The Sound of Meaning: non-arbitrariness in lexical semantics



            This paper outlines a previously undescribed feature of language. This is a pervasive relationship, in English and at least some other languages, between the sound and meaning of many words that is motivated iconically by the articulation of sounds. Oral gestures often mime meaning (to a degree). This occurs most frequently in the core words of the lexicon but to a lesser extent in others. The feature has something in common with onomatopoeia and sound symbolism (phonaesthesia) but it has highly distinctive characteristics and is much more pervasive and more significant in the structure of lexical meaning. One element of this phenomenon extends beyond language. Evidence is presented that the semantic aspect of the feature is grounded in human experience. It constitutes what may be regarded as a set of categories (in the philosophical sense) of experience that also manifest in percepts and concepts. There is evidence that the categories are fundamentally biological in that they appear to be primal structural features of the interaction of organisms and their environments. They are of two kinds: key parameters of the topology of the physical world and fundamental principles of biological responsiveness. As such they appear to represent an impressive evolutionary continuity, not only between Homo sapiens and its immediate precursors, but also across a much vaster field of biology. These unfamiliar notions may prove to have significant implications for linguistics and also for such other fields as psychology, cognitive science, biology and philosophy.

Key words: lexical meaning, sound symbolism, arbitrariness, articulation, iconicity, basic-level, componentiality, experiential categories, semantic primitives, world/brain similarity.

The arbitrariness of the linguistic sign
A new form of non-arbitrariness: the seme
The semes of English
Sematicity in other languages

A portrait of an English seme
The basis of sematicity: the Zoeme
The structure of lexical meaning
A formulaic approach to word meaning

A Universal Semantics
Why the semes and zoemes were not discovered earlier


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            The chief purpose of this paper is to outline a newly identified relationship between the sounds of words and their meanings and to explore its significance. This new feature of language is unexpected because linguists have universally assumed for the past century that there is no significant intrinsic relation between words’ sounds and their meanings with the minor exceptions of onomatopoeia and sound symbolism. The paper describes and explains this feature of the lexicon but it will not deal at length with its implications beyond linguistics. These are discussed in Lloyd (unpublished) and associated papers. One of the conclusions I have drawn from this feature of language is that it reveals a ‘quark’ of linguistics, an elusive, fundamental form with surprising qualities that lies at the heart of language. This is a set of semantic primitives or universals, an alphabet of language meaning––although the alphabet cannot spell out word meaning fully. In this paper I will suggest new answers to some questions regarding the nature and form of word meaning. These are important questions that have remained shrouded in uncertainty despite intensive investigation and theorizing.

            The matters discussed in this paper have not been subject to the normal processes of academic discussion and peer review. The reason for this is twofold: I am not an academic by profession and so have not been connected to the networks that generally facilitate such discussion. Furthermore, the subject of the paper runs counter to some fundamental tenets of linguistics, which has made it difficult for me to establish useful dialogue on a one-to-one basis. My lack of relevant formal credentials and an academic track record exacerbate this situation. As a consequence I hope this paper will generate feedback and review. I should also note that, because the purpose of the paper is to describe a new phenomenon, I have had to defer significant engagement with the numerous associated issues that are discussed in the literature.

1. The arbitrariness of the linguistic sign.

            For the last 100 years one of the most fundamental and widely accepted tenets of linguistics has been the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, the absence of any intrinsic relationship between the sound and meaning of words. There is assumed to be no significant similarity between language sounds and meanings. The individual sounds of language are assumed to be devoid of meaning. Arbitrariness has come to be seen as a fundamental and necessary feature of language, one that the whole language enterprise is built on. Linguists of all persuasions hold to this principle. Almost any general text on linguistics affirms arbitrariness in its first few pages. In this paper I reaffirm arbitrariness as an essential principle for the growth of a lexicon, but I also describe a co-present contrary phenomenon, a distinct non-arbitrariness, that operates at the core of word meaning and that pervades the English lexicon and those of several other languages I have studied and probably many others. I propose, in fact, that there is a universal propensity in language for this feature to occur alongside arbitrariness. I believe it has some important functions. I also propose that this is the tip of the iceberg of a highly significant element of psychology and biology that is the reason for its presence in language.

            The concept of non-arbitrariness or iconicity in the sound-meaning relationship, the idea that sound and meaning imitate one another to a significant degree, is very old. Plato devoted one of his dialogues, Cratylus, to arguing (unconvincingly) the view that word sounds and meanings frequently resemble one another and the individual sounds carry meanings of their own. Aristotle would have none of this. He believed that the sounds of words were purely conventional and bore no relationship of resemblance to their meanings. The debate continued down the ages among philosophers who took an interest, as many did, in language. In his book The Search for a Perfect Language (1994) Umberto Eco described the long fascination with the notion of a language in which meaning is transparently available from its phonological or written forms. In the nineteenth century one of the pioneers of linguistics as a formal discipline, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), proposed that there was some kind of intrinsic association between sound and meaning, but he eventually despaired of discovering how it worked. “That connection exists between the sound and the meaning, seems certain; but the nature of this connection is seldom fully stateable, can often be divined, merely, and far more often still is wholly beyond conjecture”. (1988, p. 72). Nonetheless, von Humboldt went on to make some conjectures that are of considerable interest in the context of this paper. In fact, the concept that I describe is almost certainly what he was groping to identify. He was able to sense its presence but he could not identify it as a distinct phenomenon. This was a case of a close encounter.

            The position of modern linguistic theory on this question crystallised early in the twentieth century. The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, a founding figure of modern linguistics, was a conventionalist. In his lectures between 1907 and 1911, in which he outlined his highly influential system of linguistics, he identified the arbitrariness of the sign (the physical form of the word), the absence of any significant connection of similarity between sound and meaning, as the first principle of his comprehensive theory of language. “The bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary....the linguistic sign is arbitrary.....No one disputes the principle of the arbitrary nature of the sign.....The above principle dominates the whole of linguistic analysis of a language. Its consequences are innumerable”. (Saussure, 1995). This uncompromising position has never been seriously questioned. It is one of the few matters on which virtually all contemporary linguists are in agreement. It is this hegemony of arbitrariness that I am challenging.

2. A new form of non-arbitrariness: the seme.

2.1 Recognised forms of sound symbolism.

            Onomatopoeia and sound symbolism are well-known forms of sound/meaning iconicity that contribute in important ways to the lexicon of English and many other languages. They are clear but limited exceptions to the arbitrariness of the sign but they have not been seen as compromising this principle in any significant way. Onomatopoeia is the formation of word meaning by the imitation of sounds in the environment by the sounds of words (bang, buzz, cockadoodledoo, hubbub, murmur). The principle of forming words that describe sounds on an imitative basis is very widespread in the world’s languages. Sound symbolism or phonaesthesia, on the other hand, is the presence of groups of words that have common small clusters of sounds that reflect one aspect of the meaning of words in which they occur. Common examples are the /cl/ of clamp, clasp, claw, climb, cling, cluster; the /sl/ of slam, slap, slash, slip, slide, slosh; the /ump/ of bump, chump, dump, hump, lump, sump; with their respective meanings of tight grip, the more complex two distinct /sl/ meanings of a sudden, violent action and instability of movement, and the contribution of a derogatory quality to a meaning in the last case. Phonaesthesia is common and important in the English lexicon where there is a large number of phonaesthetic clusters that represent a significant component of the core lexicon. It occurs widely in other languages. It has been a valuable mechanism for forming new descriptive words. A number of authorities have contributed to the understanding of sound symbolism.1     

            The subject of this paper is a form of non-arbitrariness that is distinct from those just described. I have called this new form the seme following the tradition in linguistics of using the -eme suffix for key components of a larger system. A seme is the association of single sounds and facets of word meaning that is based on an iconic relationship (a palpable similarity) that is generally identifiable between the form of articulation of a single sound and a facet of word meaning that is common to many words. (I use sematic for the seme quality and sematicity for the feature in general). A seme thus has two parts, an articulated vocal sounds (I use this term rather than phoneme because sematicity relates, not to individual phonemes, but approximately to groups of phonemes with a similar articulatory form that are associated with the letters of the English alphabet e.g. /s/ and /sh/) and a specific facet or constituent of word meaning. Sematicity occurs very widely in the core of the lexicon, the commonest and oldest words in English that are the staple of our communication, but it is largely absent from the great majority of words in the full lexicon where arbitrariness is prevalent. (This discrepancy is explained in section 9). Semes occur most commonly, and are most easily identified, in the initial sounds of words.

            This description implies that the meanings of words are not monadic or atomic (as proposed by Fodor (1979)) but that they have a componential or compositional form. Word meaning is essentially composed of a number of semantic elements. This aspect of word meaning is a matter on which linguists are far from agreed but the componential model has considerable support. For example Jackendoff has recognised its potential while acknowledging that this approach is still at an early stage of development: “It should be clear by now that the generalisations of word meaning cannot be studied without a theory of word decomposition”. (2002 p.377). The components that I have identified are, however, very different from those proposed by Jackendoff and others. Previous attempts to decompose meaning have used intuitive judgments of what the components might be. They have proposed different kinds of semantic features such as phrases that describe features of an entity e.g. ‘has a back’ in the meaning of chair. Sematicity provides specific evidence that there is a set of key components of meaning of a quite different type. It is inevitable, however, that descriptive features also operate in many words.

            A key aspect of the seme is the relationship between its two elements, facets of meaning and articulatory gestures that result in vocal sounds. The relationship is one of iconicity or similarity. There is a similarity between something semantic––word meaning, something we describe as mental, which is neural (a brain-state) when viewed in terms of neuropsychology, and on the other hand, something physical, or somatic to be more precise––the shaping of a sound in the mouth (or the hands in a gesture). This similarity is an artifact of language, perhaps even the primal artifact of language, the seed from which the whole of language developed. In the past linguists have balked at the idea of such a relationship beyond onomatapoiea and sound symbolism but it will not be difficult, I believe, to see that there is a similarity between these features of utterly different modalities. The very idea of this type of relationship is subversive in terms of the many current positions in linguistics and psychology and philosophy.

2.2. The seme compared with onomatapoeia and phonaesthesia.

            Sematicity, onomatapoeia and sound symbolism are all types of iconicity in the sound-meaning relationship within words. They reflect a powerful tendency for human language to create new words by imitating phonologically what is represented. There are, however, strict limits on the degree to which such a method is workable with the consequence that the principle of arbitrariness is dominant in the relationship of form and meaning across the whole lexicon in terms of the frequency of its occurrence. Sematicity is distinguished clearly from the other types of iconicity on a number of counts that are summarized in Table 1 but the overriding factor is the far greater prevalence of sematicity in words that have more central positions in the lexicon than the classes of sound symbolic and onomatapoeic words as I will outline in the next sub-section.

Table 1: Types of iconic words.

Onomatapoeia  Phonesthesia Semes

Occurrence in words

Involves the full sound of the word. Generally associated with initial or final phoneme cluster. Most obvious in associated with initial single phoneme.
Role of articulation The sound rather than articulation is related to the meaning. Role of articulation has not been recognised but it is significant and partly explicable by sematicity. Articulation is fundamental in associating sound and meaning.
Relation to meaning  Involves the full meanings of words. Occurs as a prominent facet of word meaning. Generally occurs in structural elements of word  meaning.
Motivation Meaning motivates full sound of word. Sound primarily motivated by the meaning and sound of other words that contain same sound cluster. Association between facets of word meaning and the articulation of relevant sounds.
Referential scope Restricted to words that describe sound. Largely restricted to descriptive words. Common in most types of core words including closed-class words.
Etymological source Words generally of relatively recent origin. Words generally confined to the modern language but in some cases much older forms exist. Can often be traced across languages and back to Proto-Indo-European.

            A further piece of evidence of the significance of sematicity is that many instances of phonaesthesia can be explained as being formed from combinations of sematic meanings.

2.3 Some initial examples of sematicity.

In order to establish some confidence in sematicity I will provide examples involving three word sounds /p/, /y/ and /n/. Extensive illustrations are provided in section 9 and the annexes. The meaning I have identified as associated with /p/ is particularity, the quality of being a distinct, specific, bounded and generally small entity. The sound has an iconic relationship with the meaning through the form of its articulation that is characterised by its brevity (it is described phonetically as a labial plosive or stop consonant) compared with many other sounds in English. The fact that /p/ is an unvoiced sound may also be relevant to its sematicity. The way the sound is formed can credibly be construed as miming this aspect of the meaning of many words. This seme, like the others, is easiest to identify as the initial phoneme but it occurs in other positions. The following are some examples of the seme as it occurs in the first sound of some common p words: pace (n.), pain, parcel, part, patch, pause, peck, person, piece, pip, place, plan, plant (v.), plot, pocket, point, position, price, proper, pull, punch, push, put. In some cases the sematicity is clearer than in others but the common element of the very disparate meanings of these words is not hard to detect.

            The sound /y/ has a totally different character. In the initial position it can be described as a glide and a semi-vowel. It is voiced and it has a unique muscular articulatory character. The sematic meaning I have identified is extension, stretching and some typical sematic words from this tiny section of the dictionary are: yard, (in both senses), yarn (in both senses), yawn, year, yearn, yell, yes, yesterday, yet, yoke, yonder, you, young. It is less obvious, but arguable, in the last two. The articulatory association has an especially robust iconic character through the effortful extension of the mode of articulation. It is easy to see how the notion of physical stretching comes to be used metaphorically in different fields such as temporality and affectivity. This important quality of sematicity is equally evident in the next example.

            In the case of /n/ both the articulatory action and the sematic meaning are diametric opposites of those of /y/. The tongue exerts a firm pressure on the alveolar ridge behind the upper front teeth. This is a squeezing action and the sematic meaning, unsurprisingly is compression, constriction, contraction, reduction and negation as can be seen in words such as: narrow, near, neck, need, -ness, nest, nexus, no, nub, nucleus, number and more obliquely in naked, name, new, night.

    From these examples it is becoming apparent, I hope, that each sound has a distinctive association with one facet of words’ meanings, one semantic feature or primitive, and that the relationship is motivated by the form of articulation of the sound (although this is hard to identify in some cases).

A criterion for the validity of the meanings that I have derived from the lexicon is to test the meaning I have attributed to one sound to words that begin with a different sound.  Considering p and n, the distinction between the semes is not crystal clear because the two meanings, although distinct and meaningful in their own right, have some commonality. Anything compressed and condensed (a nest, a nucleus, a number) is likely to have a particulate character. Nonetheless, the two meanings each have a much stronger relationship with the designated sounds. In the case of n and y the contrast is stark. The meanings have a polar character, in fact, as do the sounds. I believe the further examples of sematicity through the paper will illustrate the individuality of each of the semes as well as some deep systematic relationships between them.

3. The semes of English.

            I have identified semes for all the letters of the English alphabet (actually, the clusters of articulatorily similar sounds, clusters of related phonemes that are associated with these letters), although the x seme is of dubious value. The full set of semes in English is provided in Table 1 while the Annexes contain examples and a fuller description of each seme.

3.1 The identification of sematicity.    

            Sematicity is heavily obscured in the everyday use of language and in a perusal of full sections of the dictionary. This is one reason why it did not come to light earlier, but it was, nonetheless, identified by a very simple process. Each section of the dictionary is a conglomerate of words of Anglo-Saxon, Latin and French origins and an ever-increasing multiplicity of words that have been adopted from many other languages, or devised for special purposes. These outnumber the widely used, largely Anglo-Saxon words of the core of the lexicon, our bread-and-butter vocabulary in which sematicity is most pronounced. I began the identification process with the selection of the core words from each section, the core for this purpose being my estimate of those most frequently used in normal modern conversation and writing. This is a very loose criterion but it makes little difference if the selection is somewhat tighter or broader.

            From the small groups of core words in each section with their common initial sounds I sought to identify common elements of word meaning. It soon became evident that there was a robust pattern of association of specific facets of meaning that were common components of the meanings of most of these words, with the initial sounds. For most sections this was not difficult but in a few cases (a, b, c, d, e, s, w) the pattern of sematicity was much harder to identify and the sematic meanings have a lower level of confidence. The presence of sematicity was also blurred by the scalar and polar nature of the semes (see below) that is much stronger in some sections than in others. Once the sematic meanings were in hand their iconic articulatory basis was not difficult to identify in most cases. The concept of the seme had taken shape but I did not immediately recognize the implications of this discovery.

3.2 The set of English semes.

            The full set of semes that I have identified in English is set out in summary form in Table 2. Fuller descriptions and examples are provided in the Annexes.

Table 2: The ‘alphabet’ of the English semes.

a: action; largeness
b: bodily roundness; natural being
c: the community life-world
d: positivity / negativity
e: the external life-world
f: surface; superficiality
g: abundance; generosity
h: acquisition; possession; self-interest
i:  smallness; interiority
j: energy; humour
k: physical intensity
l: manifestness; display
m: materiality; magnitude

n:contraction,reduction; negation
o: openness; spatiality
p: particularity
q: uncertainty
r: intensity of energy
s: body and affect
t: tactility
u: displacement; negation
v: fullness / emptiness
w: existential value
x: strangeness
y: extension; stretching
z: energy / emptiness

            At first sight this may appear a random, bland and rather incoherent collection of facets of meaning. This impression will, I hope, be thoroughly dispelled by a better acquaintance with the groups of core sematic words in each section (see Annex 2), the nature of the sematic meanings, and the structure inherent in the full set of semes and their apparent function in human cognition as described in sections 6 and 7. The significance of this set lies, I believe, in its representation of a number of key fundamental elements of human experience, elements that are essential for experience and cognition as discussed below.

3.3 The nature of the semes.  

            Some general observations on the semes are called for.

            1. The descriptors I have chosen should be regarded as indicative rather than definitive. The meanings are open to interpretation and they need to be examined by other investigators before we can be confident in the choices I have made. In the interim I believe they afford a satisfactory basis for further investigation.     

            2. Semes operate most noticeably in the common, basic-level words that represent human experience at its most elementary level. They also occur in other words, but to a diminishing extent as words in the lexicon become more specialised, technical and exotic. Although they are most readily identified in the initial phoneme sematicity occurs in all positions.

            3.  Most of the semes can be identified in a remarkably high proportion of the commonest words beginning with their sounds/letters, between 60 and 80 percent on my calculation in most cases.

            4. The bond between meanings and sounds is the form of the articulation of the sound that is generally iconic or imitative of the sematic meaning to various degrees. In sematicity sound mimics meaning. One is motivated by the other. This is fairly obvious in some cases, for example a, f, i, l, n, o, p, r, t, y, but less transparent yet still robustly arguable in most other cases. The articulatory motivation of all the semes is described in Annex 2. 5. Most of the sematic meanings have a polar and scalar character. The descriptors generally represent one pole, but the other pole and the scale between them is generally implied. Three semes are given polar descriptors because their polarity is particularly marked. In some cases the polarity operates between two semes eg. a and i, n and y

            6. A key feature of the sematic meanings is their somatic (bodily) character. I use this term to contrast the sematic meanings with the apparently cerebral nature of semantics. This somatic character is a consequence both of the articulatory aspect of semes and the primitive ‘felt’ nature of the sematic meanings. Most of them relate either to sensually cognised facets of the external world, to physical action or to affective responses (‘gut reactions’) to entities encountered in the world. Such affects generally have a bodily manifestation of some kind, at least in regions of the brain that are associated with the body. The sematic meanings are profoundly somatic!

            7. Although the sematic meanings tend to bond with sounds according to the principle of articulatory iconicity they also occur very widely in word meanings without such bonding. In fact, I propose that all word meanings are constituted to various degrees from sematic meanings but usually without the sematic linkage with sound. (See section 9).       

            8. While the initial impression may be of a hotchpotch of concepts there is a strong coherence in the form of an unexpected systematicity in the full set of semes as I will outline in section 6. In essence the sematic meanings represent core aspects of human experience. An alternative outcome may have been that the meanings were a random collection as is the long list of cases of sound symbolism (phonaesthesia) in English. The phenomenon that I am describing could then have been viewed simply as a kind of sound symbolism, but in fact it differs profoundly in a number of important respects.

4. Sematicity in other languages.

            I have examined the lexicons of five other languages to see whether, and to what degree, sematicity is a feature. I expected to find the semes of English fairly much intact within German and Latin on account of those languages relationship with English, and perhaps to a lesser degree in Ancient Greek but I had no specific expectations with regard to the other two languages I examined, Finnish and Maori, which have no connection with the Indo-European languages apart from late borrowings.

            In German I found a somewhat muddled picture with little commonality with English in a number of sections and a very strong family resemblance in others. This is due in large part to sound changes in the two languages since they separated some 1500 years ago. The Latin semes, on the other hand, were generally considerably closer to their English counterparts. In Greek, the oldest of these languages in terms of when it separated from the Indo-European language stream, some sections had a remarkably similar sematicity while it was weak or non-existent in some others. Overall a fairly consistent set of common sematicities emerges for these languages. This is indicative of a substantial sematicity in Proto-Indo-European that is not difficult to identify. From this we can tentatively conclude that a somewhat similar picture is likely to prevail across the whole Indo-European family of languages, but one that reflects the substantial differences in their sound systems.

            Finnish belongs to a small language family that has no connection with the Indo-European group (apart from late borrowings). The Finnish phonetic system is very different from English in that it has fewer consonants than English as it lacks b, c, d, f, g, q, w, x and z. This must have an influence on any sematic pattern we might find. On the other hand many of the Finnish sounds are quite close to those of English in their articulation, making common sematicities more feasible. It was very surprising to find that the English sound/sematic meaning pattern was substantially represented in a significant number of sections of the Finnish dictionary although rarely to the degree that occurs in English. In a few sections sematicity appeared to be weak or nonexistent. The lack of b and f sounds was compensated by the inclusion of these semes in the p section alongside p sematicity. This is apparently facilitated by the labiality of all three consonants and a consequent similarity in the English sematic meanings in these sections. The identification of sematicity in Finnish is important given the initial grounds for doubt as to whether the semes of IE would occur in other languages.

            Maori has an even very smaller phonetic repertoire as it lacks b, d, g, j, q, s, v, x, y and z which might seem to inhibit the development of sematicity, but that is not the case. Sematicity with a similar phonological basis to that of English would seem highly unlikely, to say the least, but it turns out to be even more robust than in Finnish. Some sections of the lexicon have semes that are remarkably strong and remarkably similar to those of English. The proportion of core words is lower than that of English but it is still robust in most sections of the dictionary. It is very surprising to find that sematicity in Maori conforms to that in the Indo-European languages to the degree that my analysis has demonstrated. This conformity has several dimensions: (a) The overall structure of Maori sematicity has a great deal in common with that of the IE languages. (b) The English sematic nomenclature fits most of the Maori semes relatively well. (c) Some of the major differences are the result of the combination in Maori of sematicities associated with sounds with similar articulatory qualities. For example, the inclusion of the English b and f semes in Maori p.  Such parallel similarities of articulation and meaning are also evident in some IE languages and in Finnish, as noted. (d) In several sections there is a remarkable conformity within the structure of more complex semes as well as their content.

            Here we have languages from the opposite ends of the earth that share sematicity to a significant degree. The sum of the similarities is an intimation of the possibility that sematicity is a universal feature or tendency in human language. I propose that this is the case even though the sample of the world’s languages I have used is pathetically small. I am not suggesting that the sound-meaning associations of English are the general pattern despite the similarities with those in Finnish and Maori. There is such great diversity in phonological systems that this cannot possibly be the case but there is no reason why quite different sound systems cannot have articulatory features that provide the iconic basis for comparable sets of sematic meanings.

            Furthermore, I propose that the set of sematic meanings that we find in English is close to being the pattern of a universal set of lexical semantic meanings. I make this proposal confidently for reasons that will become clear in section 6. The semes may be something long sought by linguists, a set of semantic universals or primitives.2 Several linguists have proposed universals of various kinds, but nothing resembling the semes has been suggested.

5. A portrait of a seme in English.

            In order to make the concept of the seme clearer I will describe a single seme in English and some of the words that exemplify it, in some detail. I will use the f seme which is robust but somewhat more complex than some others. The meaning as provided in the Annexes has several related components: surface; flatness; the manipulation of surfaces; intimacy; (insubstantiality, unreliability, excess of detail). The features in brackets are the polar (negative) aspect of the seme. The core sematic words (in bold, polar words asterisked) as I have identified them are: fabric, face, fail*, fair, fall, false*, fame, familiar, family, fan, fancy*, far, farce*, farm, fashion, fasten, fat, father, fault*, feature, feel, feign*, fellow, female, fever, fiction*, field, fierce, fight, figure, fill, fine (adj.), find, finger, finish (v.), fire, firm, fit (v.), fix, flag, flame, flash, flat, flatter*, flaunt*, flavour, flesh, float, flood, floor, flow, flower, fluff*, fly, fold, folk, food, for, force, forge, form, fragile*, frame, fraud*, free, freeze, fresh, friction, friend, frill*, from, front, frost, froth, fruit, fry, fuck, full, fun, function, fundamental, fur, fury, fuse (v.), fuzzy*. And non-sematic: fast (a.), fate, few, first, fish, five, forest, future. At first sight the assertion that there is a common feature in the meanings of nearly all these words may seem wrong-headed but I hope the discussion below will change that impression.

             I will work through a selection of these words to illustrate their sematic qualities. In some cases I will mention other sematic meanings that are involved in the words, often without a sematic (iconic) aspect. Something that will become apparent is that the sematic meaning does not always work in a literal way as in face, feel, flat, field. It often operates more complexly and indirectly as in fall, family, fill, fire, follow, food.

• Fabric. In its commonest contemporary sense as manufactured textile material sematicity is readily apparent in that surface is a necessary feature of any such material. However the word has, now and historically, a range of allied meanings: a building, a factory, the physical make-up of buildings or other physical entities, a type of construction or formation, a texture. Some of the older meanings exemplify the third component of the seme, the manipulation of surfaces, that is prominent in some other f words. This is an interesting example of the evolution of word meaning. The word is derived, through French, from the Latin faber, maker, smith, carpenter, joiner and fabricare, to fashion, build which are consistent with the third element of the sematic meaning. The use of fabricate in the sense of make up a false story is an interesting metaphorical extension into the polar meaning.

• Face (n.) is both an exemplar of the seme and an etymological  component of the seme’s first descriptor, surface. While its main referent is the human face its meaning has been extended by analogy to refer to the visible surface of things. The English word was derived from an identical French counterpart that, in turn, is based on the Latin facies meaning appearance, form, figure, shape, all of which have a connection with the sematic meaning.

• Fall (v.). The sematicity of this word may seem open to doubt. In the common sense of descent from a height to a lower level, especially by the force of gravity there is, arguably, an implicit notion of surface both in the vertical descent and in the point of landing but the sematicity is less transparent than in many other words of the section. A prototypical use of the word is in reference to a person falling, perhaps in battle––two surfaces come together in a terminal way. In this word the idea of surfaces is associated with other sematic meanings such as displacement in the sense of something going awry, contraction as surfaces collide, and display because falls are generally highly conspicuous events. The first and last sounds and their sematic meanings are all involved in the Indo-European root. Sematicity has ancient roots here.

• False. This is a key polar word. Surfaces in most of the sematic words are firm, reliable and clearly displayed but here the opposite is the case. Deception is the rule. The pole is well represented through the section.

• Family may appear to be another questionable case. The argument for sematicity comes from the word’s sense of intimacy, of surfaces in close contact that emerges in the meaning of numerous core f words. This is hardly compelling but I class the word as sematic along with familiar, father, fellow, female and friend on similar grounds as well as, in a different semantic field, fight which necessarily involves the sense of close physical contact.

• Fasten is affiliated with the manipulation of surfaces element of the seme as in fabricate (in the manufacturing sense), fashion (v.), fit, fix, forge, form (v.).

• Fill. The sematic meaning arises from a (generally) visible surface that is a consequence of the action. The display sematic meaning of /l/ is also at work here.

• Flat is one of an important cluster of sound symbolic fl- words in many of which the sematicity of both sounds is evident as was noted earlier. The sound symbolic meaning is something like, simply, display of surface that can be identified easily in all these words. Fly (v.) is an interesting example of this cluster because the sematicity of f is less obvious than that of l at first sight. The idea of surface seems to arise from a close observation of birds causing awareness of the significance of the breadth and flatness of wings––a bit of folk physics perhaps. 

• For is a closed-class utility word with a host of uses with various shades of meaning, some of which are difficult to verbalise. Sematicity, if it exists here, is obscure. It is hard to grasp what, if anything, the word’s sense or role in the following sentences and phrases have in common: He left for Paris. They stand for democracy. She was afraid for him. For and against. For example, ... . She got ready for work. What are you doing that for? He was looking around for... . They fend for themselves. She had a gift for..... It was difficult for the dog to see. These are elliptical and idiomatic constructions in which the word has a number of distinct conventional functions. But is there a common element of meaning? I propose that there is, and that it is obscurely related to surface. An important early meaning of for was ‘before’ in the spatial sense of being in front of that was also associated with its temporal sense. Fore- as in forehead also has ‘front’ as part of its meaning. Before may convey a dual sense of surface–– surface confronting surface and the separating space or surface between entities. It is arguable that this spatial sense is the obscure basis of the diverse meanings and uses of this little word and that it possesses a fundamental sematicity. If so, it is an extreme example of the way a seme can be ‘stretched’ to serve the requirements of language. For is etymologically related to from which is a similar but simpler case as the spatial aspect of the meaning and hence the sematicity is not so obscure.

Free. The involvement of surface in this word is, I suggest, in a negative form of being unconstrained by surface and materiality.

Fun involves a number of sematic features such as activity, physical and energetic intensity and fullness. Surface as associated with intimacy is also an integral part in a subtle way as in family, father, friend.

• Finally, what about the f-word, fuck? There are several possibilities. It may belong to the intimacy cluster with the more respectable family, father, fellow and female. This possibility is reinforced more directly by the sematic feature of two bodies in close contact. It is possible that the third element of the sematic meaning, the manipulation of surfaces, may also be operative by reflecting the conjunction of bodies in intercourse. Etymologically the word denoted ‘rubbing’, an obvious f-type concept. Sound symbolism also is relevant to the word’s form and meaning. There is a cluster of English -uck words including buck, duck (v.), chuck, luck, muck, pluck, suck, tuck, yuck which have a common thread of meaning that is related to the sematic meaning of u, displacement is evident in some of these words, but which also has as part of its meaning, a sense of disparagement. The latter sense is evident in fuck in the way it is used as an obscenity, and also in synonyms such as shag and bonk. A configuration that involves the f and u semes appears to be involved in the meaning of this word.

            It will be clear from the above examples that sematicity occurs in a wide range of degrees of robustness, but the very high proportion of sematic words in the core of this section (over 80% of basic-level words in this section using my loose collection) is impressive. The next two sections of the paper will begin to explain why this phenomenon is so pervasive and persistent and why it has a function in language that is much larger and more significant than those of onomatapoeia and phonaesthesia.

            What is the practical significance of the association of f with the notion of surface etc. for our experience of language? A reasonable conclusion, I believe, is that whenever we encounter a core f word, the first (unconscious) instance of our understanding is that this primitive experiential notion is implicated in the meaning. When, an instant later, the full sound of the word is registered in the mind (neurally) a much fuller meaning arises, perhaps involving a configuration of several such notions and probably with an associated schematic image or prototype, a felt image that may itself be of a composite nature. In combination these provide a handle on a specific facet of the world, say flake or foam. In the absence of sematicity the image takes control from the outset. This crude sketch prefigures the model of word meaning that I am developing in this paper, especially in section 9.

6. The basis of sematicity: the zoemes.

6.1 The experiential categories.

The reason for the confidence that I expressed in the nature of the full set of English sematic meanings at the end of the penultimate section is far from obvious at first sight. As they appear in alphabetical order in Table 1 the meanings are interesting on account of their reference to a number of key aspects of human experience but there is no visible structure or coherence or sense of comprehensiveness. A closer acquaintance, however, reveals all of these qualities. The meanings are reordered in Table 3 into three groups in each of which the meanings have some commonality. The first main group represents a set of very basic abstract physical features of the external world as we experience it. They can be construed as a set of fundamental, structural features of human experience of the physical world. The second group is of an entirely different kind. It represents ways in which we evaluate objects, events and situations we encounter and it provides a basis for responding to them. It can be described as the heart of the semes, in more than one sense. The small third group contains two taxonomic frames that categorise all objects and events very broadly.

Table 3: The restructured sematic meanings / experiential categories.


Materiality; magnitude (m)
Particularity, specificity (p)
Surface (f)
Bodily roundness, natural being (b)
Contraction, compression (n)
Extension, stretching (y, j)
Display, manifestness (l)
Openness, spatiality (o)
Action, largeness (a)
Smallness; interiority (i)
Intensity of energy (r)
Physical intensity(k)

2..Positive/ negative
....Fullness/emptiness (v, z)
....Abundance, generosity (g)
... Possession, subjectivity (h)
... Uncertainty (q)
... Displacement (u)
... Body and affects (s)
... Tactility (t)
3. Existential value (w)
... The physical life-world (e)
... The community life-world (c)

            Suddenly, things start to fall into place. We can begin to see the meanings as a coherent set of fundamental, primal elements of human experience with the two functions of delineating aspects of the world and assisting in the determination of responsive action. I suggest that the sematic meanings are equivalent to categories of human experience, using that term in its philosophical sense. Philosophers, in their age-old search for a ‘theory of everything’, have often sought to identify a comprehensive set of concepts that encompass the totality of the physical world or the totality of our experience or knowledge of the world. The best-known examples are Aristotle’s set of ten ontological categories and Kant’s twelve ‘pure concepts of understanding’ that are, he claimed, a priori, fundamental and complete with respect to our knowledge of the world.3 Such categories are out of fashion in philosophy but the concept of categories as ‘exhaustive sets of basic classes among which all things might be distributed’ appears to be particularly apt for the sematic meanings. Clearly the categories do not account for the fullness of our experience in its endless richness and detail. My suggestion is that they comprise, at least in part, the essential structure of human experience in that they are necessary elements of the framework on which its infinite variety is constructed. The feasibility of this suggestion is unlikely to be apparent immediately but I believe a closer acquaintance with the sematic meanings/experiential categories will gradually increase confidence in the idea

6.2 The zoemes.

            I am not claiming that the root notions that I have derived from an analysis of the sounds and meanings of English words form a complete and authoritative set of categories of human experience. There may be some gaps.4 The contribution of other minds to the development and interpretation of the categories and the study of the lexicons of other languages may contribute to a more authoritative set. Nonetheless, in working with the categories over quite a long period I have concluded that the existing set is reasonably adequate for the task of providing a viable structure for human experience, a structure that is filled out with the ‘flesh’ of its sensory and mental superstructure, physical features and detail and graduations of such features on the one hand and variants of human responsive affects and emotions on the other. This will be put to the test in section 9. If my proposals are valid, the categories are a surprising, new and perhaps a highly significant factor for linguistics and possibly far beyond. They warrant a name of their own. I call them zoemes (pronounced zoh-eemes with the stress on the first syllable), the -emes, the units of structure, of life in the experiential sense.

            I need to explain the structural role of the zoemes. Like the philosophical categories, they do not have a direct role in human experience. The particularity zoeme itself is not active when I hold a pebble. Such perceptions are simply sensory. This zoeme and the others in the first group in Table 3 are necessary elements of the structure of our interaction with the physical world that make possible the seeing or feeling of the pebble with the full sensory detail that is involved. Particularity is integral to the ontology of the pebble.

            The affective zoemes of the second group have the vital function of providing the framework for our inherited repertoire of affective responses that determines our action or inaction in any situation. Perception in the full sense, our continuous sensory contact with the world about us, is fundamentally the means to identify what is relevant to us in our surroundings so that we can act in (hopefully) adaptive ways. The determination of relevance, the judgement as to what we should respond to and what we should ignore, is an integral feature of perception. Thus the two sets of zoemes are tightly integrated. They both have a primal biological function.

6.3 A thought experiment.      

            One way to view the zoemes that may be useful in realising that our experience actually has an identifiable structure of this kind is by imagining the early life of a baby. Its experience in its first days and weeks is predominantly of such simple structural features of the world. The baby has innate mechanisms for cognition and response that operate narrowly within the biological zoemic framework. Initially cognition is limited to the output of these mechanisms. The baby’s experience is purely zoemic. In its first days when its vision is unfocused the baby is presumably aware of the open space around it (o), from which various faces appear as salient surfaces (f, l). It is equally aware of the surfaces of things (f) such as its clothes and blankets, of the bodily roundness (b) of its mother’s breast and its own body. It appreciates the nourishment it is given (g), the familiarity of its surroundings (c, h) and it reacts to discomfort and pain (q, u) and loudness, sudden movement and sharpness (r, k). Initially it is not aware of individual things and parts of things, particularities (p), let alone the topology of things such are indicated by compression (n) and extension (y), largeness (a) and smallness (i). The toys around its bed do not yet exist for it as individual things. In this early phase perception and its structure are closely aligned but this situation changes over time as eyes gain focus and touch and hearing increase their competence. Particularities emerge––eyes, noses and mouths in faces and the outlines of toys and furniture. Toys and parental fingers are grasped. Space is explored visually and then physically. Structure is gradually obscured by complex perceptual images and distinctive qualities of physical things, but the experiences of the interaction of the baby as it grows and the world remain fully dependent on the zoemic structure.

            As the child matures into adolescence and adulthood this structure becomes almost totally concealed by the overwhelming sensory and affective complexity of experience. One major aspect of this is the perception of objects. A table is much more than a particulate (p) object with a hard, angular (k), flat surface (f) at a height that is convenient for manipulating things (t, f). An adult sees an object with a specific design and colour and function and association with a specific context. When it thinks of that table in its absence, however, it experiences what I will call a gestalt schema, a simplified image, abstracted of much detail, but of a “felt” character. The schema has a zoemic structure that is more readily identifiable in this ‘off-line’ mode than in the case of a perceived table. The structure is embodied in the schema with salient features of the specific table––its size, the materials it is made from, its feel to touch, the shape of its legs, perhaps, and its use––operating as supplementary semantic features. But when we think of a, any table the schema becomes more abstract and the zoemes become more prominent. The same situation prevails with the meaning of the word table when it is heard or read. This anticipates the three-part model of word and concept meaning that I will describe later in the paper.

6.4 The nature of the zoemes.

            How can we begin to characterise the zoemes? They are very primitive features of human experience and cognition. They are somatic more than mental in that they occur in sensory, motor and affective regions of the neural system. We sense, or rather intuit, them with our bodies, through body-related regions of the brain. They have a profoundly phenomenal character, like the qualia that are properties of sensations and perceptual mental states. They are felt. This quality arises from their somatic origin. They appear to belong to a much older level of cognition than that which gave rise to human language. They are not themselves sensations and affects, but rather the structural framework for sensations and affects. They are not representational in themselves but they provide the basis for the mind to interpret and respond to the world. They are innate and a priori rather than learned because they are constitutive of experience rather than being derived from it. As such they are atomic elements of human experience and of the constructive and creative aspects of mind––categorisation, conceptualisation, cognition, thought, language and motor activation. At the most fundamental level, I propose, the zoemes constitute elements of the structure of human experience. They apply equally to vision, hearing, smell and taste and touch. We know the world through the zoemic categories, necessarily. We form molecules of meaning from them.

             The zoemes are thus the pillars, the atoms, the alphabet of human experience and cognition. This and the apparent efficacy of the zoemes as the framework of word meaning is why, as I noted at the beginning of this section, I have substantial confidence in the set of sematic meanings that I have identified in English and in their operation across all human languages. They have such a central function in human existence that they could not fail to have a central function in language as I will describe in sections 8 and 9. But there is an allied reason that stems from another extraordinary dimension of the Zoeme (the full set of zoemes) that I have just alluded to.

7. The biological nature of the Zoeme.

            One piece of supporting evidence for the primality of the Zoeme, the full set of zoemes, is from evolution. It is apparent from the first group of zoemes in Table 3 that they are basically haptic or tactile in nature. They would have been fully adequate for species that existed even before the evolution of visual perception but they also serve as the structure for vision and other senses. A little reflection on the experiential categories, suggests a very surprising possibility––that they are fundamentally biological. Apes, dogs, frogs, birds, oysters, eels, spiders, worms do not have experience as we know it. Those creatures lack consciousness and self-awareness but, with or without brains, they all have a continuous species-specific somatic ‘awareness’ of, or engagement with, what is going on. This is the basis of their response or non-response to stimuli associated with external entities and events and of their ability to survive. Such ‘awareness’ is simply the busy interaction of organism and umwelt (the immediate environment of organisms) in pursuit of the interests of the organism. I believe the Zoeme is equipped for a central role in the biological process of perceiving and responding appropriately to entities in the external world in accordance with evaluations, judgments and triggers of activation that occur within the organism. The zoemes have every appearance of being categories of animal and organismal interaction with the environment. This possibility is supported by a further recasting of the zoemes in Table 4.

Table 4: The biological Zoeme.

Alpha zoemes 

Materiality / non-materiality (m)
Surface / particularity (f, p)
Bodily roundness / lifelessness (b) 
Compression / extension (n, y, j)
Largeness / smallness (a, i) 
Display / concealment (l)
Openness / concealment (o)
Intensity of energy / rest (r)
Physical intensity / featurelessness (k)
Action / inertness (a)

Beta zoemes

Positiveness / negativeness (d)
Fullness / emptiness (v)
Abundance / paucity (g)
Possession, self-interest / hostility, threat (h)
Uncertainty / certainty (q)
Displacement / conformity (u)
Somatic affect / tactility  (s, t)
Existential value (w)
Communal world / physical world (c, e)


The polarities in italics are notional as I have not actually identified them in language.

            This table, incorporates a key feature of the zoemes, that they each have a scalar or polar character that is not apparent from Table 3. For example display, manifestness incorporates hiddenness and an intermediate spectrum of clarity and obscurity of perception.  Each zoeme incorporates its opposite and the territory in between. Polarity is an integral feature of most of the zoemes although one pole appears to predominate in some instances. In Table 4 I have associated some of the zoemes because they are apparently polar (e.g. surface and particularity). In the table I have given names to the two distinct types, alpha and beta zoemes. The first set contains some key parameters of the physical nature of the world at the level at which biology functions. The second set consists of ineluctable principles of biology that form a basis of action by any responsive organism. It is my central contention that the two kinds of zoemes, operating in conjunction, constitute an essential structure in the whole biological enterprise at the level of the interaction of organism and environment. The zoemes can be defined as the dimensions of the space of the possibility of biological interaction. Each species has an evolved complex set of sensory triggers of activation that serve its imperative to survive. The Zoeme is the framework within which these triggers operate.

            The principal biological use of the zoemes is in categorisation, the necessary and fundamental biological process by which organisms match a new sensation or sensory configuration with an inherited or learned exemplar or prototype. An alternative description is the determination whether a new entity falls within the tolerances of an innate or learned activator of response. From the most primitive level of organisms certain principles are operative in categorisation. These are the means to determine the degree of identity that generates the similarity between a new entity and an established exemplar. There has been much philosophical debate on these issues with a rule-based system often being opposed to a similarity-based system. In my view it is wrong to dichotomise an issue that necessarily involves the integration of the two principles.

With regard to the function of the zoemes in cognition and language we are concerned with the relationship between the mental awareness of concept and word meanings on one hand and the neural configurations that represent the zoemes in their integration with gestaltic schemas on the other. It is clear that there are neurological laws (rules on the logical plane) that determine the recognition of similarity in a particular instance. Shortly I will describe this similarity system in action in words. It is necessary to bear in mind the neural nature of the zoemes. Their descriptors refer to specific points or zones distributed through the brain that are connected in unique configurations in the case of each concept or word meaning. These determine its intuited sense.

            We have travelled a long distance from the identification of obscure features in the meanings of words and I expect that these conclusions will initially be difficult for many readers to swallow. It may help if we can recognise that there is a fundamental unity in the situation that underlies the existence of biological life in all its forms from the simplest microorganisms to the most complex and intelligent creatures (us, perhaps). In a crucial sense the occupants of fine residences in the most exclusive suburbs of our cities and the microbial inhabitants of the municipal sewerage pond are on the same level! This unity is a consequence of the physical nature of the world at the level of biological entities as manifested in the alpha zoemes and an ultimate set of prerequisites for the operational viability of organisms in their interaction with the environment (the beta zoemes). At the centre of this latter set, unsurprisingly, is the ability to discriminate what is favourable to the organism from what is not. This distinction is the basis for innate, epigenetic or learned behavioural mechanisms that determine the precise nature of the response. The other beta zoemes can be viewed as variants of this positive/negative, favourable/unfavourable principle that have important functions in fine-tuning that principle and adapting it to specific situations. I propose that all biological behavioural mechanisms operate in this zoemic space.

            This, I believe, is the ultimate explanation of the zoemes. Their manifestation in language in the form of the semantic elements of the iconic semes is simply a consequence of the fact that, smart creatures as we are, the topology of our world and the principles of interaction with the world have much in common with that of other creatures and organisms despite vast differences in scale, intelligence and patterns of behaviour.

8. The structure of lexical meaning.

8.1 The core of word meaning.

            If zoemes are components of concept and lexical meaning what is the full structure of these meanings? In working out this matter I propose to distinguish between core and non-core semantic content in word meaning. The core is the mental configuration that is essential for the understanding of a word in isolation from specific contexts. The non-core content (which includes descriptive features, semantic networks, inferences, encyclopedic meaning, paradigms of use etc.) is generally peripheral to this understanding but is necessary for the full operation of language in communication. The core is the focus of one’s immediate understanding while the non-core content is a necessary constituent that confers on a word its full communicative potential. My primary interest here is in the core content that is intuited when we encounter a word in isolation, when much of the non-core content is inoperative. What is the form of this core intuition, this configuration in the mind, this brain-state? What do we experience in individual words such as interest, contents, encounter? What is it that we experience instantaneously when we know the meaning of a word? What do we feel as much as know?

            In each instance we experience a very specific semantic intuition that is, nonetheless difficult to describe because much of it is below the threshold of consciousness. It certainly does not occur as a verbal description or definition. It seems to be a gestaltic state with a very specific and definitive form rather than a semantic state as we might normally understand it. It does not have the complexity of a theory or the fixed set of descriptive features of a prototype as prototypes are often understood. It does not seem appropriate to describe what we experience as information. It is not easily recognisable as an image, at least in these words, and the notion of exemplars is not very useful in describing their meanings. But what we have with these words is certainly a specific meaningful configuration in the mind––but a configuration of what? I suggest that with the first word, interest, it is a sense, roughly, of elements along the following lines (I am using the three words in the senses they have in the previous paragraph): something of major significance to an individual or group; with the second items or material held in a container (metaphorically); and with the third two entities meeting. But those descriptions do not apply at the instant of recognising-the-meaning. They are after the event. What is the nature of the immediate mental event?

8.2 The zoemes in word meaning.

            I suggest that the core sense of these words involves a tightly-bound configuration of a small number of discrete elements of experience that occur time and time again across the lexicon in different configurations in a similar way to the combination of sounds that make up the physical form of words. They are universal. They are a (partial) alphabet of meaning. The meaning of interest contains elements that can be interpreted as a human mental state that is focused, interrogative, informative, affective, positive and salient; the sense of contents is partly comprised of pertaining to the physical life-world, and involving materiality, specificity, a confined plenitude, display, positiveness; and finally the sense of encounter contains the entries human, a specific event, duality or mutuality, the contraction of coming together, uncertainty (of outcome) and expectancy. Although I have unavoidably expressed them in language, these elements do not form anything like a verbal description in the mind in the normal instant of awareness of a word’s meaning. They precede but are constitutive of language. I propose that they form distinct somatically-based features in body-related regions of the brain, both sensori-motor and affective. They appear strange, much more so than a paraphrase, but they are cast in the natural language of the brain. In our recognition and understanding of such words these configurations constitute specific, unique, composite ‘feelings’ of an intrinsically bodily nature. They are not, however, the complete and fully intelligible core meaning.

8.3 Gestalts in word meaning.

            Most of these elements of the meaning of the three words will have a familiar ring to them. They are almost all strongly associated with one of the zoemes. The meanings of such words can be partly spelled out in zoemes in a kind of formula as I will describe in more detail in the next section. But the zoemes alone cannot delineate word meanings fully and in an unambiguous way, as I have said repeatedly. A further factor is involved in the constitution of the core meaning of words and concepts. I have called this necessary supplementary factor a gestalt schema. I use the psychological term gestalt, that is normally applied to visual percepts, because it denotes an integrated structure or form that is more than the sum of its parts and that has a rich dynamic character in the way it functions as somatic ‘feeling’. Core meanings have this character on two accounts, the gestalt schema and the gestaltic nature of the zoemes. The zoemes themselves are gestaltic in that they are distinctive unities, although of a much simpler dimensionality than the full configurations of core meaning; they are somatic and have a distinctly ‘felt’ character; and they represent, in abstract, specific features of the world as it is experienced.

            The most common modality of the schemas is vision which is a prominent constituent in certain types of words but hearing and touch and less obvious modalities such as taste, smell, kinesthesia (the awareness of activity and position of muscles and joints), and proprioception which includes other, sometimes quite obscure bodily sensations such as the senses of uprightness and balance, are also involved. Equally important is affectivity as it is sensed within the body. Affectivities can be equated with ‘gut reactions’ of various degrees of intensity. Important affectivities involved in word meaning that can be overlooked are value (v), the sense of a particularly full significance attached experientially to a concept or a facet of it, either intrinsically or in a specific instance, positive/negative, uncertainty (d), indeterminacy (q) and displacement, dislocation, being-out-of-kilter (u). These beta zoemes reveal a far more extensive affective component in word meaning than is commonly recognised.

            In essence a gestalt schema is formed by an elaboration of the zoemic nucleus through the addition of prototypal sensory and affective features that are necessary for the establishment of unambiguous meaning. The commonest additional features are sensory, motor ‘images’ of a schematic, semi-abstract nature and affectivities. (I use the term image circumspectly because what I am trying to describe is not generally picture-like. It is nonetheless a semblance). The gestalt schema in the meaning of interest is affective and proprioceptive in character while visual schemas occur somewhat obscurely in the meanings of contents and encounter. Perceptual schemas are much more dominant in words that denote physical objects or qualities, kettle, horse, purple, smile, landscape. The core meaning with this complex make-up––zoemes plus gestalt schema––is the central mental event that occurs when we read or hear any word or bring to mind a unitary (as opposed to complex) concept in the core lexicon. It is the somatically-based generalised mental simulation or representation of a remembered percept or other form of experience.

8.4 A model of word meaning.

            I describe the zoemes as the structural elements of gestalt schemas because they form a set of necessary, nuclear, abstract, semantic features for many words, especially the basic-level words that refer to fundamental elements of human experience and consequently have a central position in the lexicon. However, there are some large classes of words for which this core provides neither adequate structure nor significant content. This group includes specialist words that are often comparatively late additions to the lexicon, for example terms from the sciences, technology, medicine, politics and the arts. It also includes some important core words that have a high visual content that the Zoeme is not well equipped to represent. I will elaborate on this important matter in the next section.

            We thus have a model of a concentric structure of meaning with the zoemes as the structural nucleus, the gestalt schema as a disambiguating factor that is necessary to complete the core, and thirdly, a variety of supplementary factors that are available to construct the more complex meaning that fits words for a multiplicity of contexts. In the cases of contents and encounter the zoemic nuclei are somewhat less robust than in interest, the gestaltic content is fuller, and additional semantic material is available. An interesting feature of this model of meaning is the internal role of language. The zoemic nucleus is language free, so is the second zone, while the third zone is predominantly linguistic. I have emphasized the significance of the two inner zones of lexical meaning but the outer zone is equally important in most words. Word meaning would be impossibly impoverished without it.

            I will use the term prototype for the mental entities in long-term memory that instantiate these core structures of word and concept meaning. Prototype theory generally assumes that prototypes are structured mental representations that encode the main properties of their referents. My use of this term differs from standard prototype theory in that the prototypes have a zoemic structural core and non-core properties are represented in the peripheral third zone. I believe this avoids some of the problems that prototypes are claimed to have.

            What I have described as the gestaltic core of word meaning, with its zoemic nucleus, is in its effect, something intimately familiar to all of us. It is what can be described as the feeling of meaning that we intuit when we hear or see many familiar words. I believe this has not been captured by existing models of meaning. This feeling is a composite mental entity that resides in long-term memory and is held together by the powerful force of our previous learning and experience of use. The felt aspect of meaning is often difficult to detect. We are aware of it, if we attend to it, in words such as disappoint, power or instant but it is harder to identify in believe, common or exist.

            The model of the mental constitution of word and concept meaning that I have described, and particularly the role of the zoemes in establishing the semantic form of meanings, is an unfamiliar approach. It is, in part, consistent with one recent theory of lexical meaning (Barsalou’s Perceptual Symbol System). However it is diametrically opposed to the large school of thought that holds that meanings are non-modal, linguistically expressed, and that images play no significant part in their constitution.5

9. A formulaic approach to word meaning.

            In this section I will outline in more detail how the elements of the three-part model combine in word meaning. I will make particular reference to several categories of words in the lexicon that differ in their ways of constituting word meaning. There is no single blueprint for word meaning.

            Discussions of word meaning have been excessively dominated by words that denote physical things and qualities like bachelors, doorknobs, dogs and redness. But the meanings of many other words in which visuality is less prominent or absent altogether are more difficult to grasp as we found in the previous section. I will use a range of examples that are representative of the full lexicon. The zoemic analysis that I describe in this section is useful, I believe, in coming to a better understanding of the nature and role of gestalt schemas and zoemes, and hence, the nature of core word meaning with its grounding in bodily experience.

            In the previous section I noted the possibility that the core of word meanings can be conveyed in a formulaic manner that highlights the role of the zoemes and the gestalt schemas while setting to one side the other important aspects of lexical meaning such as descriptive features and encyclopedic meaning.  I proposed that the zoemes, as experiential categories constitute the semantic nucleus of word meaning, but in necessary association with the schemas. The core can be written as a formula with a single symbol signifying the presence of the schema followed by a series of letters that identify the key associated zoemes without any implicit sematicity. The letters are simply convenient means of identifying the zoemes.  In this way the operation of the core meaning of words can be analysed and better understood in a fairly objective manner. This method has the advantage that it is not reliant on language to elucidate language meaning because the zoemes are facets of prelinguistic human experience. This avoids the circularity of verbal definitions that, in theory, get caught in the widening gyre of the need to define the defining terms. In practice, of course, we generally know the defining terms and so the definition works, but the semantic gyre is a fatal flaw of the definition model of meaning.

            This is a new way of understanding the constitution of core word and concept meaning. Meaning is componential, it is profoundly embodied in the somatic nature of the zoemes and the primarily sensory gestalts, it is essentially biological, and the fundamental principle of the model is similarity or iconicity. Core meaning is isomorphic with referents.

            The discovery of the zoemes is the motivation for developing this formulaic method of describing word meaning. The result is something different from traditional and contemporary models of meaning because the zoemes allow meaning to be accounted for in terms of empirically transparent elements of human experience. Among other things this approach may provide a more compelling explanation of the emergence of concepts and language in the evolutionary picture and in ontogenetic development. I must stress that, although I am convinced of the soundness of the method, this formulaic presentation of meaning is an exploratory investigation that will undoubtedly need revision in its detail as others contribute (I hope) to the understanding of this method of lexical analysis. 

            Several conventions are followed in the analysis below: 1. A simple asterisk indicates the presence of the gestalt schema, the image-like intuition that the phonological form of a word evokes. The isolation of the schema does not imply independence as the zoemes are structural features of the schema. I do not attempt here to analyse the non-zoemic content in detail. 2. The zoemic components are set out within square brackets. 3. The initial two or three zoemes have a taxonomic function while the following round-bracketed entries spell out, more or less, the structure of the core meaning. 4. The bracketed zoemes are ordered in terms of their approximate prominence in the word’s meaning. 5. The zoemes operate additively to generate the structure of the core meaning with any sub-bracketed entries operating as composite sub-elements. 6. Polarities apply, but where they are not indicated the nominal (first) meaning of Table 2 applies. 7. Numerical subscripts indicate that one of the secondary meanings in the Annexes applies.

            I will use two or three examples for each of six categories of words with meanings of quite different character, first, basic-level words that have a primal place in the lexicon; second, widely used words with a relatively abstract, non-sensory type of meaning; third ‘qualic’ words with meanings that are dominantly sensory; fourth, closed-class grammatical words; fifth, words that denote familiar highly visual common objects; and sixth, relatively recently introduced words with highly specialised meanings. This wide range will subject the method of analysis to a stringent test and at the same time it will highlight some issues. A methodological point is that all 20-odd zoemes are available for the delineation of the meaning of any word. In a sense, I believe, all the zoemes are involved in the meaning of any word, but only a few are highly activated and most of them normally have a null or close to null value that may, nonetheless, assist in the delineation of meaning in subtle ways. I try to observe a balance by confining the formulae to a manageable number of zoemes. This leaves the possibility that a more inclusive approach may bring them into closer alignment with meaning as it is intuited, but with the risk of making it excessively clumsy. Please note again, the letter symbols in the formulae are simply convenient ways of representing the zoeme. They do not imply sematicity, which is not taken into account in this exercise. The Annexes provide the full descriptions of the zoemes used in the formulas.

1. Basic-level words.

            do:  *[c/e, m2, a, (r1, (h4, f, t), g, d1, s, v1, w)]

or, in the words of the zoeme descriptors: applicable to both the community and external life-worlds; associated with materiality, an action (these form is the taxonomic element); physical activity; personhood, surface, tactility; abundance, or productivity in this context; positiveness; a bodily affective aspect; fullness; existential value.

            The formula interprets the word as used in a prototypical way as in: What are you going to do this morning? The initial entry indicates that it is applicable in either the physical or the community life-world. The second identifies it as involving materiality and the third indicates that it is a verb. The r1 denotes the intensity of energy that is characteristic of doing. The next bracketed entries combine to contribute a semantic feature along the lines of ‘hands-on’. G represents the productivity of doing while d1 is indicative of a normal positive association that accompanies the word, and s reflects the satisfaction of achievement. The v2 is a semi-affective vector that represents significant presence of value that is inherent prototypically, in acts of this kind. The final feature signifies the existential value of the concept and is an indicator of its basic-level status. This is still a tentative zoemic analysis. I have identified what seem to me to be the key zoemes but several others (l, o, p, y) could be construed to be involved to some degree, but their addition would make this demonstrative exercise unwieldy. But what of the gestalt schema? It is in a kinetic modality that conveys a simple generic sense of activity that is given tighter specifications by the context of use There is an affective sub-plot that can be described as a moderate positivity that is context-dependent. (The marital ‘I do’ is at one extreme). The meaning of this word is normally bland and general but can gain specificity in application. The zoemes constitute the meaning to a significant and useful degree and can credibly be construed as the structure of the schema as I have proposed.

            laugh (v.): *[c, m2, a, ((l, j4, r, s), (p, y, a2), d1, v2, w)]

or in words, the formula indicates: an entity belonging to the community life-world, involving materiality, an action characterized as conspicuous, humorous, energetic, with a bodily/affective aspect, and that is of a particulate kind but with some extension (its duration is determined by the need to take a new breath) and is typically loud, and has associated positiveness and fullness of intrinsic value, and is marked, as a basic-level word by its existential value. The gestalt schema is multimodal, part visual, part aural, part kinaesthetic and part visceral but the zoematic formula is a remarkably full delineation of the schema. This word illustrates well the tight integration of zoemes and schema that is characteristic of many core words.

            wrong: *[c, m8, y, ((u, v1),(d2, g4, s,),w]

or in words, a community life-world  concept that is non-material (psychological) (the y is a convention for denoting an adjective) and is characterised as exemplifying displacement to a high degree, negativity and paucity, that has an affective, bodily-felt character and that has existential value. This zoemic structure is powerful and requires little schematic supplementation. The schema can best be described as a ‘gut feeling’, a physical sense of being out of kilter. The words’s converse, right, has the antithetical formula *[c, m7, (u4, q2, d­1, s, v2), w].

2. Widely-used words with an abstract meaning.

Suppose: *[c, m8, a, ((p,p), (h4, l, q, s), v1)], a community life-world, non-material (mental) act that involves two arguments (a supposer and an object of supposition), is subjective, is conspicuous (in the mind), uncertain/tentative, somatic/affective (in that the act of supposing involves the risk of ‘sticking one’s neck out’) and an associated sense of intermediate value. The schema is basically visceral.

Probable: *[c, m8, y, ((p, h4), l, q1, v1/v2)], a general, non-material condition (an adjective) of a particulate and subjective kind (a mental particular), conspicuous but of indeterminate certainty and with an indeterminate degree of value. The schema is of a proprioceptive type (a balancing act). How could possible be distinguished from probable? By giving q its nominal status (uncertainty) and converting value (v) from indeterminate to its intrinsic form (v2), I suggest.

Interest: *[c, m8, ((p, y), (h4, n, i4), (g4, l), s, v2, d1)]. This is the formula as explained in the previous section. Or, in paraphrase, a human mental state that is of a focused, cerebral nature, involves seeking and finding, and is affective, salient and positive.

The zoemic/gestaltic configuration works surprisingly well for many core words in this important category.

4. Closed-class grammatical words.

If:   *[c, m8, (p, (q1, o, w))], a community life-world, non-material condition that is singular in nature, involves uncertainty and openness (inconclusiveness) and existential significance. The gestalt schema is visceral but the formula provides it with a substantial structure and explanation.

Or. *[c, m8, ((p:p), q1, o, w)]. The sub-bracketed feature indicates reciprocity, the balancing of optional conditions, while the rest of the formula indicates the similarity of these words. The schema is distinct from that for if, and again, the formula supports it robustly.

And: *[c, m8, (y, a2, w)]. A community life-world, non-material notion involving extension, enlargement and existential value. The schema has a vague visceral feel.

At. *[c/e, m2, (p, o, l) w)]. Applicable to both life-worlds, implies materiality, and involves particularity, spatial openness, display and existential value. The formula delineates the meaning quite fully. The schema seems to be proprioceptive in nature, a felt sense of being in a position.

Where: *[c/e, m2, (p, q, o, l, v5, w)]. Why:  *[c, m8, (p, q, v5, w)]. Who: *[c, m2, ((p, h4,) q, v5, w)].

The zoemes are surprisingly effective in contributing substantively as well as structurally to the meaning of words such as these that are often assumed to have meaning only as a consequence of their grammatical role.

5. Qualic words.

Blue: *[e, m2, y, (l, o, v1, w)], a physical life-world, material condition that involves display in space and has fullness of value, together with existential significance. The y in this and the next formula is indicative of an adjective. The schema is purely visual and self-sufficient as the zoemes do little to support it. The formula is highly ambiguous (most colours have the same formula).

Soft: *[e, m2, y, (f1,f5 t, s, v1), w], a condition of the same broad sensory type, but characterised by unreliability of surface, tactility and a somatic/affective aspect, with a full value and existential significance. The schema is specific and intensely tactile. Although it is more descriptive than that in the previous example it remains highly ambiguous. The strong tactile schema is all-important for delineating the meaning. Hard would have a similar formula with k substituting for f5 and the schema doing much of the work.

In general the zoemes are highly ineffective in contributing to the meaning of this important class of words.

6. Words that denote familiar visually rich objects.

            Dog: *[e, m, (p, b, ---)]

            Spoon: *[c, m, (p, y, ---)

            Shoe: *[c, m, (p, b, ---)

            Elephant: *[c, m, (p, a2, b)]

The meanings of these words are entirely dependent on their gestalt schemas that have a strong and complex visual character that leaves little work for the zoemes. The dotted motif is intended to suggest that other zoemes could be involved in minor ways.

6. Recently introduced and specialized words.

Uranium: *[e, m, (d2, ---)]. The zoemes can only specify a material substance with some negative connotations. They offer no definitive way to further discriminate meaning. There is no clear modal image schema but in its place there are other semantic instruments that can be utilised such as scientific descriptions and encyclopedic knowledge.

Cortex: *[e, m, (p, b, v+)]. The formula is fuller in that it identifies the particulate nature and the bodily rounded shape of the cortex and fullness of value arising from its known importance to the human condition, but it is impossibly ambiguous. The schema, for anyone with a little anatomical knowledge, is visual but it has little substance without some descriptions drawn from scientific knowledge.

Metaphor: *[c, m8, ((p:p), f3)]. The sub-bracketed feature indicates the reciprocity of the parts of the metaphor while the last zoeme is a tentative attempt to convey the complex interface relationships of the parts but meaning here is almost totally dependent on descriptive features.

Psychosis: *[c, m8, (y2, s, d2)]. Another indeterminate formula. The schema is vague for a layperson but quite well-defined for a psychiatrist. A propositional description is essential to grasp the terms meaning.

Chardonnay: *[e, m, (s, ---)]. The formula hardly begins to establish meaning but a gustatory schema goes a long way in compensation.

            It will be obvious to the reader that this analysis of the meanings of individual words is tentative and subject to somewhat different interpretations by different people––or, as I have sometimes found, by the same person on different occasions. This is, in part, a consequence of the immature state of the analysis, the subjective nature of word meaning (sense) and the intrinsic difficulty in pinning it down and polysemy. There is, nonetheless, a prospect of a large measure of agreement as a variety of minds contribute to converging interpretations.

            We can conclude from this limited analysis that the zoemic configurations are effective in building a structure for lexical meaning for some important classes of words but they mostly require supplementation by a modal schema that imparts the greater specificity to semantic value that is necessary for unambiguous reference. Other supplementary features are often needed. There is a disparate but very extensive group of words for which zoemic configurations are weak and ineffective structurally as they depend more heavily on the gestalt schemas and/or the supplementary features. There are two main explanations for this failure of the Zoeme: first, only a strong sensory schema can convey the meaning of words that denote visually complex objects (such as animals) and simple but sensorily intense qualities such as qualia); and second, many specialised words, of a cultural and scientific nature, for example, and many introduced words and those that denote exotic entities, cannot acquire their full meaning without the supplementary linguistic components of the outer region of the three-part model for their semantic realisation. The more remote a word is from the basic-level human condition the less effective the zoemes are in providing the structure of lexical meaning.

            An important conclusion of this analysis is that it identifies the principle that underlies this model of the formation of meaning or semantic value in neural states. This principle is similarity, the relationship of similarity between neurally instantiated prototypes and specific entities in the world. Judgments of similarity and non-similarity require comparison by a neural computational process using prototypes that operate equally in perception, cognition and linguistic communication. According to the current model zoemes and gestalt schemas are the prime constituents of prototypes. (This view of prototypes is quite different from a common use which often takes them as consisting of sets of weighted features that are linguistically described. In my model prototypes are zoeme-structured gestalt schemas). In perception the comparison of a percept with a mental prototype gives rise to cognition and recognition. In communication word meaning stems from the stimulus of a written or aural symbol that generates an appropriate neural prototype that is held in long-term memory. This is a non-linguistic foundation of word and concept meaning but, as I have discussed, it often requires supplementation by linguistic semantic features that also operate on the principle of similarity between such features as installed in long-term memory and their appropriateness in the specific situation.

            There is a substantial literature on the principle of similarity (see, for example, Sloman and Rips, 1998) and its validity in the face of competing principles such as the function of rules and theories in the formation of meaning. This is not the place to confront the differing views beyond defending similarity against a charge that threatens its credibility. This is the contention that goes back to Goodman (1955) that similarity is fatally flawed because it is virtually useless unless firm constraints are built into it: almost anything is similar to anything else in some respects. Obviously this principle would never be advocated unless its proponents have some constraints in mind but these are often not spelt out. My proposal is that the similarity of lexical/conceptual prototypes and their appropriate actual entities is constrained effectively by the zoemes as a priori elements of the process and the sensory features of gestalt schemas as the other necessary component. These, I propose, are adequate constraints for the functioning of similarity in much core perceptual experience, cognition and lexicality. The use of the supplementary linguistic semantic features beyond the core is still consistent with similarity because it exists on the prototype side of the symmetry equation as well as, by investigation, on the actual experienced entity side. This is not the place to explore these important issues further. This will be the subject of another paper.    

            These conclusions support the evolutionary implications that I believe are strongly suggested by my analysis of the lexicon. The Zoeme with its somatic nature and its eons-old history is crucial to core human cognition. Its role in this central class of words represents an impressive evolutionary continuity with pre-linguistic cognition when such concepts must have existed as part of a non-linguistic form of cognition of late hominids. Many other words with more complex meanings are able to build their semantic values on basic-level foundations by a hierarchical dependence of meaning on basic-level concepts. The fact remains, however, that a large part of the modern lexicon in volume terms is only weakly dependent on the Zoeme in a direct sense. This is a consequence of the evolution of alternative processes for building semantic value in words and concepts through dependence, not directly on experience, but on language itself in the form of the use of descriptions and definitions, synonyms, typical contexts, metaphor, encyclopedic meaning, networks of other concepts and so on. Sensory modalities and somatic influences tend to fade into the background for words such as antihistimine, biography, cosmopolitan, diplomacy, electronic, focaccia, genealogy, hysterectomy. Nonetheless our everyday usage of language is still heavily dependent on the basic-level with its profound modal and somatic connections. The Zoeme pervades the meaning of the great majority of words in everyday discourse and retains its foundational function and influence.   

            There is an entirely different way of building word meaning that is favoured by some psychologists, namely an amodal (non-perceptual) system. (See note 4). Lawrence Barsalou (1999) describes this system. “Rather than extracting a subset of a perceptual state and storing it for later use as a symbol, an amodal symbol system transduces a subset of a perceptual state into a completely new representational language that is inherently nonperceptual”. Such symbols are amodal and arbitrary. There is no similarity between the mental form of the meaning and the referent. Barsalou has noted that there are numerous unresolved problems with this proposal, not least the lack of any direct evidence that such symbols exist. He advances a model in which the perceptual system in the brain is the vehicle for language meaning. The Zoeme is a powerful ally for Barsalou and other advocates of perceptual symbols. It has a manifest empirical basis in the meanings of words and is written in lights in the semes.

            This section has demonstrated the power of the Zoeme to delineate the structure of the meaning of words and concepts––to be an alphabet of meaning––even if there are quite extensive variations in its use across the lexicon. Doubt about the validity of the Zoeme should have been almost dispelled by the demonstration of how they perform this vital function. 

10. A Universal Semantics?

            In the 1960s Noam Chomsky’s proposal for a Universal Grammar produced a seismic shift in linguistics and has been the source of immense research activity and controversy for half a century. The UG is the putative fixed initial state of the language faculty, fixed by genetically inscribed features of the human brain that determine both the basic principles of the grammar of all languages across the human race, and the innate ability of any child to learn its own language. UG sets the rules for the combinatorial structures of languages. One of the many criticisms of UG is that it has been developed without the necessary regard for the semantic side of language. I want to explore the question, can we view the Zoeme as the basis of a Universal Semantics? Considering the Zoeme in a parallel way, a Universal Semantics (US) would relate to the structure of the formation of the mental configurations that are the meanings of words, concepts and experiences. The zoemic elements are innate and a priori. They are, as we have seen, of two kinds: fundamental parameters of the physical world that are the most salient in terms of human ability to interpret and know the world, and key principles of biology that are necessary for human response to entities and events. These parameters and principles (!) are instantiated in specific regions of the brain in a way that enables it to represent simultaneously facets of the world and the basis for an appropriate response. US differs from UG in three fundamental ways: it is not a set of rules, its operational scope is not confined to language as it already operates in perception and the formation of pre-linguistic concepts, and it is demonstrably biological in its exhibition of phylogenetic continuity. The elements of meaning that are the substance of US are experiential and interactional. They form a code that operates at the interface of person and world to facilitate interaction. They operate in cognition, thought, perception and behaviour as well as in language. The domain of US is thus of vast proportions, much greater than that of UG.

            There is the second factor that I have already described that operates in Universal Semantics alongside the zoeme. This is the innate ability of human beings to represent the world conceptually in the form of semi-abstract, gestaltic icons or images that are isomorphic with word referents. These have a zoemic structure to various degrees, but they can exist with little such structure as abstract gestaltic schemas in one or more sensory modalities. Both the zoeme-structured word meaning icons and those with only small zoemic content (but dependent on descriptive semantic features) can be viewed as simulated mental models of objects, situations and so forth. They are instantiated simultaneously in several body-related regions of the brain––sensory, motor, kinesthetic, and affective. The US thus reduces to a mental/somatic mode of representing the world, a mode that is immensely versatile and effective, universal and timeless.

            It is possible that the scope of US in language is not, however, confined to representing word and concept meanings. The zoemes are also able to represent, in association with gestalt schemas, the larger conceptual scenarios of complex situations and events. We can distinguish between: 1. the micro-models of word and concept meaning; 2. the macro-models of both remembered and constructed scenarios; and 3. the meaning of phrases and sentences. There is, in fact, a hierarchy of models within experience, thought and discourse. They achieve the more complex levels of representation in a spatio-temporal mode abstracted from our normal experience. Here the zoemes may serve, not only as elements of the micro-models (which may be embedded in macro-models) but also of simulations of scenarios. This is comparable to a close-up picture of an object and one of a full scene. Both use the same repertoire of structure building and tones and lines and contrasts. Despite this commonality, the one is compact and exclusive while the other is expansive and inclusive.

            In this way the zoemes reveal a further possible capacity and function in such wider scenarios. Parallel with their capacity to provide structure for a narrow representation such as the meaning of a word, they are able to provide structure for the scenario in a way that encapsulates its significance for the observer and activates response (active or passive). Consistent with this capacity the zoemes appear to be able to function as operators that can generate macro-models’ equivalents to the grammatical structures of propositions in a (non-Fodorian) language of thought. For conceptual macro-models to operate in these larger scenarios (in memory, imagination or thought) they must utilise some structure that is the equivalent of the grammar and syntax of language. I propose that this proto-grammar is not UG nor the grammar of individual languages but an extension of the zoemes’ role in micro-models (words or concepts) to a role in structuring the representational simulation of worldly events and situations in macro-models (phrases, sentences) in liaison with the principle of similarity operating also at this level. The US is not a complement to Chomskyan UG. It contains its own grammar. The processes that I have been describing are pre-linguistic. They occur in an experience-based language of thought (radically different from Fodor’s) that is readily translatable into a natural language. The proposal outlined in this paragraph is still very tentative but it is underpinned by a strong conceptual possibility that is based on the contents of the rest of the paper.

11. Why were the seme and the Zoeme not discovered earlier?

        This is a reasonable question, particularly when the existence of the semes is fairly obvious once they have been identified, as I believe is the role of the zoemes in word meaning. It is even more puzzling in view of the simple process of uncovering the semes, as described in section 3.1. There are several reasons. One is that the conceptual appeal of saussurean arbitrariness has been so powerful that linguists have not been inclined to follow the simple clues that motivated my initial research––the fairly obvious common features of meaning in many of the most widely used words in sections of the dictionary such as b, l, n, p and r. Sound symbolism and onomatapoeia seemed to be the only exemptions to the hegemony of arbitrariness. In spite of the obvious clues, the wider presence of sematicity was clouded by several factors such as: the counterevidence of the overwhelming proportion of words throughout the dictionary that do not exhibit sematicity; the strong polarity of some sections that confuses the sematic pattern until polarity is recognized; the variety of ways in which sematicity is manifested In words; and the difficulty in identifying the sematic element in some sections of the dictionary. My decision to focus on the core words of the lexicon was a major factor in overcoming these obstacles. Yet another reason for the failure to identify the seme, I suspect, is that the type of research that led to the semes has been highly unfashionable through times when much sexier fields of linguistics were capturing the attention and enthusiasm of linguists all around the globe. There have, nonetheless, been close encounters with sematicity. The most notable, very early in the history of linguistics, was Wilhelm von Humboldt’s strong conviction that there was some form of pervasive association of sound and meaning. But no-one followed up on von Humboldt’s intuitions.

            The individual zoemes, on the other hand, are extremely prominent elements of human and organismal behaviour but they were obscured by the wealth of detail of our sensory experience. Their combination as structural features of interaction with the environment and perhaps as the mental code of the language of thought may never have been identified if sematicity had not come to light.

15. Conclusion.

            Word meanings and concepts are the building blocks of language and thought but their fundamental nature continues to be shrouded in uncertainty. Sematicity and the Zoeme are newcomers to linguistics and cognitive science that would seem, if further investigation substantiates the broad contentions I have made, to have the potential to unlock some of the mystery that has surrounded the nature of word and concept meaning and the fundamental form of our thought. If this is the case their implications are likely to be multifarious. I believe the evidence for the existence of the semes and zoemes is robust and that the arguments and internal evidence for my conclusions are sustainable and convincing. However, this paper is merely a beginning. There is a pressing need for critique of the findings I have presented and the interpretations I have made because they represent the work of one person and I have, unfortunately, been unable to engage in effective dialogue with authorities in the field for reasons I outlined in the introduction.


1.     For example, Hinton and Ohala, 1994 and Nanny and Fischer, 1999. Much earlier Jespersen devoted a useful chapter of his classic book Language: Its Nature Development and Origin (1922) to sound symbolism.

2.     The most assiduous workers in this field has been Anna Wierzbicka and Cliff Goddard who have developed an approach that is entirely different from mine, the identification of a minimum set of words/concepts in which any complex concept can be described (albeit in a cumbersome, roundabout fashion). The latest set I am aware of is around 54 words. Their semantic primitives have been derived from the study of numerous languages to test whether the existing set can express all conceivable word meanings. The sematic meanings represent a very different type of lexical primitive.

3.     It is interesting to compare the experiential categories with those of Aristotle and Kant. Aristotle’s ontological categories relate to the basic kinds of physical things and their interrelations. Any non-complex term essentially signifies something in one of the ten categories: a substance, a quantity, a quality, a relation, a place, a time, a position, a having, a doing or a being affected. In Kant’s case the categories are a priori modes of knowing: reality, negation, limitation; unity, plurality, totality; inherence and subsistence, causality and dependence, community; possibility–impossibility; existence–non-existence; necessity–contingency. Neither of these sets has much in common with the experiential categories in terms of the purpose for which they were formulated or the individual categories.

4.     Some fundamental concepts that might be expected to have a similar status to the extant zoemes are: up/down, upright/recumbent, moving/static, hard/soft, animate/inanimate, same/different, temporality, reciprocity, reflexivity.

5.     See Barsalou 1999 for a useful discussion. Over the last couple of decades there has been considerable controversy over the fundamental neural nature of word meaning. One school of thought holds that the representation of meaning is non-modal, that is, non-perceptual. It believes that “cognitive and perceptual representations constitute separate systems that work according to different principles” (Barsalou). Fodor (1979) and Pylyshyn (1984) are representative of this school. Human symbols are abstract and arbitrary like those of a computer system. Barsalou, on the other hand, holds that symbols are modal and analogical derivatives of the perceptual system. His view is strongly supportive of the argument of this paper. Kosslyn (1994) is another forceful advocate of the modal view of meaning.



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Annex 1. A full description of the ground factors.

The alpha factors.

m         Materiality • 1. Materiality; 2. association with materiality; 3. extendedness, horizontality,
............continuity; 4. magnitude, multiplicity; 5. measurement; 6.manipulation of materials;
............(7. immateriality, the mental).

p          Particularity • 1. Particularity, discreteness, specificity, compactness; 2. exclusivity; and
............the following character of things: 3. seriality; 4. slim and vertical; 5. long, thin and pointed;
............6. flat and bounded; 7. small and compact.

f           Surface • 1. Surface; 2. flatness; 3. the manipulation of surfaces; 4. physical, social and
............familial intimacy; (5. excessively detailed; 6. insubstantiality, unreliability).

b          Bodily roundness, natural  being • 1. The fullness of the human body; 2. things of a
............rounded, convex character; 3. natural being; 4. parameters of natural and human being;
............(5. violence, destruction; 6. lifelessness).

n          Contraction • 1. Contraction, compression, reduction, subtraction, exclusivity;
............2. negation. (3. dispersion)

y, j       Extension • 1. Extension, stretching; 2. continuous, ongoing; 3. personal and
............objective energy;  4. humour.

l           Display • 1. Display, manifestness, conspicuous visibility, salience; 2. illumination;
............(3. concealment, obscurity).

o          Openness • 1. Spatial openness; 2. personal openness; 3. possibility, opportunity;
...........(4. concealment, confinement, absence).

a          Action • 1. Action, activity; 2. largeness, enlargement; 3. locational parameters.

i           Smallness, interiority 1. Smallness; 2. interiority; 3. essence; 4. having an
............abstract or mental quality.

r          Intensity of energy • 1.  Intensity of energy; 2. activity, movement; 3. salience,
............(4. inactivity, rest).

k          Physical intensity • 1. Intensity in action or quality; 2. the prominence of parts of
............things, angularity; 3. the intensity and complexity, refinement and intricacy of things.


The beta factors

s          Somatic affect • 1.Somatic affect; 2. bodily actions; 3. sensations; 4. bodily excretions and
............secretions; 5. affective neutrality.

t           Tactility • 1. Touch, tactility, contact; 2. sensation; 3. pointing, deicity; 4. uprightness.

d          Positiveness / negativeness • 1. Bright, happy, good, favourable aspects of the world;
............2. Dark, sad, bad, unfavourable aspects.

v, z      Fullness / emptiness • 1. Fullness of explicit value (as expressed by previous zoemes);
...........2. fullness of intrinsic values such as positiveness, salience, forcefulness, presence, mindfulness,
...........high visibility; 3. physical fullness; (4. lack of explicit value; 5. emptiness, insubstantiality, lack,
............absence, negativeness; 6. capacity to contain).

g          Abundance, generosity • 1. Abundance, availability; 2. generosity, prodigality, care;
............3. productivity, effectiveness;(4. deprivation; 5. seeking, grasping).

h         Possession, self-interest • 1. Possession, acquisition; 2. want, desire, appetite; 3. self-interest;
...........4. subjectivity, personhood; (5. dispossession, loss, hostility,  threat, detriment.)

q          Uncertainty  •  1. Uncertainty, indeterminacy; (2. definitiveness, authority).      

u          Displacement • 1. Displacement, wrongness, dislocation, disorder, uselessness, discomfort;
............2. negation; 3. disparagement, (4. rightness, satisfaction, comfort, order and utility).

w         Existential value  •  1. The existential  significance and value of the everyday.

c, e      Lifeworlds  •  1. The communal and 2. physical lifeworlds.


Annex 2: A fuller description of the zoemes.

            This annex provides some further information on the semes and zoemes that will, I hope, increase reader’s comfort with this unfamiliar feature of language. I will work through the semes in the order of Table 3 that gives them more coherence than the alphabetical order. The examples of sematic words include all the basic-level words (in bold) as I have identified them and a diverse admixture of other words selected to illustrate the breadth and variety of sematic meanings. The examples of non-sematic words are confined to basic-level words. Polar meanings, where they are identifiable, are marked with an asterisk. As I have noted the decision as to whether a word is sematic is subjective. Sematicity is often quite obscure and sometimes marginal. I do not expect readers to agree with all my examples but I think the sematicity of the great majority will be fairly obvious. For each seme I will provide a fuller description of the sematic meaning than in the text (with polar meanings in brackets) before postulating, where possible, the articulatory motivation of each seme and setting out the examples. I also make some comments on individual zoemes.


m         Materiality    • 1. Materiality; 2. association with material things; 3. extendedness;
............4. horizontality; 5. continuity; 6. Magnitude, multiplicity; 7.measurement;
............8. manipulation of materials; (9. Immateriality, the mental).

/m/ is a continuant, labial, voiced consonant and each of these features is relevant to its sematicity. Phonological continuance is analogous to the normal extendedness of materials as opposed to specific objects. Labiality (frontality) is relevant because, as we will see, most labial consonants (m, f and p and also b to a degree), tend to have a sematic reference to the objective, external world as opposed to the subjective, affective and community-related entities that tend to align with sounds produced at the back of the mouth; and voice, for its consistency with the solidity of the material. This is also a nasal consonant but this feature has no obvious relevance.

Examples of sematic words.
(In perusing the examples it may be useful to relate them to the sub-categories set out above).

machine, macro-, magic*, magnet, magnificent, main, major, make, mammal, man, manipulate, manufacture, manure, many, marble, mass, material, matter, meal, mean (v)*, measure, meat, medium (n.), melt, memory*, mess, metal, metre, micro-, middle, milk, million, mind (n.)*, mineral, minor, mire, model, molecule, moment*, monument, mood*, more, mortal, most, mould (v,), mountain, move, much, muck, mud, multiple, muscle, music*, must, mystery*, myth*.

The few non-sematic basic-level words include: may, marry, morning, mourn.

            The sematic meanings emerge quite clearly from the m section of the English dictionary. The associative connections are not difficult to see. This sematic meaning is important as it often has a taxonomic role that I used in the zoemic formulae. It shares this role with a, c and e. As well as being an indicator of the vast material realm it identifies, through its polarity, the huge scope of the non-material and particularly the mental.

p          Particularity  •  1. Particularity, discreteness, specificity, compactness, focus;
............2. exclusivity; the following character of things: 3. items in series; 4. slim and vertical;
............5. long, thin and pointed; 6. flat and bounded; 7. small and compact.

This is described as a plosive, bi-labial, unvoiced stop. Again all three articulatory features contribute to the motivation of the meaning, the first is particularly iconic, the second is relevant as described under m, and the third has a possible effect in reinforcing the idea of smallness or limitedness that sometimes prevails.

pace (n.), pack, page, pain, panel, pang, pant, paradigm, paragon, parcel, parent, part, particular, pass, passage, patch, path, pattern, pause, pay, pea, peak, pebble, peck, peculiar, peg, pen, penetrate, penis, perceive, perch, peremptory, perfect, perform, perhaps, period, permit, persecute, person, perspective, persuade, pester, phase, pick, picture, piece, pierce, pile, pill, pillar, pin, pinch, pip, pipe, piss, pit, place, plan, plank, plant (v.), plate, plot, pocket, pod, poem, point, pole, pool, port, pose, position, possess, possible, postulate, pot, pour, power, practice, prank, pray, precious, preclude, prefer, premium, prepare, present, preserve, press, prevail, previous, price, prim, principle, print, private, prize, probe, produce, progress, profit, project, prominent, promise, proper, property, propose, protect, proto-, proud, prove, provide, pry, public*, pull, pulse, pump, punch, punctual, punish, pupil, pure, purpose, push, put, putt, pylon, pyramid. There is a mere handful of non-sematic basic-level words such as peace, pale, pig, pity, poison, pretend, pretty.  

            This is one of the clearest exemplars of sematicity. It also provides a good illustration of the way in which a sematic meaning can be extended metaphorically in many directions. The base meaning refers to the particulate nature of physical things like peas and pods but it is equally effective as part of the meaning of verbs such as pay, peck and put and more obliquely in perceive and persuade (with their focused natures) and possess and prefer. It also operates with general properties such as principle, private and possible. The meaning has an important taxonomic role in helping to narrow down the field of meaning before the specific descriptive factors are introduced. The seme appears to lack polarity but in effect it appears to be the pole of m.

f           Surface • 1. Surface; 2. flatness; 3. the manipulation of surfaces;
............4. social and family intimacy; (5. excessively detailed; 6. insubstantiality, unreliability).

The features of this sound are continuance, voicelessness and labio-dentality. The articulation is particularly apt because the light contact of the upper front teeth on the surface of the lower lip and the gentle continuous expression of breath between them is distinctly iconic.

fabric, face, facile, fact, fad*, fail, fall, false*, familiar, family, fancy*, far, farce*, farm, fashion*, fasten, fat, father, fault*, favour, feature, feel, feign*, fellow, female, fever, fiction*, field, fierce, fight, figure, fill, find, finger, fire, firm, fit (v.), fix, flag, flame, flash, flat, flatter, flaunt, flavour, flesh, flim-flam*, float, flood, floor, flow, flower, fluff*, fly, fold, follow, folk, food, for, force, form, fragile*, frame, fraud*, free, freeze, fresh, friend, frill*, from, front, frost, froth, fruit, fry, fuck, full, fun, function, fundamental, fur, fury, fuse (v.), fuzzy. And non-sematic: fast (a.), fate, few, final, first, fish, forest, forgive, fork, future.

            The intimacy feature (family, father, favour, fellow, female, fuck, fun) may appear anomalous. It seems to derive from the closeness of bodily surfaces in human situations. The polar meaning is particularly prominent in this seme.

b          Bodiliness, natural  being   •   1. The fullness of the human body; 2. things of a
........... rounded, convex character; 3. natural being; 4. parameters of natural and human
........... being; (5. violence, destruction; 6. lifelessness).                                                                        

This sound is the voiced equivalent of bilabial /p/ but in terms of meaning is more closely related to /f/. The addition of voice seems to contribute substance to the meaning. The main motivating factor may be the very slight puffing of the cheeks, possibly absent in /p/, as the sound is produced. This can be seen as iconic.

baby, back, bag, bake, bald, ball, balloon, bare, bash*, battle*, be, bead, bean, beast, beautiful, because, become, bee, bed, before, begin, behave, behind, believe, bell, belly, belong, below, bend, beneath, beside, best, better, between, big, bio-, bird, birth, blaze*, blood, bloom, blow (v.), boast, boat, body, bone, book, boot, bosom, bottle, bow, bowel, bowl, boy, brain, branch, brave, bread, break*, breast, breathe, breed, bring, broad, brother, brow, bruise (n.)*, bubble, bud, bug, build, bulb, bum, bump, bun, bunch, bundle, burly, burst, bury, bush, bust (n.), butter, buttock, button, buxom, by. Non-sematic words: bad, blade, blame, blind, blue, bridge, burn, busy, but, buy.

            The third and fourth meanings are somewhat obliquely connected but still credible features of the seme. The extension of the sematic meaning from bodily roundness to the very broad concept of natural being in the sense of living as opposed to inert things is made credible by the fact that bodily roundness is a hallmark of human and animal forms. There is however a much more tenuous, although arguable, connection with the final meaning which is evident in the become, begin, behave, believe, belong cluster and the because, before, behind, below cluster. There is a strong connection between this seme and those of f and p. The polarity I have identified may be more onomatapoeic than sematic. A polar relationship can be postulated between f and b on the basis of two distinctive types of surface.

n          Contraction   •   1. Contraction, compression, reduction, subtraction,
........... exclusivity; 2. Negation; (3. dispersion).

/N/ is a voiced, alveolar, nasal consonant. The distinctive pressure of the tip of the tongue on the alveolar ridge behind the upper front teeth together with nasality are very credible sources of iconicity.

nail, naive, naked, name, narrate, narrow, native, naught, nature, navel, navigate, near, nebula, necessary, neck, need, needle, neglect, neighbour, negotiate, nerve, ness-, nest, never, new, next, nexus, nibble, nice, nick, niggle, night, nil, nipple, nitpick, no, node, nominal, nook, noon, nose, not, notch, note, nothing, notion, noun, now, nuance, nub, nucleus, nugget, numb, number, nurture, nut, nuzzle. Non-sematic: nephew, net, niece, noise, north.

            The seme is straightforward. Metaphorical extension of the zoeme is again evident in words like name, narrate, native, navigate, new. Neither this not the next seme exhibit polarity in themselves because one is, in fact the pole of the other. 

y, j       Extension       •  1. Extension, stretching; 3. continuous, ongoing;
........... 3. personal and objective energy;  4. humour

These sounds are produced by very similar articulatory actions but have distinctive energetic features. The voicing of /j/ motivates the humour element.

yard (length and area), yarn (in both senses), yawn, year, yearn, yeast, yell, yelp, yes, yesterday, yet, yield, yoke, yonder, yore, you, young, yo-yo. Non-sematic: yellow, yolk.

Jab, jangle, jaunt, jazz, jealous, jeer, jerk, jest, jet, jiggle, jingle, jive, job, jocund, join, joke, jolly, jostle, journey, joy, jubilant, judge, juggle, juice, jump, just (a., adv.), jut, juxtapose.  Non-sematic: jaw (n.), jug.

It is surprising, and perhaps an anomaly of English, that something as specific as humour is represented in the zoemes. 

l     Display  •  1. Display, manifestness, conspicuous visibility, salience;
..... 2. illumination; (3. concealment, obscurity)

The main phonological features of /l/ are its alveolar position, its voice and its laterality (which refers to the spreading of the lips relative to other consonants). In articulatory terms it is distinguished by its characteristic release of the following vowel, its ejection into the world by the release of the tongue from the alveolar ridge, putting the meaning of the word on display, as it were. This and laterality are motivating factors.

lack*, laconic*, lady, lament, lamp, land, language, large, laugh, laud, launch, law, lazy*, lead (v.), leaf, leap, learn, leave, lecherous, leer, lend, less*, let, letter, libation, library, lick, lie (v. position), lie (v., n. falsehood)*, life, lift, light (n., a.), like (v., adv.), limbo*, line, lip, list, listen, litany, literal, little, live (v., a.), livery, load, lock*, locution, look, loose, lord, lose*, lot, loud, lour, love, low, lucid, luck, luminous, lure, lust, lyric. Non-sematic: lamb, lame, lean (v.), left (a.), leg, lemon, lion, liver, lung.

            This is a paradigm of sematicity.

o          Openness  •  1. Spatial openness; 2. personal openness; 3. possibility,
........... opportunity, (4. concealment, confinement, absence)           

This is described as a mid-back, rounded or labial vowel. The motivating feature seems to be the size and orb-like shape of the oral cavity.

oath, obey, obfuscate*, object (n., v.), oblige, obliterate*, observe, obstruct*, obtain, obvious, occasion, occult*, occupy, occur, odour, of, off, offer, often, oh, omit*, on, once, one, only, opaque*, open, opinion, opportunity, oppress*, option, or, orb, oral, order, ordinary, organ, organise, orgasm, origin, ornament, other, ostensible, ought, our, out, over, overlook, owe, own. Non-sematic: odd, oil, old.

            Oath, obey, oblige, ought, owe, own are interesting extensions of the core meaning. This seme has much in common with l, despite their very different articulation, and they are often paired naturally in the meaning of words.

a          Action, largeness   •   1. Action; 2. largeness, enlargement; 3. locational parameters.

This is a back vowel formed with an open mouth with tongue and lips relaxed. The openness and size of the oral cavity underlies the largeness meaning while action may be a natural extension through the notion of actions normally causing some form of enlargement or enhancement.

a, able, -able, about, above, absolute, abundant, accept, accumulate, achieve, acquire, across, act (v., n.), actual, adapt, add, admire, adopt, adore, adorn, advance, advantage, adventure, advise, affair, affect (n., v.), afford, after, again, agent, aggregate,  agree, aid, aim, alive, all, allow, almost, along, already, also, although, always, amalgamate, amass, ambition, among, amount, and, announce, another, answer, anticipate, any, appeal, appear, apply, appreciate, approach, approve, area, argue, arise, around, arrange, arrive, art, as, ascend, ask, assemble, assert, assist, associate, astonish, at, attach, attack, attain, attempt, attract, augment, avail, avoid, awake, away, awe. Non-sematic: absent, age, air, alone, animal, apple, arm.

            This is a rather difficult seme. The sematicity is confused, hard to determine and tenuous in one important group of words (the locational parameters), although arguable. There is quite a strong connection between the first two elements but the third is something of an anomaly, although consistent with the second.

i           Smallness, interiority       1. Smallness; 2. interiority; 3. essence;
........... 4. having an abstract or mental quality.

The articulation of the several /i/ sounds contrasts with that of /a/. It has a frontal character and is formed with a raised tongue that restricts the size of the oral cavity. The sematic iconicity lies here.

I, icon, idea, identity, idle, if, ill, image, imitate, immediate, important*, impression, in, inborn, incident, include, increase*, indicate, individual, infer, inferior, infinite*, influence, information, inhabit, injure, inquire, innate, innocent, insect, insight, insist, inspect, instant, instead, instill, instinct, intellect, intelligent, intend, intense, interest, intermediate, internal, interpret, interval, intervene, intimate (adj.), intuition, intricate, intrinsic, introduce, introverted, inure, invent, investigate, invite, invoke, involve, irony, island, isolate, it, itch, item. Non-sematic: ice, indeed, infant, insult, ignore.

            In and the prefix in- have a big influence. The double nature of this sematic meaning parallels that of a. The smallness meaning occurs much more frequently in non-initial positions as in bit, fit, mite, nit, sit, tit.

r          Intensity of energy   •  1.  Intensity of energy; 2. activity, movement;
........... 3. salience, (4. Inactivity, rest).                            

/R/ is described as a voiced alveolar consonant. The relevant iconic features of its articulation are the tense lateral curvature of the tongue and the presence of voice.

rabid, race (v.), ragged, rage, raid, rain*, raise, rally, ramble*, rampant, rancour, ransack, rant, rape, rapid, rare*, rat, ravage, rave, raw, re-, reach, real, reap, rear (v.), reason, rebel (v.), reckless, recline*, rectify, recur, refer, reflect*, refuse, regress, reinforce, reject, rejoice, relate, relax*, relieve, rely*, remain*, remember, remote*, remove, renown, repeat, repel, repent, reply, report, repose*, represent, require, rescue, research, resemble, resent, reside*, respond, rest*, resurrect, retire*, retreat*, return, reveal, revel, revenge, revere, rich, rid, ride, ridicule, right, rigid, rise, risk, riot, rip, roam*, roar, rob, rocket, root, rot, rough, round, rouse, rout, row (v., n.), rub, ruck, rude, ruin, rumbustious, rumour*, run, rush

Nonsematic: rather, rear (back), red, responsible, river, road, roof, room, rope, rose, royal, rust.

            This section is notable for the easily observable scale of its sematicity from pole to pole.

k         Physical intensity  •   1. Intensity in action or physical quality;
.......... 2. the prominence of parts of things, angularity; 3. the intensity,
.......... complexity, refinement and intricacy of things.

There is a fine distinction to be made between the articulation of this sound and that of /k/ of the c section. The letter k in English is followed only by /e/, /i/ and /n/ and, as a consequence, has a different articulation from c, the sound of which is influenced by its following vowels and consonants. This /k/ is an unvoiced palatal plosive while the c sound is formed further back in the velar region. The result of this fairly small distinction, surprisingly, is a large difference in terms of sematic meaning. Along with other more frontal consonants (labial and alveolar) the palatal /k/’s sematic meaning refers predominantly to the physical external world while the velar /k/, together with /g/ and /h/ with their relative backness, refer predominantly to the communal and personal worlds.   

keen, keep, key, kibble, kick, kill, kin, kind (a., n.), kindle, kinetic, king, kink, kiss, knead, knee, knife, knit, knock, knot, know, knuckle. Non-sematic: kettle, kid, kidney, kitchen, kitten.

            A small but effective seme. K and n have mutually reinforcing meanings.


s          Somatic affect, the body   •   1. Somatic affect; 2. related to
.......... the body; 3. bodily actions; 4. sensations; 5. bodily excretions
.......... and secretions; (6. affective neutrality).

/S/ is an alveolar fricative formed by a rather a near contact between tongue tip and the ridge separated by the escaping breath. The motivational force of this articulation on meaning is hard to determine.

As this is the largest section of the English dictionary the examples are confined to basic-level words.

sacred, sad, safe, sake, salt, same, save, say, scar, scare, scarce, scream, secret, see, seem, self, semen, send, sense, separate, serious, set, sex, shape, shame, share, sharp, she, shift, shit, shock, shout, show, shy, sick, sign, silence, simple, sin, sing, sit, size, skill, sleep, small,  smell, smile, so, soft, son, song, soon, sore, sorrow, soul, sound, space, speak, spend, sperm, spit, spoil, spread, stain, stand, start, starve, stay, steal, steep, stench, step, stiff, still, straight, stop, store, strange, stretch, strong, struggle, stupid, such, suck, suffer, suggest, sure, surface, sweat, sweet, swim. Non-sematic: sand, scatter, scene, school, sea, season, seed, sell, seven, sheep, sheet, shell, ship, shoe, shop, shore, short, shut, side, since, sister, six, sky, slip, slow, smoke, snow, soil, spare, speed, spill, spot, spray, spring, square, star, state, stone, storm, stream, street, spring, substance, summer, sun, sweep.  

             This is quite a disparate seme that involves a range of things associated with the body. The first meaning, which manifests in many different ways as in sacred, sad, safe, scare, scarce, secret, seem, occurs widely without sematicity in word meanings. The number of non-sematic basic-level words is unusually high. There is no detectible polarity here but there may be a polar relationship

with t based on interiority and exteriority.

t          Tactility   •   1. Touch, tactility, contact; 2. sensation;
.......... 3. pointing, deicity; 4. uprightness. 

This is a voiceless alveolar plosive. It is formed by a brief light touch of the tip of the tongue on the alveolar ridge before a sharp emission of breath. The brevity and lightness of that contact becomes intensely meaningful in motivating the meaning.

table, tackle, tactics, tail, take, talk, tall, tamper, tangent, tangle, target, task, taste, tattoo, taunt, taut, teach, tear (v.), tease, tell, tempt, tenable, tenacious, tend, tension, test, text, than, that, the, theft, their, then, thence, there, these, thick, thin, thing, think, thirst, this, thistle, thorn, thrash, threaten, throb, through, throw, thus, thwart, tickle, tight, tingle, tiny, tip, tired, titivate, title, to, toe, together, toil, tone, tongue, tool, too, tooth, top, toss, touch, tough, toy, trace, track, trail, trait, trample, tread, tree, tremble, trickle, trigger, trouble, true, trust, turn, tweak, twine, twinge, twist, twitch. Non-sematic: tame, tear (n.), ten, thank, thousand, three, throat, tide, time, today, tomorrow, town, tribe, twenty, two.

The kinship with s is the strong but distinctive sensory elements in both sections. Their association in the st words with the meaning of verticality and stability has the appearance of being more than a case of phonesthesia as the meaning has the primality of a zoeme. As such it would complement the extendedness and horizontality of m and fill one of the apparent gaps in the zoemic scheme. The th sound has no effect on sematicity. In contrast to its apparent counterpart, s, this seme is very robust.

d         Positiveness / negativeness   •   1. Positive, bright, good,
.......... happy, favourable aspects of the world; (2. negative, bad, sad,
.......... dark, unfavourable  aspects of the world).

This is the voiced counterpart of /t/ but there is no sematic similarity. I cannot identify any obvious connection here between sound and sematic meaning.

dance, danger*, dare, dark*, darling, daughter, dawn, day, dazzle, de-*, dead*, deaf*, debilitate*, debt*, decay*, decent, decide, declare, decline*, decorate, decrease*, dedicate, deed, deem, deep, defeat*, definite, deform*, defunct*, deity, dejected*, delete*, delight, deliver, demise*, deny*, depress*, deprive*, descend*, deserve, desire, despair*, destiny, deteriorate*, develop, devote, dew, diamond, die*, different, difficult*, dignity, diminish*, dinner, dire*, dirt*, disappear*, disappoint*, disaster*, discover, disgrace*, disgust*, display, distress*, divine, do, doom*, doubt,* down*, dread*, dream, dress, drink, drop (v.)*, dull*, dumb*, dwell, dynamic. Non-sematic: date, deal, dig, direct, dish, distance, dog, door, drag, draw, drift, drip, drive, dry, due, dust, duty.

            This seme is less clear-cut than might be expected for such a crucial manifestation of the beta zoeme. However it is important, alongside the other beta zoemes, in its role of triggering response.

v, z      Fullness / emptiness  •  1. Fullness of explicit value
.......... (as expressed by previous zoemes); 2. Fullness of intrinsic values
.......... such as positiveness, salience, forcefulness, presence, mindfulness,
.......... high visibility; 3. physical fullness; (4. lack of explicit value; 5. emptiness,
.......... insubstantiality, lack, absence, negativeness; 6. capacity to contain).

Articulation (v and z).
These two sounds are the voiced counterparts of /f/ and /s/ respectively. Both have a marked vibrancy that may be the source of the motivation of the meanings. F and v have some similarity in the the negative pole of f is comparable to the emptiness meaning, but s and z have little in common in terms of sematic meaning.

Examples (v).
Vacant*, vacuum*, vague*, vain*, valid, valley*, vanish*, vanquish, vantage, vapour*, vary*, vast, vaunt, vehement, veil*, vein*, velocity, veneer*, venerate, vengeance, venture, veracity, verb, verify, vertical, very, vessel*, vestige*, vibrant, vicarious*, vicissitude*, victim*, victory, view, vigour, vindicate, violence, virgin, virtue, vision, visit, vista, vital, vivacious, vivid, vocal, voice, void*, volume, vomit*, voracious, voyage, vow, vowel, vulgar*, vulnerable*, vulva*. Non-sematic: vine, vote.

Examples (z).
Zany*, zap, zeal, zen*, zenith, zephyr*, zero*, zest, zig-zag, zing, zip, zombie*, zone*, zonked*, zoo, zoom. Non-sematic: None.

            The strongly polar v zoeme occurs very widely in the zoemic analysis of word meaning. It has an important function in indicating degrees of salience of specific qualities.

g         Abundance, generosity   • 1. Abundance, availability; 2. generosity,
.......... prodigality, care; 3. Productivity, effectiveness; (4. deprivation;
.......... 5. seeking, grasping).

This is a voiced velar stop. Its position of formation is further back in the mouth than any consonant apart from /h/. This sound, together with /h/ and velar /c/ form a small group that is characterised semantically by their reference to the communal and personal as opposed to the external and impersonal which is often associated with frontal consonants.

gain, game, garden, garland, garment, garner, gasp*, gather, gay, gear, genealogy, general, generous, generate, genuine, geography, get, giant, gift, girl, give, glad, glamour, gleam, glee, globe, gloom*, glory, glutton, gnosis, go, goal, god, gold, good, gorgeous, gormandise*, govern, grab*, grace, grail, grand, grandeur, grant, grasp*, grass, gratify, gravity, great, greed*, greet, gregarious, grief*, grip*, gross, ground, group, guess, guest, guide, gulf, gush, gust, gusto, gut, guzzle*. Non-sematic: gas, glide, grey, grind, groan, gun.

            This and the following sematic meaning, and indeed all the beta meanings, have a powerful biological rationale. Although both these semes have poles of their own there is a deep polarity between the two.

h         Possession,    self-interest  • 1. Possession, acquisition; 2. want, desire;
.......... 3. self-interest; 4. of a subjective nature; (5. dispossession, loss, hostility,
.......... threat detriment).

The sound is described as a voiceless glottal fricative, pure breath. It is formed with a small heave of the chest, the deepest articulatory action of any sound in English. This may be the motivational element.

habit, habitat, hall, hand, handle, happen, happy, harem, harm*, harvest, hate*, have, haven, head, heal, health, heap, hear, heart, hearth, hedonist, heaven, heir, hell*, hello, help, here, heredity, hero, hibernate, history, hither, hoard, hobby, hold, holiday, holy, home, -hood, hope, hospitality, host, house, how, huddle, hug, human, humble, humour, hurt*, husband. Non-sematic: hair, half, hammer, hang, hard, hat, high, hill, hit, honey, hook, horse, hour, hundred, hurry.

The non-sematic group is unusually large but the seme is robust.

q          Uncertainty  • 1. Uncertainty; 2. indeterminacy; (3. definiteness, authority).

This letter occurs in English only in association with u. The first component of this composite sound is a back velar /k/. The motivational force is difficult to determine.

quagmire, quaint, quake, quality*, qualm, quantity*, quark, quarrel, quasi-, queer, quench*, quest, question, quibble, quiet, quintessence*, quirk, quite*, quiz, quorum*, quota*, quote*. Non-sematic: quick.

            This is another important beta zoeme in its function of signalling uncertainty that needs to be resolved. Its pole, which anomalously carries a negative sign, has a significant affirming function.

u         Displacement • 1. Displacement, dislocation,  wrongness, uselessness, discomfort;
.......... 2. negation; 3. disparagement, (4. consonance, order and utility).

The vowel is distinguished by its backness which is more extreme than that of any other vowel in English. This may be the source of its motivation.

ubiquitous, ugly, ultimate, umbra, un-, unable, uncertain, unconscious, under, understand*, undo, undress, undue, uneasy, unfair, unfit, unhappy, uniform*, union*, unintelligible, unique*, unison*, unit*, universal, unless, unlikely, unreal, unrest, unseen, untenable, unthinkable, untie, unusual, unwell, up, upright, upset, urge, urgent, use*, useful*, useless, usual*, utensil*, utility*, utmost, utopia, utter (v.), utter (a.). Non-sematic: uncle, us.

            Q and u have quite similar meanings and functions. That this is not a consequence of their conjunction in q words is demonstrated by the robustness of the u seme. Like q, u has a polar meaning that is distinctly positive although it bears the negative sign because the negative sense of the seme is dominant.

w         Existential     value  •  1. The existential  significance and value of the everyday.

This is a voiced labial semi-vowel with a unique form of articulation. It is one of the most involved and energetic oral gestures in English. It seems to be an appropriate vehicle for such a rich experiential load.

wage, wait, walk, wall, want, war, warm, wash, waste, watch, water, wave, way, we, weak, wealth, weapon, wear, weary, weather, weave, web, wed, weed, weep, weigh, welcome, welfare, well, wet, what, wheat, wheel, when, where, while, whisper, white, who, whole, whore, why, wicked, wide, widow, wield, wife, wild, will, win, wind, window, wine, wing, winter, wipe, wise, wish, wit, with, woe, woman, womb, wonder, woo, wood, wool, word, work, worm, worry, worse, worship, worth, wound, wrap, wreck, write, wrong. Non-sematic: None.

            This seme has a magnificent sweep but is something of an anomaly in that it lacks the specificity of meaning that most of the others carry. It is unique in this respect. The meaning has something in common with q (especially the interrogative wh words) and with v in a quite pronounced polarity. W is, nonetheless, extremely robust as is evidenced by the absence of non-sematic basic-level words. The meaning is almost co-terminous with basic-level.

c, e      Lifeworlds      • 1. The communal and 2. physical lifeworlds

The motivational basis of these semes can be ascribed with reasonable confidence. In the case of c it is the backness of the velar position that, as with g and h is indicative of the communal and personal, the domestic and interior aspects of human existence. We have the reverse situation with e. As this is the most frontal of the vowels it is well placed to carry the meaning of external and independent.

call, can, care, carry, catch, cause, chair, chance, change, child, choose, church, clean, clear, clever, climb, clock, close, clothes, coat, cock, cold, colour, come, compare, complain, connect, consider, contain, cook, copy, corner, cost, cough, count, country, cover, cow, crack, crawl, create, crooked, crowd, cruel, crush, cry, cup, cure, cut. Non-sematic: circle, climate, cloud.

each, ear, early, earth, east, easy, eat, edge, effect, effort, egg, either, element, else, empty, end, enemy, enough, equal, even, evening, ever, every, evil, exact, except, exist, expect, eye. Non-sematic: emotion, enable, encourage, enjoy, excite, explore.

            The two semes are important in the sematic system in that they serve a taxonomic function of indicating which of two very broad realms the sense of a word belongs to. They provide the initial constraint for narrowing down the sense of words. They are, however, problematic because their meanings are so inclusive as to almost subvert the idea of sematicity. In spite of this feature we can attribute sematic meanings with reasonable confidence. The basic-level examples illustrate a fairly clear distinction between the regions of meaning of each seme. The small number of non-sematic basic-level words is testimony to the validity of the meanings. The examples are confined to basic-level words of each of these large sections.

Sound of meaning – March 2009.