Is anyone aware of any studies done that show the effectiveness of using linguistics as a means of identifying trade between civilizations. I'll provide this example for what I mean:

I have been told that there are trace amounts of tobacco and cocaine in some Egyptian mummies. Let's assume for a moment that the Egyptians were able to get ahold of tobacco and cocaine through trade routes. As it is something that only grows in the Americas, wouldn't they have to be able to ask for these products. Wouldn't they have to use a name that the growers recognize? Doesn't it make sense that the Egyptians would use the name provided, instead of create a new one?

If they use that name, shouldn't we find it in Egyptian records, somewhere?

I admit to being more of a "fan" of Linguistics than anything, so if my question is rudimentary, I apologize.

  • 1
    I haven't heard of that claim about Egyptian mummy tobacco, but it is widely accepted that the Polynesian word for sweet potato was borrowed from the languages of and around Bolivia.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Apr 2, 2016 at 4:50
  • Good question indeed. +1 Commented Apr 2, 2016 at 10:42
  • 1
    To all your questions, the asnwer is "maybe". They might have adopted a foreign name, or they might have adapted existing words; If they did, it might have been written down or might not; and if it was written down, it might or might not appear in surviving records. If a borrowed word for a commodity is found in records that is prima facie evidence for trade, yes. But the lack of evidence of a borrowed word in the records tells us very little.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Apr 2, 2016 at 13:24
  • I understand what you are saying. There are several ways that a commodity can receive a label. The prima facie one makes it easy. If the Egyptians modified words, I would expect to see those too. Assume we are looking at a recipe for embalming. We see ingredients we recognize. Then we compare the ingredient list to what actually happened (what chemicals we detect. Everything matches, great nothing to see here). Or we find two that don't match. This supports your argument that the civilization that provided the commodities recognized modified Egyptian terms during trade.
    – Everett
    Commented Apr 2, 2016 at 15:19
  • We could still prove that. I get the example. What I am trying to identify is how successful is the study of linguistics in providing evidence of the type I am talking about? How common is it to say, "see, they word tobacco in Egypt," or "the recipe says this Egyptian plant, but we can demonstrate it most likely means tobacco (plant is not present, tobacco is)" How often does language conclusively/most likely give us the answer? What I am trying to understand is how we eliminate false cognates when considering a small sample size?
    – Everett
    Commented Apr 2, 2016 at 15:23

1 Answer 1


The answer is yes. They are called loanwords, more specifically popular borrowing - where the word used by the other culture is adopted without translation. Unlike learned borrowings that are often influenced by schooling or science, popular borrowings, popular in the sense of adopted by the masses, have always been the means to name something that does not exist in the original culture. The Wikipedia entry has a few gems (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loanword) for example. Though I am not aware of any studies that specifically set out to follow up on trade routes, the fact that these new words appear in a language clearly indicate that they were in need of a new term for a new thing.

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