I'm not studied in linguistics so bear with me here. Phrasing the question was also difficult, but to elaborate it's something like this:

We take a modern hunter-gatherer tribe that hasn't been contacted by Western civilization. Say in theory we can gather the complete scope of their language and understand all of the objects and concepts that have been symbolized within it. Now lets go further and state that their lifestyle has been fairly constant for an arbitrary period of time - let's say 50 thousand years. Can we say that the objects and concepts that are symbolized in modern times, may be a good indication of those which were symbolized 50 thousand years ago?

Obviously the structure and phrasing of the language/words would have changed significantly, and the represented objects wouldn't be an exact replica, but can we say that their divergence may be equivalent to the degree that their lifestyle and lifeways have changed?

Additionally, if there is a sub-field of linguistics that approaches this subject that would be great to know.

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    First sentence should be We imagine a modern hunter-gatherer tribe that hasn't been contacted by Western civilization. There aren't any that we know of, so all data are imaginary. Which is good, because the second sentence is total blue-sky fantasy; we can't do that with any language, so let's imagine we can do it for this imaginary language. There may be a real question here, if you're interested in semantic universals; but there seem to be a lot of presuppositions to clear away.
    – jlawler
    Feb 27, 2020 at 16:28
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    Since we don't have, and will never have, any data on languages 50,000 years ago, your question seems to be an invitation to baseless speculation. Modern linguistics is based on facts, so you cannot expect a kind reception to such an invitation to make up stories about language instead of investigating them.
    – Greg Lee
    Feb 27, 2020 at 17:13
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    Thanks for the comments. I come from a scientific background but have zero knowledge of linguistics, so these were the kind of things I was hoping to glean from the question. Prior to posing the question I really had no way of knowing whether linguistics could tackle this problem. Feb 27, 2020 at 19:51
  • I think you're asking about 'linguistic anthropology' on the one hand (for how culture and real world practices impact language, things like kinship terms and vocabularies for technologies or myths) and historical linguistics (one part of which tries to trace words common to many languages back to locations where people lived (like where 'lox' and 'wheel' came from). However, 50,000 years is a very long time. Look up glottochronology too.
    – Mitch
    Mar 6, 2020 at 20:12

1 Answer 1


IMO this is not a useful thought experiment, because it is in principle untestable until we figure out how to do backwards time travel. Please not that we have no way of extracting data about "uncontacted" people without contacting them and exposing them to our way of thinking (and speaking). Case in point-ish: Sentinelese, who remain more or less uncontacted but also we know nothing about their language, and that situation will persist for the foreseeable future. Even in this case, "uncontacted" is a term of anthropological art and does not mean that the people are completely unaware of the "outside" world (which could also be non-western).

The thought experiment makes a number of arbitrary stipulations, for example that their lifestyle has been fairly constant for 50 thousand years: why should we assume that? For instance, why should we assume that a particular religious belief has been constant for 50,000 years? The underlying premise seems to be that people can only develop new ideas if they are contacted by some other civilization, then presumably borrowing those ideas from that civilization.

An absurd implication of this "cultural stasis field" notion is that if the local ecology changes from lush forest to sandy desert, all of the terminology of the earlier age would be preserved, and thus in the middle of the Sahara this culture preserves words for hippo, crocodile etc.

There is sort of an area of linguistics that looks at a related topic, namely how "world view" is reflected in language structure. Popular examples are the million (or dozen) words for snow in Eskimo languages and the dozens of terms for reindeer among the Saami. Similarly, classification of natural objects depends on what you are focusing on, so that not all things classed as "snakes" are members of the order Serpentes (which can include glass lizards and long thing invertegrates). This sort of in the realm of lexical semantics / anthropological linguistics / field work.


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