Focal Vocabulary


What can words tell us about people and their cultures?  Linguists define the lexicon as the total inventory of morphemes and words in a language.  Semantics, you may remember, is the study of a language’s meaning system. 

Linguists define a semantic domain in a language as an area of meaning and the words used to talk about it.  Lexical elaboration (the numbers of words for things) varies greatly within a language. Anthropologists and linguists have long maintained that when a topic or semantic domain exhibits a high degree of lexical elaboration, it means that the activity is important to the society or at least some subgroup within the society.  When a more extensive lexicon exists around an semantic domain or an activity that people engage in, it indicates that the activity is significant to the group because the need for specific and specialized terminology exists. In this case, language (the existence of many words) reflects the importance of an aspect of culture.  This is a simple example of one of the various relationships between language and culture that we will study this semester in class.

Anthropologists have long been interested in ethnosemantics, the study of semantics within a specific cultural context. One famous historical example concerns words for snow among the people historically called “the Eskimo.”  As is the case with many Native American ethnonyms (the name of an ethnic group, tribe, nation or group), “Eskimo” is not what the people referred to by that name actually called themselves, nor is it actually a word that derived from any of their languages. As is common among indigenous people, groups historically called Eskimo refer to themselves using the word in their language for “people.” Among the Arctic peoples the name Eskimo has mostly been replaced with Inuit, Iupiat, Yup’ik and other culturally specific and linguistically correct designations, all of which simply mean “people” in the respective languages.

Today “Eskimo” is considered by many Arctic peoples to be insulting and a slur.  Where the word came from is debated.  The most common etymological explanation is that it came into English in the 1580s, from Danish or French (Esquimaux), both of which would have been derived from a word used by the Inuit people’s southern Algonquin-speaking neighbors, for example Ojibwa ashkimeq, traditionally said to mean “eaters of raw meat.” It has been suggested that this Algonquin name for their neighbors may have had negative connotations.  More recently this long-accepted etymology has been questioned by scholars and as often happens with etymologies, there are several possible explanations. Almost all Arctic groups historically called by this name now consider it insulting.

In 1911, Franz Boas, often credited with being the founder of American Anthropology, argued that while the English language has only one word for “snow,” the “Eskimo” (that is, Inuit) language, had four distinct stems (aput (“snow on the ground”), qana (“falling snow”), piqsirpoq (“drifting snow”),  qimuqsuq (“snowdrift).  This was one of the first claims of relative ethnosemantic differences across the world’s languages and cultures, meaning that Boas was asserting that differences in lexical elaboration reflect the significance of some aspect of culture or social life, in this case the complex relationships hunter gatherers have with their environment. Boas’ observation has been repeated ever since, with the claims for the number of words for snow in “Eskimo” skyrocketing since his original observation. An 1984 article in The New York Times gave put the number at “over 100.”  In 1987, anthropologist Laura Martin published an article critically tracing the history of the claim. She argued that repeating and exaggerating it diverted attention from more important work on linguistic relativity (the topic of our next class module). By 1991, linguist Geoffrey Pullum studied the phenomenon in his book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax: and Other Irreverent Essays.

As Martin and Pullum discuss, it turns out Boas wasn’t really correct in his comparison– there are over 40 words for frozen water in the English language while the number in Inuktitut (the Inuit language) is theoretically unlimited due to its word formation process. Inuit, like a significant number of other languages, can form new words through a process linguists call agglutination.  Agglutination is when new words are formed by stringing together large numbers of morphemes (parts of words, such as prefixes or suffixes). In these languages, morphemes (most often prefixes on a verb base or stem) are very extensive with many different types and meanings. So for example, in Inuktitut, the sentence Someone did not find a completely suitable resting place can be expressed by a single word comprised of a stem with numerous morphemes attached. Of course the word is quite long:


While this seems to mean that an infinite number of words for snow can be formed in Inuktitat, linguists argue that agglutination doesn’t actually constitute true word formation since the different formations are not truly distinct words.  Thus, the Linguist Llama, a humorous and popular Instagram account with memes written by linguists, had this to say:

We do not need to concern ourselves with this morphological debate about word-formation here, but I should add that in English, word formation is rarely done through agglutination. English, rather, is an analytic language, meaning that while it does derive some words through the addition of morphemes (e.g. “antidisestablishmentarianism”), overall it has a low morpheme-per-word ratio when compared to other languages.  This means that English often creates neologisms by other means or by combining words together into phrases and sentences.

So, was Boas’ original claim a hoax?  Recently, Igor Krupnik, curator and anthropologist at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, asserts that the hoax itself is actually a hoax. In his book, Knowing Our Ice (2010), Krupnik documented more than 100 terms for “sea ice” in Yupi’ik.  To be clear, these are actual distinct words, not examples formed through relative agglutination.  Krupnik makes the classic focal vocabulary argument: because Yup’ik people interact with the sea ice on a daily basis, it is natural that they would develop a specialized vocabulary to describe the many variations of sea ice and their associated dangers.  So the idea that lexical elaboration reflects cultural significance has endured for good reason.  In the years after Boas made his claim, many anthropologists like Krupnik have investigated cross-cultural differences in lexicon, including the idea that different cultures create elaborate terminology sets based on important concepts and activities. Specialized sets of terms or distinctions found among cultures or cultural groups have historically been known as focal vocabulary and studying them has provided insight into the lives of different human groups.

Another recent study (Magga 2006) of the Smi people of Finland studied the relationship between their language and their remarkable subsistence strategy of herding reindeer in their arctic environment.  The following examples of words related to reindeer were collected by Magga and his colleagues:

Biltu Shy and wild, usually refers to females
Doalli Apt to resist
Goaisu Male reindeer who keeps apart all summer and is very fat when autumn comes
J?as Obstinate, difficult to lead
Liddas Easy to lead by a rope or rein
Lojat Very tractable driving-reindeer
Loj Very tame female reindeer
Liddot Reindeer which is very liddas
Moggara Female reindeer who slips the lasso over head in order to avoid being caught
Njirru Female reindeer which is very unmanageable and difficult to hold when tied
Ravdaboazu Reindeer which keeps itself to the edge of the herd
Sarat Smallish male reindeer which chases a female out of the herd in order to mate with it
lohtur Reindeer which hardly lifts its feet
Stoalut Reindeer which is no longer afraid of the dog

From Magga 2006, Table 5.

The elaboration of reindeer-related vocabulary obviously reflects their importance to the Smi people. Beyond the fact that numerous words reflect importance, however, scholars attempt to make sense of focal vocabulary by analyzing patterns, themes, and associations within their data set.  According to Ole Henrik Magga, reindeer terminology is based primarily on sex, age, color, and appearance of various body parts, but may also be based on others things such as personality and habits (Magga 2006).

Language scholars have historically distinguished between the different types of ways language conveys meaning.  One basic distinction is between a word’s denotational or literal meaning and its connotational or associative meaning. Think of denotational meaning as being like the dictionary definition of a word, while connotational meaning refers to the positive and negative associations a word carries with it that create impressions in speaker’s minds.  Connotational (or connotative) meaning includes things like social context, cultural meanings, and emotional associations.

Take the word “uncle” for example.  In English, the denotational meaning of uncle refers to either your parent’s male sibling or your parent’s female sibling’s husband.  But connotatively, the word also carries associations for many speakers, what we might call “uncleness.” Namely, an older male relative who is loving toward you, visits regularly, perhaps jokes with you, and so forth. When we use the word “uncle” we may not consciously think of these things as part of the word’s meaning, yet they inform its meaning to us.  The words cheap and inexpensive illustrate the difference between the two types of meaning.  These two words have the same denotational meaning (low cost) but different connotational meanings. “Cheap” has negative connotations of low quality and disposability, whereas the connotations associated with “inexpensive” are generally more positive.

Connotational meanings are developed by the community and do not represent the inherent qualities of the thing or concept originally signified as the meaning.  Thus we sometimes call people “uncle” who are not are actual relatives because we see them as having uncle-like traits.  Note that connotational meaning is subject to experience and can theoretically vary more easily among speakers than denotational meaning, which is narrower in its semantic scope. Interestingly, scholars have noted that second language learners often have more trouble with connotational meanings because they can take lots of experience, usage, and interaction to come to know.

In general, a language’s lexicon is seen as one of it’s more flexible grammatical aspects.  Linguist’s generally agree that it is much easier to generate new words (neologisms) than it is to make significant modifications to syntax (sentence structure), for example. Thus, speakers can quickly generate new words in response to new technologies, ideas and experiences.  We know, for example,  that the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to the creation of new words ( like doomscrolling (the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing), coronials (the name for the generation that will be born during this crisis), and quarantini (see image above for further explanation).

The Assignment

For this assignment you are to produce a list of specialized lexical items associated with a recreational pastime or profession.  A good way to choose your topic is to think of a community or subculture that has formed around a specific activity– K-Pop fans, bodybuilding, Instagram make-up tutorials,  drag queens, etc.  You can also focus on terms associated with a line of work, as you see in our first reading this week, Carol Cohn’s “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals” or the online article on “garbage language” in creative start-up companies.  Of course what are recreational activities for some are also professions for others, so these two categories overlap.

Your job is to create a list of a minimum of twenty specialized terms and their meanings that are associated with the activity that you choose and analyze their meanings and use.  Your list of focal vocabulary should be commonly known to (and used by) people who specialize in your choice of activity.  The assignment has two parts:  a list of lexical items and a short paper discussing both the nature of the activity and analyzing the lexical data you have collected.

The lexical items should be presented alphabetically as a list, include definitions and if possible, an example of the item in use in an actual sentence.  The list should be at least 20 words or phrases, but you are welcome to exceed that. 

The paper should be a minimum of 600 words not counting the list of words and definitions. Remember that you can always exceed word minimums in our class.  Your paper should provide a brief description of the activity and the group or community using the lexicon.  Who are these people?  What do they have in common?  What ages, gender, and ethnicity do they tend to be?  Is the lexicon used in social groups and during specific activities?  Describe them.  How are the words are used, by whom, and for what purposes?  Here you can use your knowledge of the people or community that employs the terms or ask members of the community about their usage.  A requirement of your assignment is that you should collect the majority of your data from actual people.  You must work with at least one real person, an “informant” to collect your lexical data. When you collect your data you should also ask your informant for additional information about the social contexts in which the terminology is used and by whom. Is there a community?  What kind of activities do they engage in together?

You are free to supplement your data collection with your own knowledge or additional information from the Internet or published sources, but your paper should describe your data collection process and make it clear where each data example came from.  How did you find your informant(s)?  Are you part of this community of language users?  Provide information about your informant(s)how they came to be part of this community of language users, their backgrounds, etc.  Your paper should also offer some analysis of the data.  What can you say about the words you have collected?  What kinds of patterns can you see in the data?  Try to make connections between the words and the activity or purposes of the lexiconconnections between language and culture.  Do the words reflect values held by the users?  How?  Do the words have other meanings to people outside the activity or community of users (e.g. a more general meaning that differs from how this group uses them)?  Your informant(s) should be able to help you and discussing these issues with them is encouraged.