Some Reasons Languages Differ Lexically

By Michael Gasser

So far we have endowed our Lexis (the level of language consisting of vocabulary vs. grammar or syntax) with an amazing capacity, one that to date has only been found among human beings. Over the generations, we can now invent a very large store of labels for individuals and categories of things in the world (even categories of things not in the world). And, equally important, we can pass on this store of labels to our children.
Now let’s imagine various tribes of Lexises in different parts of the world with no contact with each other. Each tribe will experience a different environment, containing its own potentially unique set of animals and plants and its own climate and geology. Each tribe will invent words for the things in its environment that matter to it, and we will naturally expect to find words for different things in each tribe. Modern languages also differ from each other in this way. Amharic has a word for hippopotamus because hippopotamuses are found in Ethiopia, but Inuktitut does not because hippopotamuses are not found (normally) in northern Canada.
We can also expect the cultures of the different tribes of Lexises to differ. This will result in several differences in their store of words. First, certain naturally occurring things will become more important. A tribe that makes pots out of clay will want a word for clay; another tribe may not bother. Second, as culture develops, there will be more and more cultural artifacts, that is, objects produced by the members of the culture. Naturally the tribe will want words for these as well, and if they are not producing them, they will not have such words. Finally, culture results in abstractions, concepts that do not represent (physical) things in the world at all: political units, social relationships, rituals, laws, and unseen forces. These will vary a great deal in their details from tribe to tribe, and we can expect these differences to be reflected in the words that each tribe comes up with.

Culture and Nouns

Modern languages also differ from each other in these ways. Amharic has the word agelgil meaning a leather-covered basket that Ethiopians used traditionally to carry prepared food when they traveled. Other languages don’t have a word for this concept. English now has the word nerd to refer to a particular kind of person who is fascinated with technology and lacking in social skills. This is a relatively new concept, specific to certain cultures, and there is probably no word for it in most languages.

Differences Within and Among Languages

Languages such as English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and Japanese have many specialized terms for computers and their use, whereas many other languages, such as Tzeltal and Inuktitut, do not. Does this represent some kind of fundamental limitation of these languages?
Finally we can also expect the store of words to vary among the individuals within each tribe. As culture progresses, experts emerge, people who specialize in agriculture or pottery or music or religion. Each of these groups will invent words that are not known to everyone in the tribe. Modern languages also have this property. A carpenter knows what a hasp is; I have no idea. I know what a morpheme is because I’m a linguist, but I don’t expect most English speakers to know this.

This brings up an important distinction, that between the words that a language has and the words that an individual speaker of the language knows. Because some speakers of languages such as Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, and Japanese have traveled all over the world and studied the physical environments as well as the cultures they have found, these languages have words for concepts such as hippopotamus and polygamy, concepts that are not part of the everyday life of speakers of these languages. Thus it is almost certainly true that Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, and Japanese have more words than Amharic, Tzeltal, Lingala, and Inuktitut. But this fact is of little interest to linguists and other language scientists, who are more concerned with what individual people know about their language (and sometimes other languages) and how they use this knowledge. There is no evidence that individual speakers of English or Japanese know any more words than individual speakers of Amharic or Tzeltal.

Where New Words Come From

Furthermore, if a language is lacking a word for a particular concept, it is a simple matter for the speakers of the language to add a new word when they become familiar with the concept. One way for this to happen is through semantic extension of an existing word; we saw this earlier with mouse in English. Another way is to create a new word out of combinations of old words or pieces of old words. A third, very common, way is to simply borrow the word from another language. Thus English speakers borrowed the word algebra from Arabic; Japanese speakers borrowed their word for ‘bread’, pan, from Portuguese; Amharic speakers borrowed their word for ‘automobile’, mekina, from Italian; and Lingala speakers borrowed their word for ‘chair’, kiti, from Swahili.