How many colors are there in the rainbow? Who are our relatives? Which plants are weeds? It may come as a surprise that not every culture organizes the world around it in the same way. For instance, our culture identifies seven basic colors (with acronym ROY G BIV—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). However, some cultures have terms for just two colors: white and black (light and dark). Some may only have three colors: black, white and red, or even colors based on “wet” and “dry.” (Conklin, 1955). Many languages do not have separate terms for blue and green.
Similarly, we may consider our cousins on our mother’s side and our father’s side as relatives. But in some cultures, only those cousins through our father are in our kin group (patrilineal), or in some societies, only those cousins in our mother’s side (matrilineal). In some systems, you would refer to both your mother and the mother’s sister with the same term. In other systems, your father and his brothers share the same term. (O’Neil, 2014).
Ethnosemantics is the study of the ways we humans organize the world, and the words we use to identify those classifications. One way to find out how a given culture organizes the world is through determining semantic domains. A semantic domain is a set of words with related meanings. These sets of words show the organization of how the speaker views the world.
Think About This …
The table below illustrates the semantic domain of an American fly fisherman. The terms illustrate the categories the fisherman carries in his or her mind. A fisherman from another culture might have a different way of organizing the concepts that make up the activity. Constructing a semantic domain chart helps the researcher to learn the categories of the culture being studied, as well as the native terms. The charts help give order to vocabulary and show the researcher the underlying classifications as the native informant sees them.
Table 4.1 Semantic Domain of a American Fly Fisherman
What are the basic categories that this fisherman carries in his or her mind? How might the categories be different for a commercial deep-sea fisherman or one that dives for abalone in the ocean? To what extent is this diagram an emic representation for the culture of fly fishing?
Imagine that an alien from Mars arrives at your desk wanting to know about your work, or perhaps about a hobby you have. How would you describe to the alien what you do? What words would you list? What categories would you distinguish? What would your semantic chart look like?