Natural Semantic Metalanguage and its future perspectives: interview with Anna Wierzbicka, Bert Peeters and Cliff Goddard, part II

We are glad to present the second part of the interview with Prof. Anna Wierzbicka, Prof. Cliff Goddard, and Prof. Bert Peeters. Readers can find the first part of the interview here

MGM. What about other applications of NSM research, outside of health communication?

CG. There are many applications underway in the areas of language teaching, intercultural education, development training, and language revitalisation. Some of these will be reported in a new book, coming out next year with Palgrave, entitled Minimal Languages in Action.

I’d also like to mention a project on “economic thinking” in collaboration with researchers at Chapman University USA (Bart Wilson, Vernon Smith, Gian Marco Farese); but this project is still at an early stage.

AW. One avenue for applications of NSM which is especially dear to my heart has to do with ethics and religion. In the book Minimal English for a Global World, edited by Cliff (Goddard, ed. 2018, Palgrave), I explore the potential of NSM for ethics in a chapter titled A charter of global ethics. Much more work is needed in the area of global ethics before a well justified and comprehensive charter acceptable in many parts of the globe can be developed, tested, and disseminated through publications and in other ways. A start, I feel, has been made, but only a start. The field is exciting and vitally important.

Turning now to religion, and more specifically to Christianity, which is my special interest, I would like to begin with a quote from a sixth century North African bishop Fulgentius of Ruspe. In a homily on the miracles of tongues St. Fulgentius refers to Christianity’s firm expectation that, thanks to the Holy Spirit, The Church of God was to be assembled from every corner of the globe and … should one day speak in every tongue. Fifteen centuries later, Christianity does assemble people from every corner of the globe, and it does speak in thousands of tongues. But does it manage to say the same thing in all these different languages?

Up to a point, it does; but only up to a point. Since every natural language carries with it its own world of meanings, in every language Jesus’ teaching comes across in a somewhat different version. For example, when Jesus says, according to the English version of his Sermon on the Mount: blessed are the meek (Matthew 5:5), according the Russian version blazhenny krotkie, and according to the Polish one, błogosławieni cisi, the meaning conveyed is in each case substantially different. The Russian word includes an attitude described in Vladimir Dal’s monumental dictionary of Russian as loving (ljubjashchij), and the Polish word is normally glossed in Polish-English dictionaries as quiet, silent. Furthermore, different English translations of the New Testament translate the Greek adjective praeis (in Mt 5:5) differently. For example, while the King James Version says Blessed are the meek, the World English Bible says Blessed are the gentle.

So what did Jesus really want to say? Can his intended meaning be captured reliably, securely, and without cross-linguistic and cross-cultural variation? As I have tried to show in various publications, this can indeed be done if instead of translating Greek words with “ordinary” English, Russian or Polish ones, we unpack the meaning of what Jesus said with through “Minimal English” (“Minimal Russian”, “Minimal Polish”, and so on) and state it in stable and universal human concepts. In this concrete case, I tried to capture Jesus’ intended meaning with the help of the following formula:

Some people don’t want to do anything bad to anyone;

When other people do bad things to them, they don’t want to do anything bad to these other people because of it.

This formula is consistent with the biblical image of a lamb, and with Jesus’ other images, such as that of turning the other cheek.

More recently, I tried to show how the core of Christian faith can be “unpacked” through Minimal English in my 2019 book What Christians Believe. And currently, I am working on a further project along the same lines now, in relation to the Nicene Creed, a unique document of the early church (before the divisions between the East and the West) which articulates the core Christian beliefs.

MGM. What are the future trends of research in NSM? Can NSM be related to neurosciences? Do you think that the NSM can related to human evolution since the “cognitive revolution” dated to about 70,000 years ago (according to Harari and others)?

CG. Oversimplifying a little, we can say that NSM research got started, nearly 50 years ago, with a focus on words: Anna’s book Semantic Primitives came out in 1972. After that, there came a decades-long period of studying how words and grammar work together, differently in different languages. And this continues, of course, along with refinement of the NSM metalanguage and the further development and application of minimal languages.

What I can see ahead is a further expansion, beyond words, beyond grammar, into “discourse”: discourse semantics.

About human cognitive evolution, yes: NSM research is very relevant. Anna and I, together with the American evolutionary psychiatrist Horatio Fábrega, published a paper on “evolutionary semantics” in 2014. It proposed a timeline for cognitive development, linking to evolutionary biology and archaeology, and also to studies of primate cognition. Our proposed timeline actually started much earlier than 70,000 years, literally millions of years ago. Evidence suggests that some basic concepts – for example, DO and HAPPEN, WANT and KNOW, BIG and SMALL, NOT and MAYBE – are very very ancient, going back to the time before the separation of the human lineage from the lineages of chimpanzees and bonobos. Some other basic concepts – for example, THINK, TWO, BODY, PARTS OF BODY – came “mid-way” along the timeline to modern humans. An even smaller number– WORDS, MINE, and TRUE – are really much more recent. Another idea, very new and yet to be published, is the proposal that concept of “we” was a cognitive breakthrough for our species. “We” is not a semantic prime, but it is a relatively simple “semantic molecule”, constructed from semantic primes. It seems to have been a crucial way-station on the road to modern human thinking.

About neuroscience, I don’t doubt that there are ways to connect NSM semantics and neuroscience, but for the near future I see the main outreach of NSM as into the humanistic disciples. That said, I do think there are many possible link-ups with digital technologies.

MGM. What are the challenges and obstacles ahead?

BP. The main obstacle is the same as the one we have had to contend with in the past. It is that outside of linguistics, language tends to be taken for granted. Linguists need to continue their efforts to make their voices heard outside the narrow bounds of linguistics.

CG. In my view we are all facing the same two big challenges in the decade ahead: the climate change emergency and use and abuse of AI (so-called “artificial intelligence”) in everyday life.

AW. As I see it, a major obstacle for NSM and Minimal English lies in the great value that many highly educated people place on “highly educated language”. This applies to scholars in the humanities, as much as to those working in prestigious professions such as medicine and law. They often see semantically complex words, erudite words, as the epitome of intellectual sophistication and achievement. It may seem outrageous to them that in order to achieve greater clarity in thinking and communication, they may need (at times!) to leave such words behind.

Perhaps one thing those of us working with NSM semantics can do in this area is to acknowledge – more often and more loudly than we have done in the past – that a very complex and highly culture-specific concept may sometimes reflect a great intellectual or spiritual achievement of a particular human group or groups. (It seems to me that the concept of ‘forgiveness’ shared, as a word, by many European languages may be a good example here.)

Be that as it may, we need to persevere in getting as many people, and professions, as possible, to see that effective communication requires concepts which are already shared. Simple and translatable human concepts such as GOOD and BAD are shared. Complex and non-translatable concepts (such as, for example, ‘forgiveness’ and ‘fairness’) are not shared. If we believe in the great value of some complex concepts, specific to our own culture, we need to try to introduce those concepts to other human groups through simple concepts which are already shared.

In getting this idea across we need to be patient and persistent; and we need to collaborate, whenever we can, with open-minded researchers and practitioners outside linguistics – such as, in medicine, Maria Giulia Marini and her colleagues and Martha Welch and her colleagues; and in economics, Bart Wilson and Vernon Smith, the authors of Humanomics, who have already recognised the value of NSM in their respective fields.

Maria Giulia Marini

Epidemiologist and counselor in transactional analysis, thirty years of professional life in health care. I have a classic humanistic background, including the knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin, which opened me to study languages and arts, becoming an Art Coach. I followed afterward scientific academic studies, in clinical pharmacology with an academic specialization in Epidemiology (University of Milan and Pavia). Past international experiences at the Harvard Medical School and in a pharma company at Mainz in Germany. Currently Director of Innovation in the Health Care Area of Fondazione ISTUD a center for educational and social and health care research. I'm serving as president of EUNAMES- European Narrative Medicine Society, on the board of Italian Society of Narrative Medicine, a tenured professor of Narrative Medicine at La Sapienza, Roma, and teaching narrative medicine in other universities and institutions at a national and international level. In 2016 I was a referee for the World Health Organization- Europen for “Narrative Method of Research in Public Health.” Writer of the books; “Narrative medicine: Bridging the gap between Evidence-Based care and Medical Humanities,” and "Languages of care in Narrative Medicine" edited with Springer, and since 2021 main editor for Springer of the new series "New Paradigms in Health Care."

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