Do Languages of Primitive Peoples Have Small Vocabularies?—And Some Thoughts about Epistemological Populism

Jul 28, 2015 by

In my previous post, I have argued that languages of the so-called “primitive” peoples are not necessarily as simple as many lay people conceive them to be. While yesterday’s post focused on grammars of such languages, illustrating some of the complexity of one such tribal Australian Aboriginal language, Dyirbal, I only mentioned in passing that languages of primitive peoples often have staggeringly rich vocabularies. This is particularly true when it comes to semantic fields that may be relatively poor in European languages, especially if one excludes technical (often Latin) terms. This fact is mentioned in the article titled “A loss for words” by Judith Thurman, published in the March 30, 2015 issue of The New Yorker (thanks to Leni Silberman for sharing the article with me). The focus of Thurman’s article is on the death of endangered languages, such as Kusunda and Hupa, and whether dying languages can be saved, an issue which I have discussed here, here, and here.

With respect to vocabularies of tribal languages, Thurman writes:

“In Samoa, Cox [the executive director of the Institute for Ethnomedicine in Jackson Hole, Wyoming] discovered that Polynesian herbal doctors had an extensive nomenclature for endemic diseases and a separate one for those introduced by Europeans. Their sophistication is not unique. The taxonomies of endangered languages often distinguish hundreds more types of flora and fauna than are known to Western science. The Haunóo [sic], a tribe of swidden farmers on Mindoro, an island in the Philippines, have forty expressions for types of soil.”

(The relatively poor inventory of basic color terms in Hanunóo is discussed in this earlier post.)

What is particularly amazing is how such mistaken beliefs about the world’s languages coexist in the popular consciousness with other beliefs that contradict them (sometimes, equally mistaken). For example, the very common view that “primitive peoples” have “primitive languages”, with small vocabularies and little or no grammar, is often held by the same people who also believe that “Eskimo has many words for snow”. A simple show of hands in my continuing studies classes shows that a large number of educated, intelligent people among those polled hold both of these views, despite a contradiction between them. But this logical incongruity is simply ignored. This is another example of what Martin Lewis and I called “epistemological populism”, complaining that our respective fields—geography and linguistics—are subject to more of this phenomenon of “equat[ing] truth with popularity”, than other scientific fields. Although both the “simplicity of tribal languages” and “Eskimo having many words for snow” turn out to be empirically wrong, such beliefs are hard to shake out of the popular consciousness, where they seem to be cemented in by general illiteracy on matters of language, generated in turn by inadequate school-level education, sensationalist and biased science journalism, and frequent publication by non-linguists of articles on language-related issues that would not pass as Linguistics 101 term papers. Of course, linguists do not do enough to educate broader audiences about the field, largely because such efforts do not pay enough (if at all) and do not count for much in terms of career advancement in the field. These are issues that professional organizations and collegial committees should give more thought and careful consideration to, if the “PR problem” of the field is to be solved. For the time being, I welcome informed readers’ opinions on these issues and ideas about overcoming such epistemological populism.

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