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The Swadesh List and the History of Language

Updated on June 23, 2012
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One would think that linguistics and nuclear physics have very little in common. One discipline deals with words and grammar, the other with subatomic particles and forces. To American linguist Dr. Morris Swadesh, however, there were some important commonalities between the two very different branches of science. The evolution of language, Swadesh proposed, was similar to radioactive decay, with words changing over time at a constant rate analogous to the half-life of a radioactive element.

To test this hypothesis, Swadesh needed to develop a common set of word meanings that could be tracked over time as the words humans used for them changed. These 100 words are the most common nouns and verbs in all languages, describing universal concepts such as body parts, amounts, animals, routine actions, and basic descriptions.

Thus was born the Swadesh List, and with it a radical movement in linguistics that applied mathematical and statistical methods to the study of language. Though some linguists debate the effectiveness and accuracy of these methods, the techniques are still in use today - updated with ideas and technology borrowed from genetics and paleobiology.

Tree model of Mayan languages produced using glottochronological techniques
Tree model of Mayan languages produced using glottochronological techniques | Source

The Exiled Academic

Morris Swadesh did his early work in the 1930s documenting native American languages of North America, producing comprehensive guides to multiple languages of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico - several of which have since gone extinct. During World War II, Swadesh assisted the war effort by producing textbooks and other guides for the military in Russian, Chinese, Burmese, and Spanish.

Despite his service to the country, Swadesh was branded a Communist during the McCarthy Era and fired from his job at the City College of New York. It was during this period that he began to formulate the first drafts of the Swadesh List and formulate the analytical techniques that would make use of this list - lexicostatistics and glottochrononology.

Lexicostatistics is the use of mathematical methods to group languages into families by measuring the percentage of cognates they share. Cognates are words that have a common root, such as father in English, Vater in German, and padre in Spanish, all of which come from the Latin pater. This grouping of languages by shared cognates is similar to the grouping of species in biology by cladistics.

Glottochronology builds on the work of lexicostatistics by attempting to date linguistic splits in history. Analysis of languages from major world language families has established a rate of change of about 14% of words per millennium. This idea of a constant rate of linguistic change is similar to the idea of a "molecular clock" mutation rate in genetics. Even the types of word changes mimic genetic mutations, with words being shortened, lengthened, combined, or even substituted altogether.

Developing the List

The initial list published by Morris Swadesh in 1950 contained 225 words. These words, comprising everything from basic pronouns to everyday actions to common features of the natural world, were specifically selected as concepts without cultural, societal, or technological bias. Words describing religions, dwellings, and tools are not on the Swadesh List.

The words on the list describe concepts to which every human society can relate. Some words on this list, like "mama" for mother and "papa/baba" for father, are so widespread across different language groups that they may have existed in a proto-language that is the last universal common ancestor of all world languages.

Over the next decade or so, Swadesh refined the list further. His final 100 word list was published in 1971 - four years after his death. This list is still in common usage today among linguists to group languages into families and date their divergences. Though Morris Swadesh did not live to see his ideas evolve and grow, his linguistic legacy lives on.

A Swadesh List Sample

No.
English
Spanish
German
Arabic
Quechua
Russian
Swahili
39
child
niño/a
Kind
طفل
irqi
ребёнок
mtoto
40
wife
esposa
Frau
زوجة
warmi
жена
mke
41
husband
esposo
Mann
زوج
qusa
муж
mume
42
mother
madre
Mutter
أم
mama
мать
mama
43
father
padre
Vater
أب
tayta
отец
baba
44
animal
animal
Tier
حيوان
uywa
зверь
mnyama
45
fish
pez
Fisch
سمك
challwa
рыба
samaki
46
bird
pájaro
Vogel
طير
lluta
птица
ndege
47
dog
perro
Hund
كلب
allqu
собака
mbwa

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    • somethgblue profile image

      somethgblue 5 years ago from Shelbyville, Tennessee

      Branded a Communist as a way of censoring this information and thus keeping the public in the dark to the concept. These are the kinds of articles that lend credence to many of my speculative claims.

      Astronomers and idealist are often treated the same way by TPTB in an effort to keep the public from becoming aware.

      Great article but ultimately proves nothing!

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Interesting article Scott. I was aware of the connection of language and genetics in terms off its evolution over time. Isolated species will over time evolve into a new species just as the language of tribes isolated from others evolved becoming unique to that group. And as visitors passed through they may have left their mark by adding words for things and ideas they brought with them like creatures passing through or joining a new group added novel genes and thus variation to that species. I never considered language development akin to physics and nuclear decay but your hub has presented that idea admirably. Interesting and voted up!