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date: 20 May 2019

Abstract and Keywords

Contemporary linguistics, preoccupied with syntax, has neglected the lexicon. Yet languages in general may diverge more fundamentally in respect to the lexicon than they do on the level of syntax. Such lexical divergences may result in real differences in the way distinct human groups think. When lexicosemantic divergence between two languages leads to a situation where a concept expressed in one language cannot be translated into another, we have a case of absolute untranslatability. Speakers of the two languages necessarily conceive the world in different ways. A new corpus of data collected from the Penan nomads of Borneo provides instances of absolute untranslatability between their language and English. The extinction of languages like Penan is a tragedy for science: not only are their lexicons the repositories of enormous amounts of cultural data, but their dissolution results in the loss of information that may shed light on the nature of the language faculty and human cognition in general.

Keywords: lexicology, translatability, culture, relativity, Penan

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