ELL: RE: Percentage of Language

Mike Cahill mike_cahill at SIL.ORG
Wed May 30 12:31:56 UTC 2001


I think this question presupposes a Western viewpoint, that there is a
clearcut distinction between religious and non-religious areas of
life. We in the West often compartmentalize areas of our lives, while
other cultures are more wholistic, regarding the spiritual as
permeating everything. We say "THIS is religion, THAT is politics" and
so forth, but this division is specific to our culture. But even with
our culture, there are religious terms that have moved into the
non-religious realm, for example in American English. "Grace" is one
that comes to mind. Originally meaning something like "God's unmerited
favor", we now talk of "grace periods" for returning books late to a
library - not a very religious task...

The point is, except for a relatively few technical terms like
"priest", and the hierarchy of spirit beings, I would bet (ok, I don't
have real quantitative data to back this up) that the percentage of a
language used ONLY for talking about religious or cultural matters
would be quite small. If you had someone give a monologue about a
religious ceremony, would you include all the pronouns, articles,
conjunctions, adjectives used as being "religious?" How about a verb
like "go"?

It may not be possible to ask a fruitful question on this.

Mike Cahill
International Linguistics Coordinator, SIL

P.S. I'm not sure who started just signing first names to this list,
but I for one would appreciate knowing a bit more who I'm talking to.


What I am wondering is what percentage of an indigenous language is
used for all culture and religion related discussion?  10% ? 20%?


For instance if I told an American Indian they couldn't talk about
their culture any more, couldn't perform it, or talk about their
religion, or legal system, what will I have reduced the language to?

Lets say I reduce it to personal exchanges only, items that are common
to the household BUT not for the religion.

In some cultures I think the loss of words for culture and religion
would represent a considerable shrinking of the language as much of
this is related to indigenous knowledge as well, and we would have to
throw that out too.

We might keep words like water, soil, air, etc?

What would we have left that was sterile in this fashion?

That asks another question, how many words in a common indigenous
language, say Navajo?  Does anoyone know how many words in Navajo?


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