Semantic primitive

'Semantic primitive' is a concept from semantics. It is understood as a term used to explain other terms or concepts, but which cannot itself be explained by other terms. Implicitly it may be assumed that terms are primitive regardless of context or perspective, why an analysis of a complex term or concept to its primitives is a matter of logic rather than theoretical perspective. 


The process of analyzing concepts in this way is called semantic factoring. In thesauri and in post-coordinative indexing is a certain degree of semantic factoring supposed to be applied.


“It used to be thought that any word could be described in terms of semantic primitives. For instance, M. Bierwisch, writing in 1970, said that semantic features do not differ from language to language, but are rather part of the general human capacity for language, forming a universal inventory used in particular ways in individual languages.

    According to this theory, every word can be broken up into primitive kernels of meaning, called semantemes (also called semantic features or semantic components). Some sample definitions using semantemes:





male + parent


female + parent


male + offspring


female + offspring


male + sibling


female + sibling


The process of breaking words down into semantemes is known as componential analysis and has been most often used to analyze kinship terms across languages. The components are often given in more detail. For instance, kinship terms like those shown above might have three components: sex, generation, lineage. Sex would be male or female; generation would be a number, with 0 = reference point's generation, -1 = previous generation, +1 = next generation; lineage would be either direct, colineal (as in siblings) or ablineal (as in uncles and aunts). “(Henning, 1995).


How should semantic primitives be explained? Different theories of knowledge have different views about the nature of semantics and semantic primitives. Empiricist philosophy is based on the view that semantic primitives are related to sensory elements such as the perception of color, mass or temperature. Rationalist philosophy, on the other side, is based on the view that there exists basic concepts or structures in our cognitive systems, in other words, that any concept may be reduced to certain primitive elements of a logical or cognitive nature. Non-foundational epistemologies such as historicism and pragmatism do not accept the idea of universal primitives, but regard the primitives as relative to different conceptual structures.


“While componential analysis is useful for some exercises, it is not a representation of how language works; no linguist has ever been able to develop a complete list of semantic primitives. Invariably, some of the primitives identified are actually molecules that can be broken down into new atoms. For instance, parent, offspring and sibling are all interrelated terms; the word parent can be defined as "a person who has offspring" and sibling can be defined as "a person with a parent who has other offspring". If semantic primitives were to exist, they would number in the thousands and would resemble a mathematical logic system more than the mind's loom of language.” (Henning, 1995).


Another criticism of semantic primitives comes from "theory theory":


"Children seem to understand the meaning of the words they hear in terms of the theories they have, they treat the words of natural language the way that scientists treat theoretical terms. Moreover, rather than reflecting some fixed set of semantic primitives, children’s understanding of words changes in parallel with their changing theoretical understanding of the world. Finally, language itself seems to play an important role in theory-formation. We have also shown empirically that the words children hear influence the development of their theories (Gopnik, Choi, and Baumberger, 1996).

Since semantics, by definition, relates linguistic expressions to our understanding of the world, and I have argued that our everyday understanding of the world is theory-like, this is not surprising. Moreover, in so far as semantics provides a foundation for syntax, theory formation also may play a role in syntactic development. We seem to use theory formation to develop an understanding of the meaning of words and sentences, and, as many people have argued before, that understanding might itself play an important role in developing more strictly syntactic abilities." (Gopnik, 2003).


Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) published in 1666 Dissertatio de arte combinatoria in which he claimed that a proper philosophical language [=scientific language] should analyze all concepts into their simplest elements, i.e. into "the alphabet of thought". Ducheyne (2005, p. 113) writes: "A proper symbol should indicate a thing's nature, in other words, it needs to define it by means of its appearance. Leibniz's attempt presupposed that (1) ideas can be analyzed into primitive notions, that (2) ideas can be represented symbolically, and that (3) it is further possible to represent the relations between these ideas (Rossi, 1983[2001], 177). Paolo Rossi (1983[2001], 159-160) remarks that the seventeenth-century attempt to construct a universal philosophical language presupposed that a complete enumeration of human knowledge could be given".


Look at the periodic system of chemistry. In chemistry are the chemical elements the "semantic primitives".





hydrogen + oxygen (H2O)


carbon + hydrogen + oxygen C6H12O6


In this case, however, it should be rather evident that the semantic primitives are not logical entities, but empirical entities connected to modern scientific theory.



The basic philosophy of semantic primitives seems to be exactly the theoretical basis also for the approach to knowledge organization known as facet analysis: To assume that a basic list of elements can be defined by logical analysis and then be used to synthesize any complex concept.



According to Sparck Jones (1992, p. 1609) was the theory of semantic primitives influential  in early thesaurus construction: "A thesaurus was seen as providing a set of domain-independent semantic primitives."




Ducheyne, S. (2005). Paul Otlet’s theory of knowledge and linguistic objectivism. Knowledge Organization, 32(3), 110-116.


Gopnik, A (2003). The theory theory as an alternative to the innateness hypothesis. In L. M. Antony & N. Hornstein (Eds). Chomsky and his Critics . New York: Basil Blackwell. (Pp. ).


Gopnik, A., Choi, S. & Baumberger, T. (1996). Cross-linguistic differences in early semantic and cognitive development. Cognitive Development, 11(2), 197-227.


Henning, J. (1995). Meaning. Model Languages. The newsletter discussing newly imagined words for newly imagined worlds. Volume I, Issue 6 (1/2) -- October/November 1, 1995. Available at:  (Visited 31 December, 2003)


Rossi, P. (2001). Logic and the art of memory: The quest for a universal language. Translated and with an introduction by Stephen Clucas. London: Athlone Press. (Original edition: 1983).


Sparck Jones, K. (1992). Thesaurus. Vol. 2, pp. 1605-1613 IN: Encyclopedia of Artificial Intelligence. Vol. I-II. Ed. by Stuart C. Shapiro. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Spärck Jones, Karen (2007). Semantic Primitives: The Tip of the Iceberg,” to be published in Words and Intelligence:Part II: Essays in Honour of Yorick Wilks, K. Ahmad, C. Brewster, and M. Stevenson, eds., Springer, 2007;



See also: Formal Concept Analysis; Semantic factoring






Birger Hjørland

Last edited: 10-08-2007