[Lingtyp] query: "animal"

Guillaume Segerer guillaume.segerer at cnrs.fr
Tue Oct 16 15:20:00 UTC 2018

Hello everybody

Indeed, the coverage of the term "animal" may vary in time, as well as 
across languages. Here are two quick searches with Google Ngram viewer, 
one in English with "animals,insects,plants" from 1850 to 2000 in 
British English (here 
the second with "animaux,insectes,plantes" from 1850 to 200 in French 

While the former (English) shows comparable frequencies for "animals" 
and "birds" ("insects" being marginal), suggesting that "animal" does 
not include birds by default, the latter (French) shows a huge 
difference between "animaux" and "oiseaux" ("insectes" being now similar 
to "oiseaux"), which may suggest that "animal" is a cover term including 

About databases and colexification : a search in RefLex 
(www.reflex.cnrs.fr, 1200 sources for 800 African languages) gives 7 
sources with "animal" being colexified with "bird". These 7 sources 
represent only 2 "languages", namely Balant and Bayot, both belonging to 
the Bak group of the Atlantic branch of Niger-Congo. In Balant, it 
appears that the original source (which is available from the RefLex 
interface) suggests (withou being totally explicit) that the word for 
"bird" would rather be something like "flying animal". In Bayot however, 
the original source is a wordlist where "animal" and "bird" are two 
separate entries (not even on the same page). It is likely that these 
words were elicited separately, therefore the colexification is a bit 
more reliable here. This paragraph to insist on the fact that databases 
must be used with extreme care, especially when the results are sparse.

Rereading the above I don't think I've contributed much to the debate. 
Sorry, c'est comme ça !


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