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I understand that some people who speak Inuktitut self-designate as "Inuit" which allegedly means "people", or "human beings" or something similar. I've heard the same about people who are described with the exonym "Shoshone" calling themselves "newe" (or a similar term), which is supposed to mean "humans" or "people". Similar translations of endonyms as "people" or "human" seem to exist elsewhere.

But I don't understand how this works. Let's say in Inuktitut, is Inuit only used to self-refer to a more ore less defined group of people? But then the translation of "people" sounds highly misleading. Let's assume the etymology of Pусский ("Russian") became obscured, but people in the area of today's Russia still referred to themselves as "Pусский". Then it certainly would be misleading to say "many people in Eastern Europe and northern Asia call themselves 'Pусский', which in their language simply means 'humans' ". Or are endonyms such as newe or Inuit used as an endonym in one context, but in other contexts used to describe other people in general as well? Thus would it be, depending on context, be correct to say in Shoshoni "there are about 1000 newe, most of them in Idaho", and "there are currently living 8 billion newe on Earth"? I've asked this question in the linguistics subreddit, and the answers that came up stated either:

  1. newe and Inuit can mean people in general or people of the specific group, depending on context
  2. newe and Inuit can mean only people of the specific group, in which case translating both to "people" or "humans" is misleading
  3. newe and Inuit meant people in general in the past and later became an endonym after intense context to other groups outside. I find option 3 believable for Inuit, who may have had little contact to culturally and linguistically different groups, but not so plausible for newe/Shoshones.

I understand that there may not be a single answer for all groups in which this phenomenon exists, but I would be very grateful for some input.

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    I can't speak for Inuit or Shoshone, but the same phenomenon occurs all over the more remote parts of Papua New Guinea. From personal experiece I can tell you that many tribes there genuinely consider neighbouring tribes on par with animals, not humans in any sense we would; they hunt them, cook them and eat them if the opportunity presents itself. Fortunately this behaviour is in decline, but the mindset still persists quite strongly. To many of these tribes, they themselves are the only people, though the white man is also considered human by some. – user31182 Jan 19 at 22:36
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I don't know the details in any specific cases but if the large majority of people you interact with belong to your people group, then the word "person" or "human" will be assumed to refer to a member of your group by default because a person not belonging to your group would be notable enough to require an explicit statement by the maxim of quantity

It's only if you have a reasonable chance of talking about people belonging to other people groups that this assumption ceases to work, and the word "person" become a general term for human first and foremost

As a related example in English, "cat" is generally assumed to refer to domestic cats, but can also be used to refer to any member of felid, a much wider category. Calling a lion "a cat" is not wrong, but in most circumstances is inappropriate because we are expected to clarify that we are referring to a non-prototypical example

Another related example is "mann" in Old English which, whilst definitely meaning "person" and not "man", was generally assumed to be a man by default, unless context made it clear the more general sense was meant

With that in mind, I suspect that both of the statements "there are about 1000 newe, most of them in Idaho", and "there are currently living 8 billion newe on Earth" would be accepted as correct, although the latter would probably be felt to be oddly, confusingly, or even misleadingly worded (depending on how strong the context and background knowledge is felt to be)

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  • Thank you very much for your reply. Your analogy with "cat" seems plausible to me, and a word changing its meaning dependent on context is certainly not unheard of. However, I have received contradicting answers to this question, similar to the one given by @Yellow Sky, and I would thus preferrably wait for a referenced answer before accepting. – EpicBroccoli Jan 19 at 16:08
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I don't know the state of things with the Inuktitut or Shoshoni, but I can tell you how it works in Romani, an Indo-Aryan macrolanguage of the Romani people living around the globe in different countries. I live in Ukraine and here there are many Romani communities, of 3 or 4 dialectal groups, so my information comes directly from the native speakers.

The Romani are widely known in English by the exonym Gypsies, the endonym being rroma “people” (pl.), rrom “man (of the Roma ethnic group), husband”. Although rroma does mean “people”, it is used exclusively to mean “people of the Roma ethnic group”, for any outsiders, non-Roma, there's another word, gadjó “man of a non-Roma ethnicity, stranger, outsider”. Besides, gadjó has other negative connotations, the main point being Roma call only themselves “people, men”, all the rest are “gadjó, non-people”.

On the other hand, there is a Romani word meaning “a human being”, encompassing term which includes "rroma" as well as "gadjó", that's manúš (sg. = pl.). Also, the Kaldarash dialect of Romani has the word lúmya (borrowed from Romanian lume) meaning “1. world; 2. people; 3. humanity, mankind”.

I wrote it in a commentary below, but let it be here, too:
Since 99.9% of Romani speakers are native Roma, if one addresses people in Romani there's no need to use other word than rromale (Vocative case sg.), those to whom you talk in Romani are always Roma, that's why ‘people’ = ‘Roma’ in Romani.

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    Thank you very much for your reply. I'm not a linguist, far from it, and perhaps that makes it diffcult for me to understand your answer. However, if I understand you correctly, then there is no encompassing term in Romani which includes "rroma" as well as "gadjo"? I could imagine that this might be the case in Inuktitut as well as Shoshoni, perhaps interaction to other groups used to be so limited that no encompassing term was necessary (this is pure speculation on my part)? However, I still believe that the translation as "people" or "humans" is confusing then, since the concept of... – EpicBroccoli Jan 19 at 16:01
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    ... "people" would than be so different from the concept in the English language, that no translation would be better than translating as "humans" or "people". Also, I would be quite surprised if there at least now exists no encompassing term similar to the English "people" in newe, Inuktitut or Romani. – EpicBroccoli Jan 19 at 16:04
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    @Yellow Sky thank you for the information regarding manuš. So, if I understand you correctly, there exist three relevant terms: 1. rroma (all "insiders"), 2. gadjo (all "outsiders"), 3. manuš ("in-" and "outsiders"). In this case, would it not be best to translate manuš as people, and not to attempt to translate rroma as people? – EpicBroccoli Jan 19 at 16:29
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    @Yellow Sky Regarding your analogy with Robo-Sirians: If the Robots, which have observed Earth, called themselves "X", humans "Y", and a group of robots and humans "XY", then would it not be strange if they deciphered our language and then wrote in their Robo-Wikipedia "Y call themselves 'humans', which literally means 'XY' "? Would it not be more accurate to simply claim "Y call themselves 'humans' "? – EpicBroccoli Jan 19 at 16:34
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    Rroma does mean “people”. When you enter a bar you shout, “Hey, people! The drinks are on me!” In a similar situation and if there are Romas in the bar, a Roma would shout, “Hey, Rromale!” (Voc. case pl.) And that will mean “hey, people!”, not “hey, Romani!”, just the same way as it is hard to imagine someone in that situation shouting “Hey, Americans!” or “Hey, Englishmen!” – Yellow Sky Jan 19 at 16:42

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