Which language has the most word senses

Inequality, inequality

Anatol Stefanowitsch

To person

Dr. phil. (Rice), born 1970; Professor for the Structure of Today's English at the Free University of Berlin; Author of the blog "Sprachlog", Habelschwerdter Allee 45, 14195 Berlin. [email protected]

Making distinctions and thus the potential for discrimination is the core function and structural principle of language. Discriminatory language cannot be completely avoided; It is all the more important to deal with it consciously.


Guns don't kill people, people kill people "is a motto of the gun-friendly National Rifle Association (NRA) in the US - People are not killed by firearms, but by other people. It is obvious why the NRA used guns and pistols would like to reduce their status as a tool: In responsible hands they pose no danger from this perspective, so that there is no basis for regulation or even a ban. But the seemingly simple logic of this motto belies the fact that firearms are designed to kill and are not used for anything else. Whoever writes and speaks about language and discrimination, often hears a modification of the NRA motto: It is not the language itself that is discriminatory, but at best those who use it with discriminatory intent (or even better: those who find it discriminatory), but this logic is the same in the case of human language wrong as in the case of firearms. Whoever uses a weapon appropriately, kills or injures with it, and whoever uses language appropriately, cannot help but discriminate with it.

Language is based on distinctions

In order to understand this, it helps to look at the origin and meaning history of the verb discriminate to bring to mind: It comes from Latin, where it meant "separate" or "differentiate" without any judgment. With this meaning it was borrowed into German (and other European languages) in the 17th century; in some languages ​​(for example in English and French) it has this meaning among others to this day, and in German it is also in words such as Discriminant preserved. In the course of the 19th century the current meaning "degrading", "disadvantage" was added, and this development of meaning is not accidental. It shows the inner logic of every discriminatory act in the modern sense of the word: First a distinction is made, then this is linked to a negative evaluation (degradation) or unequal treatment. Interestingly, the first evidence of the modern meaning of can be found discriminate in discussions about American laws that differentiated between "whites" and "blacks" and thus created the basis for unequal treatment.

However, making distinctions is both a core function and a fundamental structural principle of language. [1] Every word (and also every grammatical structure) distinguishes the world at first sight into two categories: one that contains everything that is designated by the word, and one that contains everything that is not designated by the word . At second glance it is even more complicated: Since the vocabulary of human languages ​​is hierarchically structured, with each distinction, above all those categories have a special mutual prominence that fall under a common super-category, which they differentiate through increasingly finer distinctions.

Such distinctions can be harmless. Let's take the word chair: It distinguishes a class of objects like the ones most of us sat on at breakfast today from the rest of the known universe. Everything we encounter can be categorized as to whether it is a chair or not. This is done on the basis of characteristics such as "has a firm horizontal surface on which a person can sit", "has a firm vertical surface that one can lean on" and "has (typically four) legs". By means of such characteristics we can identify the members of the linguistic category chair not only identify, but also differentiate from closely related categories. A stool for example is different from one chair due to the absence of a backrest armchair in that the seat and backrest are not firm, but soft, and one Bank differs from Chairs and Stools by having a seat that more than one person can sit on (whether or not it has a backrest does not matter).

It is easy to overlook the fact that distinctions made on the basis of apparently objective characteristics are also of a purely linguistic nature; after all, there is no compelling reason to use these features of all things as a mutual delimitation of word meanings. To recognize this, it is enough to take a look at a closely related language such as English, in which with stool and chair a similar distinction is made as between stool and chair, but in which no distinction is made between chair and armchair is hit (the latter is a sub-category of the former here: chair/armchair). In general, objective reality does not provide any reason to provide words for things to sit on: this category is only important for us humans for cultural reasons. But once such categories have been linguistically coded and acquired in their mother tongue, the underlying distinctions appear to us to be a natural part of reality.