Universal communication: could just 65 words hold the key?

What if you could communicate with anyone in the world, regardless of language and culture, with just 65 words? That’s what the Natural Semantic Metalanguage has been developed to achieve.

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Finding a universal language

Esperanto never really caught on, and English has too much baggage to be a truly universal language. So what hope have the world’s nearly eight billion people, speaking thousands of different languages, of communicating meaningfully across cultural and linguistic barriers?

Australian linguists have been grappling with this question – and they have come up with an intriguing answer: a miniature language (“metalanguage”) consisting of 65 simple words and short phrases which can be used to explain all other words and expressions, however nuanced or complex.

The Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) has been developed over several decades by Polish-Australian linguist Anna Wierzbicka and her Australian colleague Cliff Goddard, and others. Why has it taken so long to come up with sixty-five words – “semantic primes”, as they are called?

When less is more

Each of these universal primes – these basic building blocks of meaning, representing language broken down into its most fundamental components – must have a precise equivalent in other languages. Standing for intuitively understood human concepts, they must also be incapable of being further deconstructed.

Among the words, identified through painstaking research, fieldwork and experimentation, are “good”, “bad”, “I”, “you”, “because”, “happen”, “want” and “do”. In combination, the primes can be deployed to paraphrase more complicated words and notions, including culturally-specific ideas, using simple, everyday language.

For example, suppose you wanted to explain that a person had told a lie. In NSM, this would be expressed as: “Someone X said something to someone else Y. This someone knew that it was not true. This someone said it because he/she wanted this other someone to think that it was true. People think that it is bad if someone does something like this.”

While it might seem a bit long-winded, this clear and accurate description uses only the finite vocabulary established to be directly translatable into other languages.

Recognised as one of the world’s leading linguistic theories, NSM claims to be the most comprehensive and practical approach to elucidating meanings across linguistic and cultural boundaries. Semantic primes – “atoms” or units of meaning – have been identified in more than thirty languages spoken in diverse cultural settings, including Polish, Danish, Amharic (Ethiopia), Malay, Japanese, Mbula (Papua New Guinea), Māori and the Aboriginal language Yankunytjatjara.

Wierzbicka and her fellow researchers believe every language contains a “core grammar” of common semantic elements on which a metalanguage with full expressive powers can be built.

Minimal English for a major pandemic

They say a shared core of meaning appears to lie at the heart of all languages – along with a shared set of ideas.

NSM – which avoids the “Anglocentrism” inevitably found in explanations that use English-specific words – can be applied in language teaching, language technology, health communication and education, among other uses, all highly relevant in multicultural Australia.

The theory has been used in hundreds of linguistic studies, and applied in fields including anthropology, philosophy, religious studies and cultural history.

Researchers are seeking to enlarge the vocabulary of NSM by identifying universal words other than primes. They are also working on “Minimal English”, a highly-simplified, NSM-inspired version of English designed to improve communication across language boundaries, in realms such as health, science, ethics, human rights, education and international relations.

Responding to topical concerns, Wierzbicka recently wrote seven key messages about the coronavirus pandemic in Minimal English, now translated into many languages.

Further reading & resources

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