Word Lists

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Word Lists
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Interpreting Word List Data
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Word lists help us start to understand the relationships between dialect varieties. By analysing the amount of of similarity between word list items from different varieties, we can estimate how intelligible speakers of each variety find the other. Although word lists are not accurate enough to show high levels of intelligibility, they can be used reliably to show that there is low intelligibility between different varieties. By knowing where particular varieties are not understood, we can describe dialect boundaries.

By using the procedures outlined in this section of the wiki, we'll be able to improve the reliability of the word list data we collect. In this way, we'll hopefully be able to describe differences between varieties more accurately.

This information is presented in wiki form to enable surveyors to contribute to and improve the quality of these procedures. Word lists are used in a huge variety of different sociolinguistic situations. We hope that this information will be increasingly relevant to the full range of situations we encounter.

A Bit of History

The Swiss linguist Gesner published the first word list in 1555 (Robins 1967:168). Then, c. 1680, Leibnitz encouraged the Russian Tsars to collect word lists among the non-European languages in Russia. In 1789 Catherine II of Russia published comparative word lists of 200 languages in Russia.
Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz - imagine doing survey in that wig!

The 19th century was a period of unbridled enthusiasm in science. Much as biologists were classifying the living world, there was an expectation in linguistics that the classification of languages could help to discover universal keys to all languages and possibly a proto-Babel (monogenesis) type language. Although associated with exploitation, colonialism brought about a deep appreciation for the complexity of the linguistic situation in the world. Scott and Hardiman published the Gazatteer of Upper Burma and the Shan states in 1900, and in 1919 George Grierson published his Linguistic Survey of India.

At this time, there was a lot of variation in the word lists and the way they were collected. Although, there was already an IPA system in development for transcription, not all linguists agreed on the rules for using these.

In 1949, Morris Swadesh developed the Swadesh 100 word list and 200 word list as part of his study of glottochronology which aimed to identify when related languages diverged. To do this, Swadesh chose words which he regarded as core vocabulary which changed uniformally over time. Most linguists use word lists based on the Swadesh word list, but do not generally use them as he did for dating divergence between languages.

What Word Lists are Used for

Word lists can be used for a number of linguistic purposes. Historically, linguists used them to determine when and how languages diverged from each other. This approach, called glottochronology, is not part of mainstream linguistics today. Linguists use them today as a basis for phonetic and phonological analysis. SIL usually uses them to show that speakers of varieties are unlikely to understand each others’ speech because of low similarity in their lexicons.

The method used to determine this lack of intelligibility is lexicostatistics, the quantitative comparison of language cognates. Lexicostatistics usually involves calculating how lexically similar two varieties are. Two word lists will contain words for the same item from two different varieties, and we can compare these pairs and decide how similar they are based on some criteria. For example, these criteria could include how similar they are phonetically. The criteria we use to assess how similar items are depends on what the purpose of the language assessment is and are likely to vary with each survey we do.

The Historical Comparative method of word list comparison attempts to identify cognates, words that are historically related. Cognates may not look very similar in the phonetic form, which would mean that in a lexicostatistical comparison they would not be considered similar, but in using the Historical Comparative method they could be compared and identified as cognates. Thus establishing a genetic relationship between languages.

Word lists can also be used for other purposes. In one study, which was attempting to identify the full phonetic inventory of a language, words were included on the lists for the phones the might elicit. For example, in neighboring languages there was a name for a bird that had the [ʒ] sound in it - so this bird name was put on the word list to see if [ʒ] occurred in the language being studied. In another study, which was attempting to verify the degree of variation between two dialects, obscure words were put on the list based on reports that there were different dialectal words. For example, there was particular type of river catfish, a type of marsh grass, etc. While it did show that different words were used by the different dialects, everyone knew both names.

Also see our Sample Word List page for examples of word lists used around the world.

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