Saturday, March 17, 2007

Swadesh list

A Swadesh list is a prescribed list of basic vocabulary (207 words) developed by Morris Swadesh in the 1940-50s, which is used in glottochronology to determine the approximate date of first separation of genetically related languages. The closeness of the relationship of the languages is suggested to be roughly proportional to the number of cognate words present in the list.

The Swadesh list in English is: I, you (singular), he, we, you (plural), they, this, that, here, there, who, what, where, when, how, not, all, many, some, few, other, one, two, three, four, five, big, long, wide, thick, heavy, small, short, narrow, thin, woman, man (adult male), man (human being), child, wife, husband, mother, father, animal, fish, bird, dog, louse, snake, worm, tree, forest, stick, fruit, seed, leaf, root, bark, flower, grass, rope, skin, meat, blood, bone, fat (n.), egg, horn, tail, feather, hair, head, ear, eye, nose, mouth, tooth, tongue, fingernail, foot, leg, knee, hand, wing, belly, guts, neck, back, breast, heart, liver, drink, eat, bite, suck, spit, vomit, blow, breathe, laugh, see, hear, know, think, smell, fear, sleep, live, die, kill, fight, hunt, hit, cut, split, stab, scratch, dig, swim, fly (v.), walk, come, lie, sit, stand, turn, fall, give, hold, squeeze, rub, wash, wipe, pull, push, throw, tie, sew, count, say, sing, play, float, flow, freeze, swell, sun, moon, star, water, rain, river, lake, sea, salt, stone, sand, dust, earth, cloud, fog, sky, wind, snow, ice, smoke, fire, ashes, burn, road, mountain, red, green, yellow, white, black, night, day, year, warm, cold, full, new, old, good, bad, rotten, dirty, straight, , round, sharp, dull, smooth, wet, dry, correct, near, far, right, left, at, in, with, and, if, because, name.

Using this list of "stable" words, glottochronologists believed they could calculate the approximate amount of time that had passed between the split-up of two related languages. Unfortunately, language, unlike C-14, does not seem to change at a constant rate. The word list and the formulas to use it will accurately show that the Romance languages started to split up about 2000 years ago, but I wouldn't be surprised if the formulas were fine-tuned to Romance rates of change in the first place.

Click here for a 100 word Swadesh list with animation.

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