Examining the distribution of words within a language can yield fascinating insights. While many are aware of the extensive lexicon of Inuit words for snow, the Hawaiians, for example, possess an extensive list of 65 words specifically for fishing nets, 108 for sweet potato, 42 for sugarcane, and 47 for bananas. Similarly, the Scots have a highly specialized vocabulary for describing foul weather, the Somali a rich assortment of words for camels and their unique feeding and sexual practices, the Greeks a range of expressions for face slapping, and the Baniwa tribe of Brazil an impressive 29 words for various types of ants and their edible counterparts.

In Zimbabwe, the Shona people, an agricultural society, have developed specialized verbs to describe different types of walking such as chakwair, which is used when walking through a muddy patch and results in a squelching sound, or dowor, which denotes walking for an extended period on bare feet. Other verbs include svavair, used when one is huddled, cold, and wet; minair, characterized by swinging hips; pushuk, when wearing a very short dress; shwitair, indicating nakedness; seser, when walking and causing the flesh to ripple; and tabvuk, which describes moving with such thin thighs that the individual appears to be jumping like a grasshopper.

One would not expect some words to have an equivalent in English, such as the Namibian word hanyauka, which means to walk on tiptoes on warm sand. Similarly, some local terminology, such as mmbwe, meaning a crocodile’s stomach’s round pebble swallowed by a chief, from the South African Venda language, would not be suitable for adoption into British culture. My favourite example of all is the Persian word "nakhur," which denotes a camel that gives no milk until someone tickles its nostrils.

Despite cultural and linguistic differences, universal sentiments are expressed in the vocabularies of various languages. Persian has "mahj" for looking beautiful after a disease, while "wo-mba" from Cameroon’s Bakweri language refers to a child’s smiling in sleep, and "termangu-mangu" in Indonesian means "sad and not sure what to do".

When examining colors, we find that 21 languages have distinct words for black, red, and white, followed by eight languages that include green. Yellow is the next color to be added, featured in another 18 languages, followed by blue in six languages and then brown in seven. The Bassa people of Liberia perceive only two colors in their rainbow: ziza (red/orange/yellow) and hui (green/blue/purple). In contrast, the Shona of Zimbabwe view four colors: cipsuka (red/orange), cicena (yellow and yellow-green), citema (green-blue) and cipsuka again (the word also represents both the purple end of the spectrum). Only the Europeans and the Japanese see seven colors, including red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

Cultural perspectives on time are well reflected in the vocabularies of various languages. While claims that languages lack words for certain concepts are often untrue, only Panjabi has a word ("parson") for the day after tomorrow or the day before yesterday. The Zarma people of West Africa, for example, use "wete" to refer to mid-morning (between 9 and 10 am), while the Chinese use "wushi" for 11am to 1 pm, and the Hausa of Nigeria’s "azahar" refers to the period between 1:30 pm to roughly 3 pm. Samoans use "afiafi" to cover both late afternoon and evening, which extends from approximately 5 pm till nightfall. In Hindi, "pal" is a time measurement equivalent to 24 seconds while "ghari" indicates a small window of time lasting 24 minutes.

Even within Europe, with its shared linguistic heritage, idioms conveying the same meaning may differ greatly in their unique and localized usage. For example, the English "carrying coal to Newcastle" carries the same message as the German "taking owls to Athens," the Italian "selling ice to the Eskimos," the Spanish "like taking oranges to Valencia," or the Hungarian "taking water to the Danube."

The way animal sounds are expressed varies widely from culture to culture, leading one to question if we all perceive these sounds differently. For instance, frogs are said to go kwaak-kwaak in Afrikaans, while the Munduruku tribe of Brazil utilizes korekorekore to describe the same sounds. In Argentina Spanish, it is berp.

My arduous research spanning over five long years has sought to unearth how distinct or uniform the world’s tribes are in the way they articulate these sounds. After studying over 700 dictionaries from across the globe, however, I have come to the conclusion that there is no definitive answer to this question. The answer often spans the opposite of what one initially expects.

Linguistic anthropology has seen substantial progress in recent times. At the onset of the 20th century, the Sapir-Whorf theories hypothesized that language determines and limits thought. Presently, a more widely-accepted view is that linguistic categories affect thought processes and non-linguistic behavior but do not impede cognitive capabilities. Lingual anthropology is currently delving into this area and is increasingly focusing on matters such as social identities, collective ideologies, and interactions.


  • declanryan

    Declan Ryan is a 25-year-old blogger who specializes in education. He has a degree in education from a top university and has been blogging about education for the past four years. He is a regular contributor to several popular education blogs and has a large following on social media. He is passionate about helping students and educators alike and is always looking for new ways to improve education.