Swadesh List

Morris Swadesh

A Swadesh [sway-deshlist is a compilation of concepts for which words are deemed to exist in the largest number of languages. Translations of a Swadesh list into a set of languages allows researchers to quantify the interrelatedness of those languages.

Swadesh lists are named after the U.S. linguist Morris Swadesh. They are used in lexicostatistics (the quantitative assessment of the relatedness of languages) and glottochronology (the dating of language divergence).

Swadesh started in 1950 with a list of 225 meanings; in 1952, he published a list of 215 meanings, of which he suggested to cancel 16 not universal or clear enough, with one added to arrive at 200 words. In 1955, he again listed a ‘lexi(costatisti)cal test list’ with 215 meanings, of which the 92 most favorable ones were marked with an asterisk. Eight better suitable concepts were added to reach the full 100 universe. This final 100-word list of 1971 was the result of his lifetime experience, repeatedly tested for universal usability and unambiguity.

In origin, the lists were chosen for their universal, cultural independent, availability in as many languages as possible, regardless of their ‘stability.’ Nevertheless, the stability of the resulting list of ‘universal’ vocabulary under language change and the potential use of this fact for purposes of glottochronology has been analyzed by numerous authors. Such lexicostatistical test lists are used in lexicostatistics to define the subgrouping of languages, and in glottochronology to ‘provide dates for branching-points in the tree.’

Note that the task of defining (and counting the number) of cognates (words that have a common etymological origin) in the list is far from trivial, and too often is subject to dispute, because cognates do not necessarily look similar, and recognition of cognates presupposes knowledge of the sound laws of the respective languages. For example, English ‘wheel’ and Sanskrit ‘chakra’ are cognates, although they are not recognizable as such without knowledge of the history of both languages.

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