Semantic richness

Taxonomies take on a number of forms and vary from domain to domain and culture to culture. One way of analysing and comparing semantic structures is to record how rich they are in terms of the number of lexemes applied to a given range of phenomena. A large number of terms applied to a domain marks it as being of particular importance for the lifeways of the people who developed the semantic system. The usual example is the Inuit classification of snow into dozens of forms because of the vital importance of this material to their survival. This assertion has been called into question because Inuit word structures are quite different from English, and each "word" for snow is in effect a short descriptive phrase.

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There are many better-substantiated examples to demonstrate the obvious point that people develop richer terminology for areas that are most important to them. The French are well known for their preoccupation with preparing and consuming food, and have developed an elaborate terminology for their cuisine, a word we have borrowed in recognition of French ascendancy in this realm. Other examples can be drawn from semantic elaborations within subcultures within our own society. James Spradly, a linguistic anthropologist, carried out a study of tramps in Seattle, Washington, and discovered a detailed and complex classification of sleeping locations or "flops," an area of obvious concern to transients for whom arrest on vagrancy charges is an ever-present danger. He recorded over fifty categories in a complex three-level taxonomy. (Spradley 1980)

Spradley's taxonomy of "flops" (partial listing)

  1. Paid Flop
    1. Motel
    2. Hotel
    3. Apartment
    4. Flea bag
      1. Dormitory
      2. Wire cage
      3. Flophouse
  2. Empty Building
  3. Weed Patch
  4. Railroad Flop
  5. Mission Flop

The domain of colour terms has been of particular interest to anthropologists, who have discovered intriguing differences in the number of special words for colours used from culture to culture (Berlin and Kay, 1969). Some cultures have only two terms, and numbers range from this minimum to over twenty. Furthermore, there is a surprising regularity in the actual selection of the specific terms. When two terms are used, they are invariably "black" and "white." A third term will always be "red." The fourth and fifth colours recognized will be "yellow" and "green," the sixth, "blue." Additional colours will be added in a regular order as well. This pattern is clearly evident in English, which has only five of its own terms: black, white, red, yellow, and green. All the other special words we use for colour are either loans from French, e.g., "bleu," or terms that refer to objects, such as pink, a flower.

Cross-cultural differences in the number of colour terms and the regularities in their variation defy adequate explanation. It is clear that different colour taxonomies are not correlated with differences in perception, i.e., people who classify everything as black and white have quite adequate colour vision. There is a correlation between the number of terms and technological development, but it is too weak to suggest a definite regularity.