Focal Vocabularies


A Saami family,Norway, 1897

Every language has a lexicon, or vocabulary. Semantics is the study of a language meaning system. Anthropologists are particularly interested in ethnosemantics, which is the study of semantics within a specific cultural context. Ethnosemantics helps anthropologists understand how people perceive, define, and classify their world. Focal vocabularies are sets of words that pertain to important aspects of the culture. For example, the Saami, the indigenous reindeer hunters in Scandinavia, have numerous words for reindeer, snow, and ice. Snow and ice terminology is based on the physical condition of the layers as well as changes due to weather and temperature. Reindeer terminology is based primarily on sex, age, color, and appearance of various body parts, but may be based on others things such as personality and habits.

Saami Reindeer terminology based on personality and habits (Magga 2006: Table 5)

Biltu Shy and wild, usually refers to females
Doalli Apt to resist
Goaisu Male reindeer who keeps apart all summer and is very fat when autumn comes
Já?as Obstinate, difficult to lead
Láiddas Easy to lead by a rope or rein
Lojat Very tractable driving-reindeer
Lojáš Very tame female reindeer
Láiddot Reindeer which is very láiddas
Moggaraš Female reindeer who slips the lasso over head in order to avoid being caught
Njirru Female reindeer which is very unmanageable and difficult to hold when tied
Ravdaboazu Reindeer which keeps itself to the edge of the herd
Sarat Smallish male reindeer which chases a female out of the herd in order to mate with it
Šlohtur Reindeer which hardly lifts its feet
Stoalut Reindeer which is no longer afraid of the dog

Saami Terminology for Condition and Layers of Snow (Magga 2006: Table 6)

Čahki Hard lump of snow; hard snowball
Geardni Thin crust of snow
Gska-geardi Layer of crust
Gaska-skárta Hard layer of crust
Goahpálat The kind of snowstorm in which the snow falls thickly and sticks to things
Guoldu A cloud of snow which blows up from the ground when there is a hard frost without very much wind
Luotkku Loose snow
Moarri Brittle crust of snow; thin crust of ice
Njáhcu Thaw
Ruokna Thin hard crust of ice on snow
Seanaš Granular snow at the bottom of the layer of snow
Skárta Thin layer of snow frozen on to the ground
Skáva Very thin layer of frozen snow
Skávvi Crust of ice on snow, formed in the evening after the sun has thawed the top of the snow during the day
Soavli Very wet, slushy snow, snow-slush
Skoavdi Empty space between snow and the ground
Vahca Loose snow, especially new snow on the top of a layer of older snow or on a road with snow on it




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