In her lucid exploration of language data collection in the field once known as “lexio-statistic glottochronology,” Judy Kaplan’s “From Lexiostatistics to Lexomics: Basic Vocabulary and the Study of Language Prehistory” traces the persistent hold “Basic Word Lists.” Though the data behind those word lists have gone from being recorded and shared on note cards to being stored and processed on the cloud, they have continued to be presented as the scientific basis for big data theories regarding the prehistory of language. As new data is brought into linguistic models, she suggests, it is made to fit the models’ theoretical conclusions rather than the new data requiring any adjustments to the model.
I was particularly interested in her discussion of the Basic Word Lists,* ranging from 15-215 items, comprising a basic vocabulary defined by its stability across time and cultures. Identified as commensurate across all language systems, this stable lexicon includes terms like all, louse, seed, blood, claw, belly, bite, know, sun, yellow, night, new, and round. An essential (and somewhat dubious) premise behind the Basic Word List is the commensurability of these lexemes across languages (and across time). With these word lists, mid-twentieth-century linguists created absolute chronologies of language development. Most recently, archaeogeneticists and evolutionists have used this Basic Word List to push back the limits of language prehistory, albeit in less absolute terms.
One aspect of my study of Canterbury Tales translations also works with word lists. Unlike the linguists of Kaplan’s study, however, I’m interested in intense moments of incommensurability, those points when the receiving language exceeds the confines established by the source text’s language. By and large, my terms have been cultural; for instance, I’ve examined the various ways translators express the idea of pilgrimage and salvation. Additionally, some examples seem so natural that we are surprised when the translations betray their cultural situatedness. In this category are terms associated with emotions, such as anger and joy. What if we extend this investigation to include those supposedly stable terms? Would the literary context of multiple translations support my intuition that these terms are not nearly as stable as supposed?
*Thanks to Roger Bilosoly for sharing this fascinating link. Be prepared to spend many hours tracing linguistic cognates.