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3.2: Lexical Differences Among Languages

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    3.2 Lexical Differences Among Languages

    3.2.1 Some Reasons Languages Differ Lexically

    So far we have endowed our Lexies with an amazing capacity, one that to date has only been found among human beings. Over the generations, they can now invent a very large store of labels for individuals and categories of things in the world (even categories of things not in the world). And, equally important, they can pass on this store of labels to their children.

    Now let’s imagine various tribes of Lexies in different parts of the world with no contact with each other. Each tribe will experience a different environment, containing its own potentially unique set of animals and plants and its own climate and geology. Each tribe will invent words for the things in its environment that matter to it, and we will naturally expect to find words for different things in each tribe. Modern languages also differ from each other in this way. Amharic has a word for hippopotamus because hippopotamuses are found in Ethiopia, but Inuktitut does not because hippopotamuses are not found (normally) in northern Canada.

    We can also expect the cultures of the different tribes of Lexies to differ. This will result in several differences in their store of words. First, certain naturally occurring things will become more important. A tribe that makes pots out of clay will want a word for clay; another tribe may not bother. Second, as culture develops, there will be more and more cultural artifacts, that is, objects produced by the members of the culture. Naturally the tribe will want words for these as well, and if they are not producing them, they will not have such words. Finally, culture results in abstractions, concepts that do not represent (physical) things in the world at all: political units, social relationships, rituals, laws, and unseen forces. These will vary a great deal in their details from tribe to tribe, and we can expect these differences to be reflected in the words that each tribe comes up with.

    Culture and Nouns

    Modern languages also differ from each other in these ways. Amharic has the word agelgil meaning a leather-covered basket that Ethiopians used traditionally to carry prepared food when they traveled. Other languages don’t have a word for this concept. English now has the word nerd to refer to a particular kind of person who is fascinated with technology and lacking in social skills. This is a relatively new concept, specific to certain cultures, and there is probably no word for it in most languages.

    3.2.2 Differences Within and Among Languages


    Languages such as English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and Japanese have many specialized terms for computers and their use, whereas many other languages, such as Tzeltal and Inuktitut, do not. Does this represent some kind of fundamental limitation of these languages?

    Finally, we can also expect the store of words to vary among the individuals within each tribe. As culture progresses, experts emerge, people who specialize in agriculture or pottery or music or religion. Each of these groups will invent words that are not known to everyone in the tribe. Modern languages also have this property. A carpenter knows what a hasp is; I have no idea. I know what a morpheme is because I’m a linguist, but I don’t expect most English speakers to know this.

    This brings up an important distinction, that between the words that a language has and the words that an individual speaker of the language knows. Because some speakers of languages such as Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, and Japanese have traveled all over the world and studied the physical environments as well as the cultures they have found, these languages have words for concepts such as hippopotamus and polygamy, concepts that are not part of the everyday life of speakers of these languages. Thus it is almost certainly true that Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, and Japanese have more words than Amharic, Tzeltal, Lingala, and Inuktitut.

    But this fact is of little interest to linguists and other language scientists, who, if you remember, are concerned with what individual people know about their language (and sometimes other languages) and how they use this knowledge. There is no evidence that individual speakers of English or Japanese know any more words than individual speakers of Amharic or Tzeltal.

    Where New Words Come From

    Furthermore, if a language is lacking a word for a particular concept, it is a simple matter for the speakers of the language to add a new word when they become familiar with the concept. One way for this to happen is through semantic extension of an existing word; we saw this earlier with mouse in English. Another way is to create a new word out of combinations of old words or pieces of old words; we will see how this works in in Chapter 5 and Chapter 8. A third, very common, way is to simply borrow the word from another language. Thus English speakers borrowed the word algebra from Arabic; Japanese speakers borrowed their word for “bread,” pan, from Portuguese; Amharic speakers borrowed their word for “automobile,” mekina, from Italian; and Lingala speakers borrowed their word for “chair,” kiti, from Swahili.

    3.2.3 Lexical Domains: Personal Pronouns

    What are the differences between the personal pronouns you and you guys? (There are at least two differences.)

    More interesting than isolated differences in the words that are available in different languages is how the concepts within a particular domain are conveyed in different languages. We’ll consider two examples here, personal pronouns and nouns for kinship relations; we’ll look at others later on when we discuss words for relations.

    A complete set of personal pronouns in my dialect of English includes the following: I, me, you, she, her, he, him, it, we, us, you guys, they, them. Note that I’m writing you guys as two words, but in most important ways it behaves like one word. For our present purposes, we can ignore the following group: me, her, him, us, them; we’re not really ready to discuss how they differ from the others. Among the ones that are left, let’s consider how they differ from each other. We have already seen how they differ with respect to person: I and we are first person; you and you guys are second person; she, he, it, and they are third person. We can view person as a dimension, a kind of scale along which concepts can vary. Each concept that varies along the dimension has a value for that dimension. The person dimension has only three possible values, first, second, and third, and each personal pronoun has one of these values.

    Person is not just a conceptual dimension; it is a semantic dimension because the different values are reflected in different linguistic forms. That is, like words, semantic dimensions have both form and meaning. When we speak of “person,” we may be talking about form, for example, the difference between the word forms I and you, about meaning, for example, the difference between Speaker and Hearer, or about the association between form and meaning.

    But person alone is not enough to account for all of the differences among the pronouns. It does not distinguish I from we, for example. These two words differ on another semantic dimension, number. I is singular: it refers to an individual. We is plural: it refers to more than one individual. What values are possible on the number dimension? Of course languages have words for all of the different numbers, but within the personal pronouns, there seem to be only the following possibilities: singular, dual (two individuals), trial (three individuals), and plural (unspecified multiple individuals). Of these trial is very rare, and, among our set of nine languages, dual is used only in Inuktitut. Thus Inuktitut has three first person pronouns, uvanga “I,” uvaguk “we (two people),” uvagut “we (more than two people).”

    Given the two dimensions of person and number, we can divide up the English personal pronouns as shown in the table below. The third person pronouns fall into the singular group of three, she, he, and it, and the single plural pronoun they. The second person is more complicated. In relatively formal speech and writing, we use you for both singular and plural, but informally, at least in my dialect, we may also use you guys for the plural. (Note that other English dialects have other second person plural pronouns, you all/y’all, yunz, etc.) Thus we need to include both you and you guys in the plural column.

    Singular Plural
    1 person I we
    2 person you you, you guys
    3 person she, he, it they

    Clearly, we need more dimensions to distinguish the words since two of the cells in our table contain more than one word. Among the third person singular pronouns, the remaining difference has to do with gender, whether the referent is being viewed as male, female, or neither. Instead of male and female, I will use the conventional linguistic terms masculine and feminine to emphasize that we are dealing with linguistic categories rather than biological categories in the world, and for the third value I will use neuter. Thus, there are three possible values on the gender dimension for English, and three seems to be all that is needed for other languages, though some languages have a dimension similar to gender that has many more values.

    That leaves the distinction between you and you guys in the plural. As we have already seen, this is related to formality, another semantic dimension and a very complicated one. I will have little to say about it here, except that it is related to the larger context (not just the utterance context) and to the relationship between the Speaker and Hearer. For example, language is likely to be relatively formal in the context of a public speech or when people talk to their employers. For now, let’s assume that the formality dimension has only two values, informal and formal. The table below shows the breakdown of the English personal pronouns along the four dimensions of person, number, gender, and formality.

    Singular Plural
    1 person I we
    2 person


    formal informal

    you you guys

    3 person

    feminine masculine neuter

    she he it


    Gaps in Pronoun Systems

    Notice that there seem to be gaps in the English system. There is a word for third person singular feminine, but no word for second person singular feminine, and formality is only relevant for second person plural. Because there is no masculine or feminine you in English, we can say that you is unspecified for the gender dimension. As we will see many times in the book, languages tend to be systematic—if they make a distinction somewhere, they tend to make that distinction elsewhere—but they are not always so. English personal pronouns are systematic in one important way: the distinction between first, second, and third person is maintained in both singular and plural. But they are not in other ways, as we have just seen.

    You will probably not be surprised to learn that there is nothing special about the English system; other languages organize things somewhat differently, though it seems that person and number are relevant for all languages. Here is the set of Amharic personal pronouns.

    Singular Plural
    1 person iné innya
    2 person

    plain respect

    feminine masculine irswo

    anči ante

    3 person

    plain respect

    feminine masculine issaccew

    isswa issu


    Notice that Amharic fills some of the apparent gaps that English has; for example, there is both a masculine and a feminine second person singular pronoun, while English only makes the gender distinction in third person. But Amharic is unsystematic in some ways too; while gender is relevant for singular pronouns, it is not for plural pronouns, and, as in English, it doesn’t enter into first person at all. Notice also that there is a new dimension, respect, that is relevant for Amharic pronouns, at least in second and third person singular. Respect is similar to formality, but it relates specifically to the attitude that the Speaker wants to convey toward the referent, that is, the Hearer in the case of second person and another person in the case of third person. In Amharic, there are two values for this dimension, plain and respectful. Finally, notice that while English has three values for gender, Amharic has only two, masculine and feminine. This means that one or the other of these must make do to refer to things that are neither male nor female. Many languages have only two genders, and each of these languages has its own way of determining which gender is appropriate for things that don’t have “natural” gender.

    We have seen only two examples of personal pronoun systems. Other languages have quite different systems, some making use of dimensions that are not relevant for English or Amharic, some ignoring dimensions that matter for English and Amharic. For example, in many languages, including Tzeltal and Inuktitut, gender plays no role at all in the personal pronoun systems: there is no distinction like that between he and she. It is not clear why pronoun systems vary the way they do. For example, it would be wrong to assume that Tzeltal pronouns lack gender because Tzeltal speakers are less conscious of gender in the world or that children learning Tzeltal become less sensitive to gender differences than children learning English or Amharic or Spanish. At least there is no evidence for these kinds of relationships. The relationship between language and thought has been most often studied in the context of grammar, and since we are looking at personal pronouns, we are getting pretty close to grammar, but we will save this topic for later.

    3.2.4 Lexical Domains: Kinship Terms

    What do the meanings of the words father and uncle have in common? What sort of dimension would you need to distinguish the meanings of these words?

    Now let’s look at the words we use to refer to kinship relations. We won’t consider all of the words in a given language, just some of the basic ones. Let’s start by taking two similar words and trying to figure out what dimension distinguishes their meanings, say brother and sister. This is easy since we’ve already been discussing this dimension; it’s gender.

    But gender won’t help us with the distinction between daughter and mother since both are female. For these words we have to consider their relationship to the person who provides the reference point for the relationship, what cultural anthropologists (the experts on this topic) call ego. In both cases, there is a direct relationship (what anthropologists call lineal), but in one case the relationship goes in one direction (back into the past); in the other, it goes in the opposite direction (forward into the future). Let’s call this dimension “vertical separation from ego.” We can use positive and negative numbers to represent values on this dimension. In the case of mother, the separation is –1 (one generation back); in the case of daughter, it is +1 (one generation forward).

    But these two dimensions won’t suffice to distinguish all basic English kinship terms. What about mother and aunt? Both are female, and both are separated by –1 from ego. What distinguishes these two relations is the closeness of the relationship to ego. For mother, the person is in a lineal relation to ego. For aunt, we need to go back another generation, to ego’s grandparents, to find a common ancestor. We will call this dimension “horizontal distance from ego” and represent it again with a number (but no sign). For mother, we will say the distance is 0; for aunt (and cousin and niece), it is 1. Here is a list of some English kinship terms with their values on the three dimensions. If a cell is left blank, the dimension is unspecified for that term.

    Vertical Horizontal Gender
    mother -1 0 feminine
    daughter +1 0 feminine
    sister 0 1 feminine
    aunt -1 1 feminine
    parent -1 0
    grandchild +2 0
    niece +1 1 feminine
    cousin 0 2

    Not All Languages Have “Aunts” and “Uncles”

    Now let’s look at some of the terms that Lingala speakers use for kinship terms. Some of these are just like English, but others require different dimensions than are required for English. Lingala speakers use different words for siblings that are older or younger than ego and for aunts and uncles that are older or younger than their parents, but they don’t normally distinguish siblings or aunts and uncles by gender. We’ll refer to this as the “relative age” dimension. Lingala speakers also distinguish maternal and paternal aunts and uncles; we’ll call this the “parent path” dimension. Finally, Lingala speakers use the same words for grandparents and grandchildren; that is, at least some of the time they are concerned only with vertical distance, not vertical direction (earlier or later). The table below shows values on the kinship dimensions for some Lingala kinship terms.

    Vertical Horizontal Gender Parent Path Age



    -1 0 feminine maternal



    +1 0 masculine paterna


    “grandparent/ grandchild”

    2 (+/–) 0


    “older sibling”

    0 1 older


    “younger sibling”

    0 1 younger


    “older sibling of mother”

    –1 1 maternal older


    “younger sibling of father”

    –1 1 paternal younger

    Differences in kinship terms are more likely to be related to culture than differences in personal pronouns. That is, when a single term (such as Lingala nkulutu “older sibling”) groups different relatives together, we might expect that in the culture where the language is spoken, those relatives are treated similarly by ego. (I don’t know whether this is the case for Lingala speakers, however.) Words refer to categories, after all, and categories are a way in which people group the things in the world. Children growing up in a particular culture are learning the cultural concepts and the words simultaneously. Their experience with the culture should help them learn the words referring to cultural concepts, and their exposure to the words should help them learn the concepts. But little is actually known about how this sort of interaction works. In the next section we’ll consider the learning of the meanings of apparently simpler nouns, those referring to physical objects. Even here we’ll discover that there is considerable disagreement on how babies manage to master the words.

    3.2 Adapted from Lexical Differences Among Languages (Gasser, 2015)

    Watch this brief video on the translation challenges associated with the pronoun “you.”

    Watch the video: One of the Most Difficult Words to Translate . . . (Krystian Aparta, 2016)

    Video transcript:

    Which is the hardest word to translate in this sentence?

    Do you know where the pep rally is?

    “Know” is easy to translate. “Pep rally” doesn’t have a direct analog in a lot of languages and cultures, but can be approximated. But the hardest word there is actually one of the smallest: “you.” As simple as it seems, it’s often impossible to accurately translate “you” without knowing a lot more about the situation where it’s being said. To start with, how familiar are you with the person you’re talking to? Many cultures have different levels of formality. A close friend, someone much older or much younger, a stranger, a boss. These all may be slightly different “you’s.”

    In many languages, the pronoun reflects these differences through what’s known as the T–V distinction. In French, for example, you would say “tu” when talking to your friend at school, but “vous” when addressing your teacher. Even English once had something similar. Remember the old-timey “thou?” Ironically, it was actually the informal pronoun for people you’re close with, while “you” was the formal and polite version. That distinction was lost when the English decided to just be polite all the time.

    But the difficulty in translating “you” doesn’t end there. In languages like Hausa or Korana, the “you” form depends on the listener’s gender. In many more, it depends on whether they are one or many, such as with German “du” or “ihr.” Even in English, some dialects use words like “y’all” or “youse” the same way. Some plural forms, like the French “vous” and Russian “Вы” are also used for a single person to show that the addressee is that much more important, much like the royal “we.” And a few languages even have a specific form for addressing exactly two people, like Slovenian “vidva.”

    If that wasn’t complicated enough, formality, number, and gender can all come into play at the same time. In Spanish, “tú” is unisex informal singular, “usted” is unisex formal singular, “vosotros” is masculine informal plural, “vosotras” is feminine informal plural, and “ustedes” is the unisex formal plural. Phew! After all that, it may come as a relief that some languages often leave out the second person pronoun. In languages like Romanian and Portuguese, the pronoun can be dropped from sentences because it’s clearly implied by the way the verbs are conjugated. And in languages like Korean, Thai, and Chinese, pronouns can be dropped without any grammatical hints. Speakers often would rather have the listener guess the pronoun from context than use the wrong one and risk being seen as rude.

    So if you’re ever working as a translator and come across this sentence without any context: “You and you, no, not you, you, your job is to translate ‘you’ for yourselves” ... Well, good luck. And to the volunteer community who will be translating this video into multiple languages: Uh, sorry about that!


    Pick one of two options:

    1. You want to work on kinship systems: Pick one of the following kinship diagrams (below), and apply it to your own family system, or that of a famous individual.

    • Describe what you family system would look like in that society
    • Specify who you would call an aunt, and who you would call a father in this system. Pro tip: For more fun, pick a kinship system you know nothing about, and that is far from your own.
    • Specify what kind of social structure is implied in this system (Are elders important? Is it more patriarchal or matriarchal?)

    2. You want to work on personal pronoun systems, and you want to do some research: Pick a language of your choice (it can be English, from a historical perspective, from Shakespeare and before, to today’s shifting pronoun systems).

    • Describe that pronoun system, and explain how this pronoun system differs from the English one (you may want to create a table to do that)
    • Explain what societal values and beliefs this pronoun systems implies (remember, we are working from a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist, perspective)

    Here are some kinship systems to work from:

    FIGURE 3.1. A broad comparison of (left, top to bottom) Hawaiian, Sudanese, Eskimo, (right, top to bottom) Iroquois, Crow, and Omaha kinship systems. (By ZanderSchubert - Own work, based on information from “Systematic Kinship Terminologies,” CC BY-SA 3.0)

    The diagrams show a two-generation comparison of the six major kinship systems (Hawaiian, Sudanese, Eskimo, Iroquois, Crow, and Omaha). Circle = female, triangle = male. Relatives marked with the same non-gray color are called by the same kinship term (ignoring sex differentiation in the sibling/cousin generation, except where this becomes structurally relevant under the Crow and Omaha systems).

    Note that in some versions of the Crow and Omaha systems, the relatives shown as “cousin” in the Crow and Omaha boxes of the chart are actually referred to as either “son/daughter” or “nephew/niece” (different terms are used by male ego vs. female ego). Also, in some languages with an Iroquois type of system, the relatives shown as “cousin” on the chart are referred to by the same terms used for “sister-in-law”/”brother-in-law” (since such crosscousins—including remote classificatory cross-cousins—are preferred marriage partners). Similarly, the term for father’s sister can be the same as that for mother-in-law, and the term for mother’s brother the same as father-in-law.

    The terms used for ego’s generation (i.e., the sibling/cousin generation) are usually considered critical for classifying a language’s kinship terms (some languages show discrepancies between ego’s generation patterns and first-ascending generation patterns). In anthropological terminology, the basic first-ascending generation patterns are actually called “generational” (shown in Hawaiian box), “lineal” (shown in Eskimo box), “bifurcate collateral” (shown in Sudanese box), and “bifurcate merging” (shown in the Iroquois, Crow, and Omaha boxes).

    This page titled 3.2: Lexical Differences Among Languages is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Manon Allard-Kropp via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.