The Swadesh List

Have you ever traveled to a place where you don’t know the language? The feeling of being surrounded by people you can’t communicate with is overwhelming and isolating.

I recently learned about a technique that linguists use when they are translating a newly discovered language in a community where no bilingual speakers exist. One common technique is to establish the “Swadesh List” — A list of “100 words for things that were fairly concrete, could be pointed at or demonstrated, and were presumably universal (not culture-specific).”

Essentially these linguists are saying that all you need to know are these 100 words to survive your trip anywhere!

This list appears below:

SwadeshList

So, it appears that there is some truth to the international language of pointing and making signs with your hands! If you can point and memorize just these 100 words, you’ll be able to communicate almost anything!

The theory is rooted in a well-known idea in linguistics, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This hypothesis states that language highly influences a human’s thoughts and behavior. Put differently, the way your language works also determines how you think. Additional reading material on Sapir-Whorf and the Swadesh List can be found here.

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John Marbach

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10 2014