Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena
A large proportion of lexical data of the world’s languages is presented in the form of word lists in which a set of concepts was translated into the language varieties of a specific language family or geographic region. The basis of these word lists are concept lists, that is, questionnaires of comparative concepts (in the sense of Haspelmath 2010), which scholars used to elicit the respective translations in their field work. Thus, a concept list is in the end not much more than a bunch of elicitation glosses, often (but not necessarily) based on English as an elicitation language, and a typical concept list may look like the following one, quoted from Swadesh (1950: 161):
I, thou, he, we, ye, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, hundred, all, animal, ashes, back, bad, bark, belly, big, […] this, tongue, tooth, tree, warm, water, what, where, white, who, wife, wind, woman, year, yellow.
But scholars may also present their concept list in tabular form, adding additional information in additional columns, numbering and ranking items, providing exemplary translations into other languages, or marking specific items as obsolete.
The compilation of concept lists for the purpose of historical language comparison has a long tradition in historical linguistics, dating back at least to the 18th century (Leibniz 1768, Pallas 1786), if not even earlier (see Kaplan 2017). But concept lists were not solely compiled for the purpose of historical language comparison. If we employ the rough criterion by which any list of comparison concepts that was compiled for some scientific purpose can be seen as a concept list, we can find many more examples in the linguistic and scientific literature, including typological surveys (Brinton 1891), attempts to establish a language for global communication (Ogden 1930), or naming tests in clinical and psychological studies (Nicholas et al. 1989).
One of the most popular usage examples of concept lists in historical linguistics is Swadesh’s theory of glottochronology (Swadesh 1952; Swadesh 1955), which stated that language splits can be dated due to the regular decay of words in the basic vocabulary of languages. Although this idea was heavily criticized soon after it was first proposed, even more concept lists have been compiled since then, and scholars have not given up the idea that a list of universal and stable concepts expressed in all languages of the world could indeed be found (Brown et al. 2008; Dolgopolsky 1964; Shevoroshkin and Manaster Ramer 1991). Read more ›