Making my own language, primitive, so I'm trying to figure out how much did primitive languages discriminate different species in the same families of animals.

For example;

Dog vs Wolf, Lion vs Tiger, Grizzly Bear vs Polar Bear.

All 3 of these could be indistinguished in the language and both called dog/cat/bear rather than seoarating them into the two different species.

Do older, more primitive, languages tend to call dogs and wolves both dogs, or do they distinguish between the two, usually?

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    It will probably depend on the culture, rather the conservativeness of the language (age/primitiveness isn't well defined for languages.) Feb 14, 2017 at 7:12
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    What do you mean by "primitive language"? Languages cannot be primitive.
    – Yellow Sky
    Feb 14, 2017 at 11:23
  • @YellowSky A language used by ancient peoples... Arguably a language with the same level of complexity as a modern language that has a smaller lexicon could be considered more primitive... but I'm not here to argue so.. blah
    – Durakken
    Feb 14, 2017 at 22:50
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    A language is a langage, irrespective of who use it, either it's a language or not, there cannot be different stages of "prinitivity" of a language. If you think different, you're a Nazi, be you damned.
    – Yellow Sky
    Feb 14, 2017 at 23:40
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    The classification and naming of plants and animals in the languages of primitive societies is variously called ethnobiology, ethnozoology, or folk taxonomy. As a guide to the literature, look at the Wikipedia entry for Brent Berlin, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brent_Berlin .
    – Greg Lee
    Feb 17, 2017 at 6:01

3 Answers 3


Languages usually mark those differences that the culture they're part of consider important, and downplay or erase those that don't seem that important to the speakers. I would expect the languages of primitive cultures (meaning less technological, less urban, historically ancient, etc.) to mark more, not less, distinctions among animals (but see below), as well as plants, for the simple reason that in primitive cultures the people are (as we would say) "closer to nature", and speakers need to note fine distinctions: different words for animals that can and cannot be eaten, or that can or cannot be dangerous to humans.

I doubt you will find a language used by a primitive culture, in a part of the world where those animals exist, that uses the same word for "dog" and "wolf", because a dog is a hunting companion or a pet while a wolf is a predator and a menace. Now a wolf does look a lot like a big dog, and if someone from a primitive culture who has never seen a wolf before is presented with one, they might use their word for "dog" to refer to it--at first.

Same goes for lions and tigers, which besides their appearance have completely different behaviours: lions live and hunt in prides, coordinating their pursuit of prey, while tigers are solitary --which is rather important to take into account if you're the one being hunted.

All that said, the idea of animal species, families and genera is a late scientific development. Primitive cultures will not group animals based on modern phylogenetic criteria. If two or more species share some salient features they might be lumped together conceptually as one (here I'm thinking of the Old Testament's dietary rules, which are probably older taboos codified as religious law), and this might or might not be visible in their language.

In any case, consider that while our modern languages have a lot of names for different species, most of us would only recognize and consistently use a few of them, and only a handful to refer to animals in our actual vicinity (i. e. not in some NatGeo documentary or someone's travel photo album).

  • I agree the main claim that what matters is "what's important", and disagree with the implication that languages start with maximum differentiation of species. The "initial state" is more perceptually-oriented, and technological differentiation is a subsequent development. Phylogenetic identification is a really late development (e.g. distinguishing snakes and glass lizards).
    – user6726
    Feb 14, 2017 at 17:35
  • So you are saying that they'd categorize more based on behavior and edibleness rather than on appearance... Even though it is minorly based on appearance it doesn't take precedence?
    – Durakken
    Feb 14, 2017 at 22:55
  • @user6726 You're absolutely right. I focused on what I believed was the intent of the examples. I think my answer stands but I'll clarify.
    – pablodf76
    Feb 14, 2017 at 23:07

"Non-primitive" languages have plenty of "absurd" designations for animals:





Guinea pig

These designations weren't changed when we realised that echinodermata aren't fish, that bats aren't rodents, or that manatees are mammals. So languages do not reflect our comprehension of the world like this; their words are conventional, and the conventions stand even when the misunderstandings that originated them are debunked. On the other hand we already had a different word for pandas even when we still tought they were a kind of bear (and we still call our toys "teddy bears" even when their fur pattern is clearly that of a panda).

A "primitive" language will probably have more nuance than modern languages, because it needs to make distinctions that are unnecessary for urban cultures. But they will have a diminished vocabulary in that they are much more limited geographically speaking. Probably no "primitive" language will have different words for "lion" and "tiger", because a community of hunter-gatherers who live where lions are common probably never saw a tiger, and conversely. I doubt the Innuit have a word for camel that isn't imported from an European language, or that ancient Hebrew had a word for penguin, for instance.

So, if your conculture is a tropical one, it probably won't have a word for "wolf"; it won't have a word for polar bears if it has no contact with arctic regions; and unless in your conworld tigers and lions somehow live much closer to each others than in Earth, they won't have a word for tiger if they have one for lion, and vice-versa.

Also, please don't fall for the idea that "not having a word for X" implies not having the concept of X. Grizzlies are bears, just like polar bears. But any culture that is in contact with both very well knows the difference between them, even if they do not have different words for each.


It depends on the importance of the animals.

There are different words for dog (represented by Latin canes, Greek kynos, German Hund) and wolf (represented by Latin lupus, German Wolf) in the Indogermanic languages going back to proto-Indogermanic. On the other hand, the word for fox is often closely related to the word for wolf (e.g., Latin lupus "Wolf" and vulpes "Fox", going back to the same Proto-Indogermanic root).

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