Linguistics giant who discovered a mini-language

Linguistics giant who discovered a mini-language
Wednesday 10 February 2016
‘Anna Wierzbicka’ is a name many students of linguistics across the last few decades will have inevitably encountered. Anna is known for the theory she founded, Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM). And as at the end of 2015, she has retired from teaching after 40 years at the ANU. 
 
Based on 17th century German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s idea of an ‘alphabet of human thoughts’, NSM is a “mini-language” whose words correspond to core concepts, innate and universal, transcending particular languages and cultures. 
 
Anna explains: “According to our research, every language has a word for one and two. Some don’t have words for three, four, and so on. But one, two, some, many, all – you find those everywhere. You also find words for good and bad everywhere. So you can build numerical concepts, ethical concepts, and any other complex concepts on that basis.”
 
When Anna first presented her theory in her seminal 1972 book Semantic Primitives, she posited 14 innate and universal concepts or ‘semantic primitives’. Today these number 65, and she believes the set is now complete. 
 
Shortly after Semantic Primitives, Polish-born Anna came to Australia with her Australian husband Dr John Besemeres (now Adjunct Fellow at the ANU’s Centre for European Studies). She joined the ANU in 1973 and retired from teaching only last year, but will continue to work in the School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics as a professor emerita.
 
Early in her career, linguistics was dominated by Noam Chomsky’s “generative grammar”. It focused on syntax and was uninterested in meaning and culture. Anna, however, was interested in meaning and cultural differences between languages.  
 
This interest went hand in hand with her systematic pursuit of universal concepts – a pursuit for which her main collaborator is Cliff Goddard, a former student and now a professor of linguistics at Griffith University. 
 
Anna’s work is not just an ‘academic’ pursuit’ but a research program with real-world relevance – in areas as varied as intercultural communication, clear thinking, science and education. In May 2015 Anna presented her ‘story’ of Western astronomy at an international event called “Copernicus Festival” in Krakow, Poland (Copernicus’s university town). It was a version she says could be understood by children anywhere in the world, because it was told through simple and universal human concepts. 
 
“How can you explain astronomy, genetics, or ethics to children using words they understand; not only in Australia, but in other places,” she asks. This is one of the goals of her current work.
 
“Big stories of science and humanities can be retold in new and more intelligible ways,” Anna continues. 
 
“But in order to do this, you have to rethink them in a new way. You have to think about the issues discussed in astronomy, genetics, and so on, through universal and simple human concepts.”
 
She’s hoping future students will tackle these challenges. “Perhaps with my guidance,” she says, laughing.
 
Anna’s “retirement” plan includes fulfilling a contract with Oxford University Press for the book Universals of Language and Thought, which synthesises her many years of work, and her collaborators’. She will build on her work with Goddard explaining the concept of “dreaming” in Aboriginal culture using universal human concepts. Anna hopes this might one day be taught in schools throughout Australia.
 
“This would be a dream come true: the study of universal human concepts serving better inter-cultural understanding and cross-cultural education in Australia and beyond,” Anna says.
 

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