LINGUIST List 24.1786

Tue Apr 23 2013

Qs: Resources on Lexicon and Culture

Editor for this issue: Brent Miller <>

Date: 23-Apr-2013
From: Richard Durkan <>
Subject: Resources on Lexicon and Culture
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I am interested in the interplay between lexicon and culture. In a paper entitled Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans available online, the late Calvert Watkins makes interesting observations about Indo-European society on the basis of the lexicon the Indo-Europeans have left behind under such headings as Nature and Physical Environment, People and Society, Economic Life and Technology and Ideology.

Prof John Iliffe in The Africans attempted something similar, albeit in much less detail and on a smaller scale: ''The ancestral Bantu language had words for yam and oil-palm, but not for cereals. Linguistic evidence suggests that speakers of this language began to divide some 5,000 years ago... [Groups] evolved in or near the Grassfields of modern Cameroon, developing a language with terms for cultivation, axe, goat, and cattle, together with a fishing and boating vocabulary... Most modern Bantu languages of eastern and southern Africa are not derived from the western Bantu groups but from those who had penetrated eastwards to the Great Lakes...[which] became possible only when these Bantu groups added cultivation to their previous forest agriculture. Linguistic evidence of borrowed words suggests that they learned to grow cereals (chiefly sorghum) in the Great Lakes region from Nilo-Saharan speakers who had brought the skill southwards from the Nile valley. The Bantu probably also learned cattle-keeping from Nilo-Saharans and possible from Cushitic speakers...''

The Encyclopedia Britannica emphasises that, unlike for sounds and grammatical categories, ''it is relatively easy for an individual word to disappear or shift meaning in so many daughter languages that its existence or meaning in the parent language cannot be confidently inferred. Hence, from the linguistic evidence alone, scholars can never say that Proto-Indo-European lacked a word for any particular concept; they can only state the probability that certain items did exist and from these items make inferences about the culture and location in time and space of the speakers of Proto-Indo-European.Thus is it supposed that the Proto-Indo-European community knew and talked about dogs (*kwón-), horses (*H1ékwo-), sheep (*H3éwi-), and almost certainly cows (*gwów-) and pigs (*súH-). Probably all these animals were domesticated. At least one cereal grain was known (*yéwo-), and at least one metal (*H2éyos). There were vehicles (*wógho-) with wheels (*kwékwlo-), pulled by teams joined by yokes (*yugó-). Honey was known, and it probably formed the basis of an alcoholic drink (*mélit-, *médhu) related to the English mead. Numerals up through 100 (*kmtóm) were in use. All this suggests a people with a well-developed Neolithic (characterized by simple agriculture and polished stone tools) or even Chalcolithic (copper- or bronze-using) technology''.

Have similar studies of cultures and societies based on lexicon been done with other ancestral languages eg proto- Sino-Tibetan, proto-Austronesian, proto- Austroasiatic, proto-Ural-Altaic, proto-Quechuan, proto-Uto-Aztecan, proto-Mayan etc and is it an approach which enjoys broad academic acceptance?

Linguistic Field(s): Anthropological Linguistics                             Sociolinguistics

Page Updated: 23-Apr-2013