The Friday Fillip: Swadesh, Glottochronology, and Rope

People now say comprised of instead of the “proper” composed of (comprising needing no prepositional help to gather things together). Meld is nearly universal now for “merge” or “join firmly,” despite the fact that it started life not too long ago as a term from canasta describing a declared set of cards (melden v. German: to announce). Language changes. I resist, being a conservative in this matter. Eppur si muove.

swadeshBut not everything in languages changes at the same pace. Or, to put it another way, some words are more resistant to change than others; we hang on to them quite tightly. An American linguist named Swadesh reasoned that if you could identify these basic, stubborn word-concepts you could (using an assumption about the rate of linguistic change) find commonalities and divergences among languages, allowing linguists to date the points at which one language or language family branched away from another. He drew up a list of 200 basic human concepts (expressed in English words) as part of this glottochronological exercise. That list got chopped to a hundred sometime later. And, then, other linguists realized that you couldn’t really make a “Swadesh list” that applied to all, or even most language families, so they began to compile lists for this and that tongue. (For a view of a large set of Swadesh lists see this Russian site in English.)

Some linguists keep trying for truly fundamental lists that span languages, however. Here’s the Dolgopolsky list, featuring the fifteen words “least likely to be replaced by other words” formed after a study of 140 languages:

I/me, two/pair, you (singular, informal), who/what, tongue, name, eye, heart, tooth, no/not, nail (finger-nail), louse/nit, tear/teardrop, water, dead

The word that in the 140 languages means “I/me” has not been changed in any of them. No canasta here. Just perfect egoism. At the other end of the scale, “dead” has been replaced in 35 of the languages. Passed away. Bought the farm. Gone for a Burton. Expired. Etc.

One pair of linguists have concluded that when it comes to basic words/concepts in human language and culture, “rope is the most basic of human tools and tying is the most basic technology”. Which suggests that “knots” should be a fundamental synonym in all languages for “problem.”

It’s my sad duty to report that “law” is on nobody’s Swadesh list. It’s not a word or concept we cling to. And I suppose that doesn’t come as a surprise to any of us, who, after all, play almost interchangeably with the remnants of Greek, Latin, Norman, Saxon, among other languages, when it comes to saying what it is that we do.

But enough of what we all have in common. Let’s close by rushing to other end of things and look at the lovely Babel that resounds in the Earth. Ethnologue is place to do that. There you’ll find material on the 7,105 living languages that talk to us. (And if you’re so minded, you can subscribe to an RSS feed for the Language of the Day.) But don’t dawdle, because languages are dying: 377 of them since 1950, when Ethnologue began publishing. Just look at Australia, where I was recently, and, to quote Ethnologue:

The number of individual languages listed for Australia is 390. Of these, 214 are living and 176 are extinct. Of the living languages, 13 are institutional, 15 are developing, 8 are vigorous, 36 are in trouble, and 142 are dying.

Nothing we can do about it, except, I suppose, feel regret at the loss of so much . . . human sophistication. After all, it’s not as though by keeping silent we could aid a dying language in the way that reducing could help the environment. That said, however, it’s all very well to share notions of water, tongues and nits with everyone; but consider what might we have learned in alngith that only the speakers of that language could tell us?


  1. Glad you dumped “of” from comprised.
    Prepositions seem to be the most misused part of speech.
    Please let’s retain “different from” and “similar to”, and bin “different to” and “similar with”.

  2. and dump “outside of” unless outside is a noun.