Cognitive Cultural Semantics

A Nordic Guide to Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM)


  • Carsten Levisen
  • Susana S. Fernández
  • Jan Hein


cultural semantics, cognitive semantics, Nordic languages, Nordic semantics, cultural keywords, natural semantic metalanguage (NSM)


As human beings, we live profoundly meaning-centred lives. But the words and meanings we live by, and the discourse rituals of our daily interactions, most often escape our conscious awareness. This is why the role of linguistic analysis is to “light up the thick darkness of language”, as Benjamin Lee Whorf put it (1956:73), and “thereby much of the thought, the culture, and the outlook upon life of a given community” (ibid). In one of her early visionary works on linguistic semantics, Anna Wierzbicka (1980:22) stated: “this is what semantics is very largely about: the exploration of the depths of our consciousness”. The study of semantics brings together what we have all too often compartmentalized as "language and culture” and “lexicon and grammar”. United by the holistic attempt to understand and illuminate meaning, semanticists have a question space that stands out. Unlike the political scientist who might ask “what is democracy?”, or the biologist who might ask “what is an animal?”, semanticists frame their questions differently: “what does democracy mean?”, and “what does animal mean?”. Semantic studies centre on what words mean to speakers in a given community, and successful semantic analyses capture “emic” perspectives: insider construals of meaning, rather than the views, definitions, and registers of experts and outside observers. The contributors to this special issue all share the idea that the meaning of words intersects with habitual ways of thinking and knowing (roughly, the “cognitive” aspect), and more broadly with ways of living (roughly, the “cultural” aspect), and the approach to semantics that we seek to advance can therefore be called “cognitive cultural semantics”. We also share an approach and a methodology, namely, the “natural semantic metalanguage”, or NSM approach for short, and its method of paraphrase. 



How to Cite

Levisen, C., Fernández, S. S., & Hein, J. (2022). Cognitive Cultural Semantics: A Nordic Guide to Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM). Scandinavian Studies in Language, 13(1), 1–38. Retrieved from