Semantic primitives

Short description

This page introduces the semantic primitives of IEML, or building blocks, from which IEML elements are built: S, B, T, U, A, E. In order to give IEML an optimal computability, Pierre Lévy had to use the smallest possible number of elementary meaning units. But this constraint conflicts with the need to get enough meaning units – (between 5.000 and 10.000) in the dictionary for the langage to be enough expressive. Indeed, it is impossible to generate several thousands of diverse meaning units just by combining the letters of a small semantic alphabet. The solution to this problem is the following.

  1. We are going to use six semantic elements, represented by capital letters. The semantic primitives are:
    S (sign), B (being), T (thing), U (virtual), A (actual), and E (emptiness).
  2. Since IEML letters hold meaning, they are not mere sounds but also concepts, or rather elementary morphemes. But if each of these letters represents a « master signified », it also represents a pure and simple position in a symmetry structure, a position that can accommodate a great variety of meanings while remaining in the domain of computability.
    For example, S means « sign », B means « being » or interpreter and T means « thing » or referent. But S/B/T is not limited to the semiotic triangle: this triad can be used to represent any ternary semantic structure such as: future/present/past or left/centre/right.
    The six semantic primitives are organized by four symmetries: a monad (E), a dyad virtual/actual (U/A), a triad sign/being/thing (S/B/T) and a pentad (U/A/S/B/T).

Further on, we will give an historical and philosophical context for the choice of the semantic primitives. Generally speaking, these letters and the concepts they represent play an important role in the making of meaning. In order to empower collective intelligence, a language must possess the power of representation which involves at least three conceptual elements playing distinct roles: sign, being and thing.

  • Sign (S) A sign is an entity or an event that means something for someone. By extension, the semantic primitive « sign » points to symbols, documents, languages, representations, concepts, and anything that is semantically close to code, message or knowledge.
  • Being (B) A being is a subject or an interpreter. It can be a human, a group, an animal, a machine or whatever entity or process endowed with self-reference and interpretation. By extension, « being » refers to psychic interiority, the mind, the ability to conceive or interpret, intentions, emotions, people, their relationships, communities, societies and values.
  • Thing (T) Labeled by a sign, a thing is often called an object or a referent. By extension, « thing » categorizes what we are talking about, objects (abstract or concrete), contextual elements. It also refers to bodies, tools, technology, material equipment, empowerment, power, and efficiency.

For human beings doted with reasoning, actions (or the practical dimension of existence) oscillate between the virtual, a dynamic cloud of memories, tensions and possibilities, and the actual, a spatiotemporal reality. So, two semantic primitives were added:

  • Virtual (U) The virtual denotes the potential, the soul, the abstract, the immaterial or the transcendental dimension of human experience. In IEML, virtuality is symbolized by U instead of V because we chose the virtual/actual dialectic to be represented by vowels (and there is no distinction between U and V in Latin).
  • Actual (A) The actual represents the effectiveness, the body, what is concrete, tangible, material or any immanent aspect of reality.

Finally, there is a sixth primitive, as essential to the IEML alphabet as zero is to the numerical notation.

  • Emptiness (E) Emptiness expresses the absence, void, zero, silence, etc.

Historical and philosophical context for the semantic primitives

The choice for the IEML semantic primitives is not just the result of a personal reflexion : they are concepts inherited from ancient scholarly traditions, originating from deep human experience, meaning, and learning.

Sign, being, thing

We have to go back in time to better understand the value and importance of the concepts of sign, being and thing, and why they were specifically chosen as semantic primitives for IEML.

The tradition begins with Aristotle in his treatise called « On interpretation« . In this text, the Prince of philosophers is the first to distinguish between the written or spoken symbol (sign), the state of mind of a subject (being) and the thing denoted by a speech (thing). This initial tripartite conception was further developed by Latin philosophers of the Middle Ages under the concepts of: vox (sign), conceptus (being) and res (thing). Later, the same semiotic triangle was refined by Charles S. Peirce, an american philosopher of the 19th century, who differentiated the foundation of the sign, the interpreter and the object. Following, are some examples of this ternary dialectic in fields of linguistics, logic, epistemology and political theory.

Parallel to ancient and medieval thinking, contemporary linguistic analysis discern between three different aspects of language: the arrangement of signifying elements (syntax/relating to sign), the network of signifieds evoked by a phonetic string (semantics/relating to being), and the effect of an enunciation in a social context (pragmatics/relating to thing).

In logic, a proposition (sign), a judgment (being), and a state of things (thing) are inseparable. A judgment determines whether a proposition corresponds, yes or no, to a state of things, and a proposition is considered true if it contains the right description of a state of things.

From an epistemological point of view (the theory of scientific knowledge), and not surprisingly, the same ternary dialectic can be used in the analysis of today’s scientific communities activity. Sign corresponds to a theorization, or modeling phase. Thing fits the distinct period of observation or experimentation. And finally, being corresponds to a collective judgment of the peers that is carried out via publications, quotations, reputation and validation by academic institutions.

Now, let’s see if our three concepts can be applied to a political dimension. Within government, the distinction between the legislative, judicial, and executive powers was first theorized by John Locke (1632-1704) and Charles Louis de Montesquieu (1689-1755). Their separation is considered one of the foundations for liberal democracy, by protecting the freedom of citizens against too strong a concentration of governmental power. Legislative power corresponds to sign because the main function of legislative assemblies and parliaments is to write and amend texts of laws. The judicial power corresponds to being because it investigates the nature of real cases, interprets laws, and decides which cases are covered by which laws. Finally, the executive power corresponds to thing because it is concerned with the effective implementation of laws and law enforcement. By the way, the dichotomy between society and government correlates to the opposition between virtual (government) and actual (society).

There are many other examples for the dialectic of sign, being and thing in various fields of humanities and social sciences as illustrated in the IEML paradigmatic tables

Virtual and actual

The abstract indeterminacy of the virtual is opposed to the concrete delimitation of the actual. The actual has a spatio-temporal address, it is located in sequential time and three-dimensional physical space (for example: a decision of justice is taken by such a court, on a specific day), whereas one cannot assign a precise spatio-temporal address to the virtual (for example: where does the idea of justice resides?). In a virtual/actual dialectic, two different kinds of realities follow one another and co-produce each other, like in the example of the virtuality of a seed that can produce an actual tree. Many dialectics in humanities and social sciences abide by this pattern. The virtual/actual cycle drives a dynamic of potentialities and realizations, problems and solutions, strategy (in relation to a virtual goal) and tactics (relationships of actual means), activity and passivity…

Projected onto the cosmos, the virtual/actual polarity draws the couple of Heaven (intangible and distant) and Earth (concrete, tangible), which is found in many cultures. In ancient China, the opposition between the enlightened side of a mountain and its shady slope is at the origin of the duality between Yang (virtual/male) and Yin (actual/female). For example, in the I-Ching, an ancient oracular manual, the figure of Heaven is represented by a trigram composed of three unbroken lines (Yang) while that of the Earth is formed by three broken lines (Yin).

Here is again an example in another field : the distinction between classes (virtual) and elements (actual) is indispensable to logical reasoning. Although essential to human cognition, classes or sets can’t be known empirically. We are able to touch or see a human being – that is, an actual element of the class – but never humanity in general. Humanity, like all general categories, is an abstract or virtual object. But despite its abstraction, humanity exists in our thoughts and is involved in many of our reasonings, passions and real actions.

Lastly, in philosophy the distinction between mind (virtual) and matter (actual), or body and soul, is found everywhere. The Platonic opposition between intelligible and tangible worlds is fundamental to the philosophical tradition and this opposition has been carried on in various forms in the course of the history of ideas. The two Cartesian substances, thought and extension, is one of its most well-known avatars.


If we want to describe and understand meaning, we have to distinguish between something (anything) and nothing. The symbolization of emptiness is inherent to reflexive thought: there are marks for silence in musical notation, a digit for zero in current arithmetic notation, blanks and margins on written pages, etc. Even the mathematical theory of communication recognizes noise (absence of pattern) and calculates it. Emptiness (E) contrasts with fullness, i.e. with the other five semantic primitives.

In IEML, the emptiness primitive helps us distinguish between fact (fullness) and fiction (emptiness). Emptiness accounts for the unknown, the open space and the inevitable finitude of human experience. Although conceptually distinct, emptiness and fullness are co-dependent. In Socratic philosophy, wisdom is neither ignorance (emptiness) nor knowledge (fullness), but the knowledge of ignorance that opens to endless learning.

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