61 words

Anna Wiersbicka is a Polish-Australian researcher in language semantics who is proposing that all concepts in all languages can be defined in terms of 61 basic concepts, called “primitives”. In a very interesting article in the NRC Handelsblad of Saturday, September 20, 2003, she elaborates on this theory.

In short, these 61 primitives can be represented by 61 words (or word groups) in all languages. By stringing these 61 words together with a suitable mini-grammar, any concept can be explained. Strangely enough, the definitions themselves read like poems. For example:

living things / these things can’t feel something / these things can’t do something

This is the Wiersbicka definition of a “plant” using only words from the 61 primitives. It gets more abstract:

something very big / people can see it / people can think like this about this something: / it is a place / it is above all other places / it is far from people

This might sound like a round-about definition for “sky”, but take into account that the 61 primitives have to exist in all languages. This means that any definition will also be usable in any human language.