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2.6: Lexical Differences Among Languages

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    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.

    Differences Within and Among Languages

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    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.

    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 theyare 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 issingular: 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, 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 you formal informal
    you you guys
    3 person feminine masculine neutral they
    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 innante
    feminine masculine irswo
    anči ante
    3 person plainplain respect innessu
    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.

    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 paternal
    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.

    This page titled 2.6: Lexical Differences Among Languages is shared under a GNU General Public License 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Michael Gasser via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.