I've often tried to find a few short sentences that encapsulate most of the features of a language, a sort of Learn X in Y Minutes for spoken languages, if you will.

Tim Ferriss, a Renaissance man of sorts known among other things for learning languages, suggested the following:

  • The apple is red.
  • It is John’s apple.
  • I give John the apple.
  • We give him the apple.
  • He gives it to John.
  • She gives it to him.
  • I must give it to him.
  • I want to give it to her.

Does there exist a more standard set of "reference sentences" that, translated to other languages, are used as a standardized toolset for breaking down the structure and features of a language?

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    The ideal list will depend on the language pair. It is hard to think of a language pair for which the above list captures "most of the features". Jun 27, 2018 at 9:35
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    For example it is missing 2nd person, 3rd person plural, past tense. It does not specify what should happen if the language is pro-drop, or has different genders for 1st and 2nd person. Jun 27, 2018 at 9:35
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    Also conspicuously missing even from this set are other verb tenses, negation, active vs passive voice, perfective vs imperfective aspect, etc.
    – tripleee
    Jun 27, 2018 at 11:01
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    I'm not a linguist, but my impression is that having a sentence in language X and asking other speakers "how do you say this in language Y?" may end up with much distortion. E.g., ask a Korean how to say "He saw her," and you may easily end up with "그(he)는 그녀(she)를 보았다", even though both 그(he) and 그녀(she) are very "unnatural" terms more or less restricted to English translation.
    – jick
    Jun 28, 2018 at 3:35

1 Answer 1


You're essentially describing the field-worker's script. In reality, such a list is an ever-growing project constructed on the basis of previous results (when e.g. you discover that you can't use the -ááka- tense in questions, and have to figure out why). The problem with constructing a universal list of actual sentences to get is that you will either omit vast amounts of subtleties of the language that you didn't know about (the fact that "he-adult" is distinct from "he-junior"; "they-two" is different from "they-three or more"; "you-female is different from "you-male"), or you will spend huge amounts of time asking all of those questions just to discover that there is no difference in status, gender or number for any pronouns.

Somewhat surprisingly, there is not much by way of elicitation plans in intro field methods books. The oldest "guidance" list is the Lingua questionnaire. MPI has a series of links to questionnaires, but these are rather advanced and not useful for the first 10 weeks. Questionnaires generally ask broad questions (and often vague ones).

  • Dan Everett has a recent book on field linguistics, I think. I agree the perfect sentence list is an ideal, but the question of a good list of sentences to characterize English is interesting. Better set a minimum of, say, 50 sentences.
    – jlawler
    Jun 27, 2018 at 15:19
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    Use a hierarchy (a tree, not a list).
    – amI
    Jun 28, 2018 at 17:47

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