LINGUIST List 7.300

Tue Feb 27 1996

Sum: Ethnocentrism

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. "M. Lynne Murphy", sum: ethnocentrism

Message 1: sum: ethnocentrism

Date: Tue, 27 Feb 1996 14:50:43 GMT
From: "M. Lynne Murphy" <>
Subject: sum: ethnocentrism
Recently, I asked for examples of ethnic/racial labels that reflected
the view that ingroup members are human and outgroup members are
perhaps less so. Here's a summary of posts received on linguistic
reflections of ethnocentricity.

I'm grateful to everyone who responded to my query. I'm afraid I
didn't make clear in the query that I was refering to basic,
"neutral" terms for other ethnic groups, not outright insults, and
that only ethnicity/race was relevant to my study. (I'm writing an
encyclopedia entry on "race".) So, I thank everyone who contributed
here, but only summarize the material that was applicable to the
problem at hand. The material is arranged by area, rather than
language group.

Lynne Murphy
Department of Linguistics
University of the Witwatersrand
Johannesburg, South Africa

thanks to:
Katie Druschel <>
"Caoimhin P. ODonnaile" <> (Douglas J. Glick) (Marcia Haag)
John Verhaar <> (Keith GOERINGER) (Steve Matthews) [extra thanks for faxing
references] (Chungmin Lee) (Chris Miller)
Peter Daniels <>
Karl Teeter <>
Kari J Hayes <>
Meg Gam <>
"James L. Fidelholtz" <>


I noted in the original query that ethnic outgroups are often
assigned to non-human noun classes in Bantu languages. Here's an
example from (Tshi)Venda for illustration:

A singular Venda person is in the "human" noun-class 1 (and plural in
NC2), as indicated by the prefix (hyphenated for illustration): mu-
Venda. Words for Sotho and Shona people are also in class 1/2.
While a class 1 word for 'white person' exists (mu-khuwa), it can
only be pluralized in class 6 (ma-khuwa, rather than class 2 vha-
khuwa)-indicating that the class 5 version is somehow prior. (NC2
also has an honorific effect when used for singular people, but I've
never heard of ethnic terms being used honorifically. Doesn't mean
it doesn't happen.)

Many other ethnic groups are put into class 5/6, such as 'white
person' (li-khuwa), 'Zulu person' (li-Zulu), 'Portuguese person' (li-
phothokisi), 'Xhosa person' (li-thosa). It seems like geographically
closer people are more likely to be categorized in the human class
than people who are not, but Poulos reports that the class 5/6 forms
are used for closer people (notably Pedi) when disparagement is
intended. Significantly, other words for humans also occur in class
5/6, but these words again refer to "exceptional" people--either
undesirable (words for 'cannibal', 'coward', 'fool', 'blind person'
or valued ('headman', 'famous diviner', 'excellent marksman'). The
covert comment on status is also realized in class 5/6 inanimates.
As with the undesirable people, class 5/6 includes undesirable things
(e.g., 'useless thing', 'reject'). And as with the valued personal
labels, class 5/6 can signify greatness, as in the contrast between
class 9 _thavha_ 'mountain', and class 5 _li-thavha_ 'big mountain'.
Source: George Poulos, 1990, _A Linguistic Analysis of Venda_.

From: (Douglas J. Glick)

... you might want to have a look at Richard Lee's classic
ethnography, _The DobeJu/'hoansi_ (2nd ed.), p. 137. There too terms
for non-Sans peoples were related to classificatory animals (i.e.,
'wild' ones)


From: (Steve Matthews)

As you may know the general Cantonese term for a (western) foreigner
is gwai2lou2, literally "devil-guy". When used among Chinese people
it has no particular derogatory connotations, but they try to avoid it
when foreigners are present, or become embarrassed when they realise
that a foreigner within earshot understands Cantonese. An interesting
case is when a speaker asks another whether a particular person is
Chinese or western, often using the form:
Hai6 gwai2 ding6 jan4 a
 is devil or person PRT
... there is some discussion of the usage and history of "gwailou"
in "A Study of Lexical Borrowing from Chinese in English. with special
reference to English in Hongkong" by Helen Kwok and Mimi Chan
(pub. by Hong Kong /University Asian Studies Centre in 1984).
The polite alternatives to "gwailou" include "Saijan" (Western person)
and "ngoigwokjan" (foreign-person).
It is interesting that the term "gwailou" is often used by foreigners
themselves, because they find it cute, it fits the English style of
self-deprecatory humour, or they no longer think of themselves as
typical foreigners (I think I have used it myself for all the above

I just heard another usage from my brother-in-law, who described his
boss as "gwai-gwai-dei", a reduplicated form literally meaning "devil-
devil-ish". I asked what this meant and he explained that his boss is
an ABC (American-born Chinese), hence fairly wessternized, hence
there was no need to observe Chinese New Year customs where he was

From: (Meg Gam)

I don't know if this exactly fits what you want, but, in Cantonese,
the word for foreigner is "gwai lo" which means "ghost" or "devil".
... "gwai lo" always bothered me when I was in Hong Kong
- although many people tried to convince me that they really *don't*
think that way, there is something about using it that has to work in
some subliminal way - and it *does* surface in their movies - when
they say the word in HK movies, it rarely (as in I've never heard it)
bears an affectionate or even non-negative inflection - often it's
used with the same tone as if one were actually speaking of a real

From: (Kari J Hayes)

Japanese - "gaijin" - barbarian, white devil (I am unsure of the
actual linguistic human/non-human distinction, but I remember that a
point was made that the Japanese referred to Westerners at white
devils at first contact because they didn't see them as humans).

From: (Chungmin Lee)

In Korean, there is a label 'orangkhae,' applied to a barbarian
outside ethnic group, particularly to any invading ethnic group
pejoratively. So, when Red Chinese military troups invaded South
Korea during the Korean War,they were also called by this label. But
it does not have the meaning of nonhuman.

From: (Chris Miller)

You might also think of the way some peoples have, or still do, refer
to their homeland as "our country" or "Middle-Earth/Middle of the
World". I believe, if I am not mistaken, that Tolkien borrowed his
term "Middle-Earth" from the Old English "Middangeard" and Old Norse
"Midgard", both terms meaning the "middle garden" and referring to
the world they knew well. China, in Chinese, is "Zhongguo" or
"Tiongkok" in Cantonese, both meaning "Middle land" (zhong/tiong +
gou/kok). Japanese borrowed this term, which evolved into "Chu:goku".


From: (John Verhaar)

Perhaps lexical forms are a class too big to handle; after all, that
would include all forms of name calling. However, a curious case is
that of speakers of Javanese (Indonesia) in the 19th century; they
called Sundanese (the next language to the West, on Java) the
"mountain language" (The Sunda region is very mountainous), and the
expression was not meant as a compliment.--I forget my source for this


From: (Karl Teeter)

Well,the oldest case in the book involves names people give to
other groups who speak closely related dialects, where it seems as if
they almost have it but not quite. These don't necessarily stigmatize
people as inferior, but certainly reflects a value judgment on their
quality of speaking. There are many many such cases, but the one well
known to me involves the Maliseet Indians of New Brunswick, Canada,
who get their name from their neighboring tribe, the Micmac. The
Micmac refer to the Maliseet as MALISIT, which in Micmac means "the
one(s) who speak imperfectly"

From: (Marcia Haag)

There are a few interesting ethnic names for across-the-seas
immigrants in Choctaw, a Muskogean lg of N. America. The Choctaw
lived in the SE United States and were among the first to make
contact with Europeans.

The most interesting is the word for `white people'. It is naahollo
or `the holy ones'. It came from the Christianizing efforts of the
Europeans, which in fact were welcomed by the Choctaw, at least
initially. When the relationship with the erstwhile holy ones turned
bitter, the name was still retained. This is cause for great chagrin
among modern Choctaw. For comparison, the word for the French was
Filinchi and for Spanish Sipani--direct borrowings. But the word for
African Americans is simply hattak losa `black man'.

From: (Chris Miller)
[NB: this entry includes both American labels and European labels
for Americans]

Many North American aboriginal peoples refer to themselves with a
term that means "people/human beings" or "real/typical human beings";
some also use terms meaning "foreigners" to refer to other peoples.
The Eskimo refer to themselves as "Inuit" (singular "inuk"), which
also means "human being(s)". They refer to French Canadians as
"Uiuinaat" or "Guiguinaat" (from the French word "oui" (yes)).
Anglophones and Whites in general are referred to as "Qallunaat.
(singular "Qallunaaq"). There is some uncertainty over the
origin of the word; some trace it to the word "qallu" (eyebrow), from
the supposed bushiness of some White people's eyebrows. Others trace
it to a form that simply means "foreign".

The term "Eskimo" itself derives most likely from a word in several
Algonquian languages and most likely from the Cree-Atihkamekw-
Montagnais-Naskapi dialect continuum, meaning "speaking a foreign
language". The commonly assumed meaning, "eaters of raw meat"
appears to have no basis when these languages are examined. The
probable etymology of the term is in proto-Algonquian *aya(ch)-
"other" + *axkyi "land" + *me: "by mouth" + animate suffix *-w:
"other-land-speaker" (approximately). The term appears in Plains Cree
as "ayaskime:w", in Eastern James Bay Cree as "i:scima:w", in
Montagnais as "aiassime:u" ("aiashcime:u" in the 17th century), and
in Micmac as "esgimow". In most of these languages, the term was
applied to those we know as Eskimos, but the Montagnais apparently
used it to refer to the Micmacs. A different term meaning "raw-
eaters" was applied to the Eskimos by speakers of the Ojibwa
dialect continuum: "eshkibod" among the Ojibwa proper and "ashkipok"
(spelt "ackipok") by the Algonquins farther east.

These Algonquian peoples generally refer to themselves by terms
meaning "people/human beings", derived from the proto-Algonquian
*elenyiwa (plural *elenyiwaki). One group, southwest of Lake
Michigan, referred to themselves as "Iliniwa", which the French
explorers transcribed according to French orthography as "Illinois",
equating the "-wa" to the French ethnonymic suffix "-ois". Whence the
name of the US state. In Canada, some Cree use a similar term to mean
either "Cree" or "Indian" which can be represented by the abstract
dialect-neutral spelling *iliniu/pl. *iliniuaky. In Plains
Cree, the form surfaces as "iyiniw/iyiyiw, iyiniwak/iyiyiwak"; east of
James Bay it surfaces as "i:nu:/i:yu:, i:nu:c/i:yu:c"; in Montagnais
and Naskapi as "ilnu/innu, ilnuat/innuat/innut/innuts". Cree and
Atihkamekw (an isolated variety of Cree in southeastern Quebec) both
also use a term for "Indian" that means "living harmoniously":
"ne:hiyaw" and "ne:hiro" respectively.

The Ojibwa use a term for "Indian" that means "true/authentic Men"
("Men" to be understood in the generic sense): "anishinaabe", which
the Algonquins spell "anicinape". The "naabe/nape" in this word is
cognate with the Cree "na:pe:w" (male human being). The Mohawks
similarly use "onkwehon:we" to refer to Indians, from "onkwe"
(person) and "-hon:we" (the /on/ is a nasalised vowel)
("real/authentic/typical"): their own ethnonym is "Kanienkeha:ka"
(People of the flint).

The Hurons, whose related Iroquoian language has died out, referred to
themselves as "wendat", from a root meaning "to speak". This name is
often anglicised in the States as Wyandot, used to refer to their
descendants who, after the ethnic cleansing of the 19th century,
ended up on reservations in Oklahoma in the Southwest, far from their
original home between Lake Ontario and Lake Huron in Canada. There is
a town near Detroit called Wyandotte. The other descendants of this
people now live in a reserve (the Canadian term) in the Quebec City
area and are know as Hurons.

The name Huron comes from a French term "huron", which originally
referred to a boar's head and later took on a meaning of someone with
a scary or repulsive appearance. It is not clear whether the original
French explorers applied this name to the Wendat because of their
bristly Mohawk-style haircuts, which may have resembled the bristles
on a boar's head, or because they felt comfortable enough in their
European and Christian superiority to label this people as repulsive.

A number of Athapaskan-speaking peoples also refer to themselves with
terms meaning "people/humans". A group of peoples speaking different
Athapaskan languages in the Mackenzie valley of the Northwest
Territories in Canada call themselves "Dene (Accent for high tone on
the last e)" (people), and the Navaho of the US Southwest have
recently started calling themselves "Dine (Accent for high tone on
the last e)" in English.

A number of other Indian Nations received uncomplimentary names from
European explorers, including Gros Ventre (Big bellies), Loucheux
(Cross-eyed or Shifty-eyed) and Slave(y).

In the Eskimo language, the new majority Eskimo Territory to be
formed out of the eastern part of the present-day Northwest
Territories in Canada is to be known as "Nunavut" ("nuna" = "land" + "-
vut" = "our"); to their southeast, the Montagnais and Naskapi refer
to the land they live on in the same way: "Nitassinan" ("nit- X -
na:n" = 1st person plural possessive + "assi:" = "land").

From: ("James L. Fidelholtz")

 While this is not 100% what you were asking, the language Micmac
has 2 genders, animate & inanimate, whose basic difference is in the
formation of the plural: -k (animate) vs -l (inanimate). If you want
to insult a PERSON (I'm not sure about groups--I've never seen it
done for the latter, but that doesn't mean it's impossible) you can
change the plural of a word referring to him to -l (a bit dicey that,
so another morphological way: Algonquian lgs. have a special 'ending'
(sometimes called a 'fourth person', 'obviative', etc.) for the
second occurrence in a sentence of a noncoreferential animate 3rd
person--incidentally, its shape is also -l (not the same morpheme,
though), so, at least in some cases, you just leave off the -l of the
obviative and it would be insulting. This is one of those things
that probably only works if you're a native speaker.

From: (Kari J Hayes)

Many of the Native American languages have a singular and collective
self-referent that translates as "human" or "the people/humans." In
contrast, these language groups often refer to group outsiders as
"non-humans," "barbarians," etc.


From: (Kari J Hayes)

Ancient Greek - I do not have the actual word, as I have only read of
it in translation, but the ancient Greeks referred to Africans,
Etruscans, etc., as barbarians in the same context as the Aramaic
word for cattle/untamed things/people.

From: (Keith GOERINGER)

In response to your posting on outgroups, one such instance that
comes to mind is from Polish, which in the singular has the typical
masc/fem/neut genders (and attendant morphology), but in the plural
distinguishes between the so-called "virile" and "non-virile" genders
(in Polish the virile is called *me,sko-osobowy* or 'masculine-
personal' [the , is a nasal hook]). The virile is used for human
males, the non-virile for all others, such that the following
patterns emerge [' stands for acute accent, l/ = barred
 ten sto'l/ 'that table' becomes te stol/y 'those tables'
 ta kobieta 'that woman' te kobiety 'those women'
 ten student 'that student' ci studenci 'those students'

Tthe sequence /ci/ is pronounced as in Italian, i.e. [tSi]. The
virile forms are characterized, in general, by either palatalization,
or by special extended forms of the N, as in ten ma,z. 'that
husband' -- > ci me,z.owie 'those husbands') [the z. represents a z
with a dot above it, and is a voiced post-alveolar fricative] [except
in word-final position, where it devoices].

The special morphology also affects attributives, so:
 ten brzydki pan 'that ugly gentleman' --> ci brzydcy panowie
{here the sequence /cy/ is a voiceless palatal affricate followed by
a barred i]

The outgroups are shown by lack of virile morphology -- they retain
the same morphology as feminines and neuters in the plural. Examples
 l/ajdak 'scoundrel' l/ajdaki
 kaleka 'cripple' kaleki
 zl/odziejaszek 'thief' zl/odziejaszki
 szkop 'Kraut' szkopy (nasty name for 'Germans')

Other words are susceptible to this treatment, at the whim of the
speaker-- if s/he wishes to show contempt for an individual or group
(ethnicities [Gypsies, Germans], minority groups [gays, the
handicapped], and the like), this is a means to that end.

For some of the above words, the virile ending is possible, and
apparently still comes out in other places in the sentence (once the
topic has been fixed, even if preceding morphology has been non-
virile, pronouns often show virility, and once that happens, the
verbal morphology does as well).
This is discussed for Polish in _Gender_ by Greville Corbett
(Cambridge Textbooks in Ling, 1991).

From: (Chris Miller)

In English, of course, we use the terms "Wales" and "Welsh" to refer
to the country, inhabitants and langauge of the country to the west
of England. The Anglo-Saxon invaders, when encountering the
indigenous British, labeled them "wae:las" (foreigners), which
evolved into the current country name. The adjective was "wae:lisc"
(foreign), which evolved into "Welsh". Of course, the sense of
"foreign" has been totally bleached from these words
since. German uses cognate terms to refer to the French-speaking
Swiss: "Welschschweizer" (French Swiss) and Welschschweiz (French
Switzerland or "Suisse romande"). (The Welsh are referreed to as
"Waliser" and their language as "Walisisch".) In an older sense, the
adjective "welsch" denotes southern Europeans or the Latin language
as in "welschsprachig" (of the romance languages); in Austria,
"welsch" is apparently used as an abusive term for Italians, similar
to the North American "Wop". Finally, there is an expression meaning
"dubious morals and practices": "welsche Sitten un Gebra"uche".

The Welsh terms for themselves "Cymry" (singular "Cymro") and their
country "Cymry" derive from the British "kom-bro:ge:s" (fellow

I seem to remember etymologies for the names of various Slavic
peoples (Slav, Slovak, Slovene) according to which these terms are
ultimately derived from a term meaning word (or speech?) in Slavic
languages. (Compare the Russian "slovo" ("word").) Since
these peoples seemed often to end up losers to the Romans in various
wars, their members were often taken captive and obliged to serve
their captors, whence our word "slave" ("esclave" in French,
"esclavo" in Spanish).


From: (Kari J Hayes)

Targumic Aramaic - "b(schwa)'ira" - cattle, oxen, also used to refer
to a personage or people as untamed, barbaric
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