LINGUIST List 7.310

Thu Feb 29 1996

Disc: Re: 7.300, Ethnocentrism

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. "M. Lynne Murphy", ethnocentrism: corrections & additions
  2. John E. Koontz, Re: 7.300, Sum: Ethnocentrism

Message 1: ethnocentrism: corrections & additions

Date: Wed, 28 Feb 1996 12:15:42 GMT
From: "M. Lynne Murphy" <>
Subject: ethnocentrism: corrections & additions
my summary to the linguist list on linguistic distinctions between
treatment of ethnic/racial ingroups and outgroups has generated as
much response as the query. i'm sending out this second summary now,
although i'll surely receive more responses, since there was some
misinformation in the first summary that is causing a lot of
distress. i should have noted in the summary that i was just
re-presenting the responses that i received without checking their
veracity (although i naturally checked the ones i ended up using).

(this experience brings home geoff nunberg's piece on the varied
accuracy of responses to linguist list queries. if you haven't read
it, i recommend it enthusiastically--you should be able to call up
a copy from the linguist archives.)

first corrections, then additions, which all are subject to the usual
implicit caveats--they've not been censored for accuracy. finally,
there is some discussion on the possibility of mistranslation of
these terms and some speculation on the sources of asymmetry in group

thanks to all who responded (mentioned by name below).

lynne murphy
university of the witwatersrand, south africa



thanks to: susan fischer, john fry, mayumi masuko, and birgit kellner,
who all pointed out that "gai-jin", contrary to the report in the
summary, does NOT mean 'devil' or any such thing but just means
'foreigner'. it is a shortened version of "gai-koku-jin",
literally, 'outside-country-person'. indeed, humanity is attributed
to foreigners in this form.

birgit kellner adds that in her experience "gaijin" can have
derogatory uses that are not found with the long version
"gaikokujin", but still the translation as "white devil" is very


ellen prince wrote that " that contribution on greek has it backwards,
i think - - i believe _barbaros_ simply meant 'stranger' and came to
have the negative connotations it now does." i think she's right
about this.


From: ()

I believ that "Middle-Earth" or "Middenard" rather means being between
Heaven (Asgard) and Hel(l). [rather than "central land"]



From: ("Ellen F. Prince")

i guess no one wrote you about yiddish, which went the other way. in
hebrew_goy_ means 'people', 'ethnic group'. it was borrowed into
yiddish where it came to mean 'OTHER people', 'gentile'.


From: ("T. Lostutter")

thought you might be interested to know that in VietNam (I travel
there last year) the returning Vietnamese who left the country and
return after the war are called Viet-Kieu, this is sometime meant in
derogitory way. I thought it was interesting how the Vietnamese
decided on a word to signify a difference between the people who left
and the Vietnamese who stayed.


From: zqv6656is2.NYU.EDU (Zvjezdana Vrzic)

 I don't think I've seen a mention of the Serbo-Croatian (and maybe,
more generally Slavic) name for a German person. It is Nijemac
meaning "the mute person".


From: ( Bill Fisher)

> In looking at your summary on the LINGUIST list of
> ethnic/racial labels that reflect the view that ingroup
> members are human and outgroup members are perhaps less
> so, it occurred to me that the question may be misstated.
> If a term is used to refer to only a relatively small
> ingroup, then isn't "human" simply a mis-translation?

lynne murphy's reply:

well, for the bantu cases, it's not just the ingroup that goes in the
human class, it's any group (plumbers, women, uncles, etc.) except
the outgroups (including criminals, handicapped people). it's also
quite frequent that ingroups perceive their own language as being a
superior form, so that other people "talk wrong", and so are less
than human.

however, i think some of the cases of non-humanity in the summary are
just wrong. e.g., differences between "people" and "barbarians"
might otherwise be translated as "citizens" and "foreigners". but of
course, the "foreigners" word might carry negative connotations.

(warning: the following is highly speculative!)
i don't think, generally, that "human" is a mistranslation, as such.
but it might seem that way if we're less than used to thinking of
identity in the way that cultures that don't have names for
themselves (and thus how they might think of themselves) might.
perhaps invaders and proselytizers (sp?) come from cultures with
different notions of self-identification from those who stay put.
who knows. it seems to me that it's often the case that groups take
on names when the group is threatened. thus, there is lots of
discussion of ethnonyms for (and within) the minority cultures in the
u.s., but there's very little controversy over whether whites should
be called "white" or "caucasian" or "euro-american" (i've never, for
example, seen a newspaper editorial on the subject, while commentary
on and consciousness of other groups' names abound).

lynne murphy, linguistics, wits university, south africa
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Message 2: Re: 7.300, Sum: Ethnocentrism

Date: Tue, 27 Feb 1996 09:32:45 MST
From: John E. Koontz <>
Subject: Re: 7.300, Sum: Ethnocentrism
In regard to the summary on ethnocentrism ("M.
Lynne Murphy"), the comment from (Chris Miller):
>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).

Allan Taylor has argued that the origin of Gros Ventre is a confusion
between Plains Sign Language signs for '(at the) falls' and '(be) fat'. The
former was provided as a name, the latter was understood. 

In Northern Plains languages of North America there is often a strong
association between terms for the Trickster and terms for Europeans, with
Africans generally identified as 'black European'. The details are fairly
complex, and are not reflected in gender marking as far as I know. 

In the Siouan language Omaha-Ponca, Native Americans, especially local
groups were called "common (or ordinary) people," in the old days, and are
still "people" (two terms, one for "us" and one for "them," relative to the
context). The French were "common (or ordinary) Europeans." The usual
translation of the term for non-related Native American groups is "enemy,"
but to a fair extent this reflects an English language assessment of the
realities of the situation. "Alien" might be as suitable. The high-level
terminology definitely reflects a classification by levels of otherness, but
the individual ethnonyms don't reflect perception as less than human.
Truely humorous or insulting names are reserved for subgroups of the Omaha
or Ponca, and Omaha-Ponca usage of this sort is fairly mild compared with
some of the bandnames used among the Dakotan people, and other groups
further north and west. 

John E. Koontz
NIST:CAML:DCISD 888.02 Boulder, CO
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