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Swadesh list

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The Swadesh list /ˈswɒdɛʃ/ is a classic compilation of basic concepts for the purposes of historical-comparative linguistics. Translations of the Swadesh list into a set of languages allow researchers to quantify the interrelatedness of those languages. The Swadesh list is named after linguist Morris Swadesh. It is used in lexicostatistics (the quantitative assessment of the genealogical relatedness of languages) and glottochronology (the dating of language divergence). Because there are several different lists, some authors also refer to "Swadesh lists".


Versions and authors

Swadesh himself created several versions of his list. He started with a list of 225 meanings, which he reduced to 165 words for the Salish-Spokane-Kalispel language. In 1952 he published a list of 215 meanings, of which he suggested the removal of 16 for being unclear or not universal, with one added to arrive at 200 words. In 1955 he wrote, "The only solution appears to be a drastic weeding out of the list, in the realization that quality is at least as important as quantity....Even the new list has defects, but they are relatively mild and few in number." After minor corrections, he published his final 100-word list in 1971 and 1972.

Other versions of lexicostatistical test lists were published e.g. by Robert Lees (1953), John A. Rea (1958:145f), Dell Hymes (1960:6), E. Cross (1964 with 241 concepts), W. J. Samarin (1967:220f), D. Wilson (1969 with 57 meanings), Lionel Bender (1969), R. L. Oswald (1971), Winfred P. Lehmann (1984:35f), D. Ringe (1992, passim, different versions), Sergei Starostin (1984, passim, different versions), William S. Y. Wang (1994), M. Lohr (2000, 128 meanings in 18 languages). B. Kessler (2002), and many others. The CLLD-Concepticon collects various concept lists (including classical Swadesh lists) across different linguistic areas and times, currently listing more than 150 different concept lists.

Frequently used, not for any proven quality, but for its electronic availability via the internet, is the version by I. Dyen (1992, 200 meanings of 95 language variants). Since 2010, a team around M. Dunn has tried to update and enhance that list.


In origin, the words in the Swadesh lists were chosen for their universal, culturally 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 have been analyzed by numerous authors, including Marisa Lohr 1999, 2000.

The Swadesh list was put together by Morris Swadesh on the basis of his intuitions. More recent similar lists, such as the Dolgopolsky list (1964) or the Leipzig–Jakarta list (2009), are based on systematic data from many different languages, but they are not yet as widely known and as widely used as the Swadesh list.

Usage in lexicostatistics and glottochronology

Lexicostatistical test lists are used in lexicostatistics to define subgroupings of languages, and in glottochronology to "provide dates for branching points in the tree". The task of defining (and counting the number) of cognate words in the list is far from trivial, and 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.

Final Swadesh list

Swadesh's final list, published in 1971, contains 100 terms. Explanations of the terms can be found in Swadesh 1952 or, where noted by a dagger (), in Swadesh 1955.

^ "Claw" was only added in 1955, but again replaced by many well-known specialists with (finger)nail, because expressions for "claw" are not available in many old, extinct, or lesser known languages.

Shorter lists

The Swadesh–Yakhontov list is a 35-word subset of the Swadesh list posited as especially stable by Russian linguist Sergei Yakhontov. It has been used in lexicostatistics by linguists such as Sergei Starostin. With their Swadesh numbers, they are:

Holman et al. (2008) found that in identifying the relationships between Chinese dialects the Swadesh–Yakhontov list was less accurate than the original Swadesh-100 list. Further they found that a different (40-word) list was just as accurate as the Swadesh-100 list. However, they calculated the relative stability of the words by comparing retentions between languages in established language families. They found no statistically significant difference in the correlations in the families of the Old versus the New World.

The ranked Swadesh-100 list, with Swadesh numbers and relative stability, is as follows (Holman et al., Appendix. Asterisked words appear on the 40-word list):

Sign languages

In studying the sign languages of Vietnam and Thailand, linguist James Woodward noted that the traditional Swadesh list applied to spoken languages was unsuited for sign languages. The Swadesh list results in overestimation of the relationships between sign languages, due to indexical signs such as pronouns and parts of the body. The modified list is as follows, in largely alphabetical order:


Swadesh list Wikipedia

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