Ethnosemantics, sometimes called “ethnoscience,” is the scientific study of the ways in which people label and classify the social, cultural, and environmental phenomena of their world. Beginning in the 1960s, ethnosemantics continued the Boasian tradition of focusing on linguistic relativity and the importance of native language terms, with a focus on developing theories of particular cultures, rather than an overarching theory of culture in general. Nevertheless, ethnosemantic studies have contributed to the latter by making it possible to find universal constraints on the ways in which humans deal linguistically with their environments.
One of the best examples of this is the terminology people use for naming colors. Studies have shown that while color-naming systems vary, the different systems can be organized into an implicational scale. All languages appear to have terms for black/dark, white/light, and red. If a language has four terms, it adds either green or yellow; the fifth term added is the missing yellow or green; the sixth is blue; and so on. Because color varies continuously along a spectrum, the boundaries between colors tend to be arbitrary: For example, the boundary between English green and blue is not the same as the boundary between Spanish verde and aula.
The scope of red, however, is relatively uniform, a result of the biology of color perception that makes the wavelengths in the red area of the spectrum the most neurologically salient part of the spectrum.
Many ethnosemantic studies have focused on folk taxonomies, especially folk biology and botany. In taxonomy, the dominant relationship between categories is hyponymy. For example, animal is a hypernym or superordinate category; mammal, fish, and bird are hyponyms, or kinds of animal. One interesting find is that folk biological taxonomies tend to correspond fairly well to the Linnaean system at the level of genus and species. A related problem in ethnosemantics involves the ways in which people classify other people and themselves into putative biologically based “racial” categories; these categories may be relatively crisp (the U.S. hypodescent rule) or fuzzy (as in most of Latin America).
Another important domain of ethnosemantic study is kinship, the way in which people who are considered relations are classified and labeled. At their extremes of complexity, kinship terminologies may be minimally descriptive, as in Hawaiian, in which aunts and uncles are lumped with “mothers” and “fathers,” and cousins are “sisters” and “brothers.” Or they may be maximally descriptive, as in the Sudanese system, where each position has a unique label.
A technique sometimes used in ethnosemantics is componential analysis, which analyzes the meaning of a term into its components. For example, a componential analysis of the Aymara (Bolivia) pronoun system would take the speaker and the hearer as separate components, with each being either present or absent:
jiwasa + + (you and I)
naya + – (I/we, not you)
juma – + (you, not me)
jupa – – (neither you nor me; they)
Ethnosemantic studies continue to be relevant as anthropologists and linguists investigate the relationships between language, thought, and behavior.
- Berlin, B., & Kay, P. (1969). Basic color terms: Their universality and evolution. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Lucy, J. A. (1992). Language diversity and thought: A reformulation of the linguistic relativity hypothesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Medin, D. L., & Atran, S. (Eds.). (1999). Folkbiology. Cambridge: MIT Press.