? Lexical comparison in eLinguistics.net

Lexical comparison - basis words as 'genetic markers'

Try out a few lexical samples:

The choice of the words used in the language comparison is the result of many tests.

To be suited for lexical comparisons, the words should fulfil following conditions:

  • They must have existed with the same meaning 5.000 to 10.000 years ago so that related languages had these words in their protolanguage (common ancestor).
  • They must have kept a good semantic stability over the years – which is very rare, as words change their meaning overtime ("semantic shift").
  • They must not have been subject to borrowing as such cases would lead to overestimate language proximity between not related languages.
  • Their erosion must have been as limited as possible.
The 18 words used in this study have been chosen among words which are often in use in comparative linguistics studies. The word combination delivering the best results with this methodology when compared with results from other studies have been kept. For comparisons, only lexical morphemes are relevant - grammatical elements like nominative marks (eg. Latin, Hittite, Lithuanian, Gothic "s" desinences) or infinitive marks of verbs (Germanic "n", Slavic "t", Romance "r",...) are not taken into account and ignored in the cognate scoring during lexical comparison.
word Comments
Eye Stable word, with little exposure to semantic shift.
Ear Pretty stable, semantically and also against erosion. Little probability to get borrowed from another language!
Nose Very stable word, with little exposure to semantic shift. One of the best suited words for comparative linguistics!
Hand As many other parts of the body, little exposure to borrowing and good semantic stability. However, in many languages, the meaning shifts from "hand" to "arm" or the other way round.
Tongue Very stable - similar to nose, although it is also being used for "language" in many languages and gives it an exposure to semantic shift or at least to confusion.
Tooth Very stable - similar conditions as "nose". However, this word has been subject to semantic shift in parts of the Indo-European family - with a mix "Tooth"/"Tongue" ("-Z-B-" in Slavic/Indo-Iranian languages).
Death As an abstract concept, the use of this word for comparing remote languages is somewhat hazardous. However, if this is not due to chance interference, it is the one best linking the Indo-European and Semitic language families (Arabic الموت (mut)/ Hebrew מוות (mavet) -> French "Mort" / Slavic "Mertv"... In some languages, the root of the verb "to die" has been taken instead of the substantive "death" when it was not available ("to die" is an element of the Swadesh list "death" is not)
Water Very interesting word, although it is in intensive use and as such subject to more erosion. Moreover, semantic shift exposure is higher than for body parts. Water is the word best linking the Indo-European and Finno-Ugric language families (Finnish "Vesi" / Hungarian "Vez" -> German "Wasser" / Slavic "Voda") - provided this resemblance is not due to chance.
Sun This word has a big exposure to semantic shift but delivers good results in comparative linguistics. Probably less suited for remote language relationships
Wind As all nature related words, should have existed in early languages.
Night Very classical example in Indo-European studies...
Two Little exposure to semantic shift but intensive use in daily life ("erosion")
Three Little exposure to semantic shift but intensive use in daily life ("erosion"). Sometimes exposure to borrowing like in Kabylian (see Kabylian to Arabic comparison)
Four Little exposure to semantic shift but intensive use in daily life ("erosion"). Exposure to borrowing similar to "three".
I Very high exposure to erosion (intensive use in daily life) but little chance of semantic shift. Another problem with "I" is that it is monosyllabic in many languages - and monosyllabic resemblances between two languages are statistically more exposed to chance resemblance.
You Very high exposure to erosion (intensive use in daily life) but little chance of semantic shift
Who May be the least suited word in the study (erosion, semantic shift)
Name This word links many languages to each other - although it should be used with caution as it is not sure it is common to proto-languages older than several thousands of years. Moreover, it may have been subject to borrowing in very remote times so that, after erosion, this borrowing isn't recognizable. Semantic shift between "name", "surname", "nickname"...

The words have been chosen for lexical comparisons according to their stability by testing different combinations. The list appears to have two thirds in common with the Dolgopolsky list and 14 common words with the Swadesh-Yakhontov list (a 35-word subset of the Swadesh list by Sergei Yakhontov), both of which were compiled in search for stable lexical items.

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