounds. However I would be most surprised if any human had not noticed the difference in pitch between adult male and female voices, and those of children.

Thus skilled questioning would undoubtedly reveal that all humans have, perhaps unwittingly in many cases, thought about pitch as a sensed property.

But there is no item in the list of semantic primes which corresponds to acoustic pitch as perceived by humans. Neither can we express it in any meaningful way using other semantic primes. If you think that we can, try explicating a simple sentence such as
Her voice is higher-pitched than his.

Even in English (to be awfully Anglocentric) we are reduced to figurative use of the words high and low to achieve this.

Assemble sequences of sounds of different pitch and you may suffer from an ‘ear-worm’, a musical passage which recurrently comes into your thoughts. Without pitch, there is no music, and without music, thoughts such as tunes and ear-worms cannot exist.


Although Goddard and Wierzbicka may so far have remained silent on auditory matters, they have tried to explain in detail how their set of semantic primes not only can but must lack any prime for colour. In essence, and using Warlpiri Australians as their most critical example, they deny that the concept of colour is universal among humans, and because several languages lack a word for colour, we are all denied it as a prime.

As Wierzbicka has written:
“Thoughts are not directly observable and neither are concepts. We know how people think by observing how they speak. English words such as fairness, commonsense, democracy, teenager, measure, and colour constitute evidence for the presence of the corresponding concepts in the shared conceptual universe of speakers of English. There are no such words in Warlpiri, and thus there is no evidence of the presence of such concepts in Warlpiri culture.” (Wierzbicka, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 14, 886-889, 2008.)

(I must admit that Warlpiri culture sounds admirable if there is no such thing as a teenager!)

So, as English has no such words as mittelschmerz, schadenfreude and hygge, English women cannot suffer the pain of mittelschmerz, no English-speaker can commit schadenfreude, and only the Danes can offer anyone hygge.

Of course we know how people think by much more than observing how they speak: this has even been codified into an English proverb, which has parallels in other linguistic cultures, “actions speak louder than words”.

In the case of the Warlpiri, you only have to look at their artistic productions here, for example, to see that those talented Warlpiri painters have as sophisticated a sense of colour as any Western or ‘Anglocentric’ painter, including the Francocentric Impressionists. Warlpiri people may think about colour in a different way to a stereotypical ‘Anglocentric’ view, but then so do I, and so do many people.

One major obstacle to current work on the semantics of colour and colour terms is its historical baggage, and the entrenched opinions which have developed over the last few decades. Many have missed the underlying truth that to all of us – apart perhaps from lexical semanticists – colour and colours are sensed first and foremost. Our primary thoughts about colour are visual, not verbal, because (like acoustic pitch) any words for colour are mere labels and have no meaning in themselves.

Before the introduction of synthetic colours, the vast majority of colours that humans came into contact with were those of nature, or derived fairly simply from natural substances, particularly plant dyes. No Westerner alive today, and precious few from even remote cultural groups, can remember those times, and how people in any group then thought about colour.

It is also worth noting that, outside urban cultures, there are wide variations in the colours of nature. Indigenous peoples of the far north, those living in tropical rain forest, and dwellers in arid lands such as the great deserts of Australia and Africa are exposed to very different natural palettes, even in the sky, the only physical constant between them.

Ironically it was not ‘Anglocentric’ culture which changed that, but technologies developed mostly in France and Germany, and deployed mainly during the nineteenth century in Europe and the Americas (again, a far greater range than ‘Anglocentric’).

Instead of woollen and other garments remaining close to their original ‘earth’ colours, and house construction materials determining the appearance of buildings, many ‘Western’ cultures were able to make or buy items in a colour chosen from a range of unnatural and much higher chroma colours, to decorate their buildings and possessions. The arrival of cadmium-based pigments in the nineteenth century was a particular landmark in this respect.

Any system of colour terms is therefore overwhelmed by such environmental influences. However such systems are culturally contextual tags, just the same as we might describe the colour of a car using a manufacturer’s label such as ‘Rioja Red’ but its match in painter’s pigment might be a red earth.

I will place a bet that any Warlpiri who buys a car will still look at the colour options and make a choice from them, irrespective of whether they have a word that translates into the English colour.

But when you think about objects, which comes first into your mind: a coloured image, or the colour names of their parts? When you compare, match, or contrast colours, do you do so from mental images, or their colour names?

My next article in this series will consider another everyday and cross-cultural sensation, pain, and I will try there to complete my examination of some of the proposed semantic primes.