G. O. Sidorov, I. A. Bolshakov, P. Cassidy, S. Galicia-Haro, A. F. Gelbukh. A Comparative analysis of the semantic field “non-adult” in Russian, English, and Spanish (in Russian). Proc. Annual International Conf. on Applied Linguistics Dialogue-2000, June 2000, Moscow, Russia.


Published in Russian, see Russian text here.


A Comparative Study of
English, Spanish, and Russian Nouns
Referring to Non-Adult Persons

G. O. Sidorov 1, I. A. Bolshakov 1, P. Cassidy 2, S. Galicia-Haro 1, A. F. Gelbukh 1

1 Laboratorio de Lenguaje Natural,
Centro de Investigación en Computación, Instituto Politécnico Nacional,
Av. Juan de Dios Bátiz, A.P. 75-476, C.P. 07738, México D.F.,
+52 (5) 729-6000, ext. 56544, 56602, fax 586-2936,
 {igor, gelbukh, sidorov, sofia}@ cic.ipn.mx, gelbukh(?)earhtling.net

2 MICRA, Inc.,
735 Belvidere Ave.  Plainfield, NJ 07062-2054, Fax: (908)668-5904
cassidy@worldsoul.org, cassidy@micra.com


The paper deals with comparative study of the concepts related to ‘non-adult’ notions in English, Russian, and Spanish. For definitions, we use the method of semantic features. On their basis, a feature set and classification common to all selected languages are suggested. We compare the results of the classification and discuss the differences and commonalties.

For example, only Russian has concepts related to the body constitution; English has very few words related to size. The most frequent concepts in Russian are related to a child’s entertaining behavior, while in Spanish to bad manners; in English there are many words related to wrong behavior of girls. The most noticeable difference is in the way the three languages scale the time from baby to adult. In modern Russian and Spanish there are two gradations for prototypical non-adults while in English only one.

The paper includes parallel trilingual material and describes 181 concepts totally in the three languages.

Keywords: semantics, semantic features, comparative analysis, semantic field, English – Spanish – Russian.



For comparative study of the ‘non-adult’ semantic field, three languages are taken: English, Russian, and Spanish. For English, American variant is considered, for Russian the variant spoken in Moscow, and for Spanish, Mexican.

For simplicity, we analyze only individual words rather than word combinations, and only nouns. Only human beings are considered; thus, the words for non-adult animals or plants such as cub or plantlet are ignored.

We use a compound term non-adult because in the chosen languages there is no general word denoting a person that has not yet become adult.

In our investigation, we mainly follow the theoretical ideas from the works of Yu.D. Apresyan [1], A. Wierzbicka [3, 4], and J. Lakoff [2]. The article is based on our work on a bilingual Russian-English thesaurus [5] and then on fragments of a trilingual one.

It is well known that every language has its own way of encoding the outer world concepts (this is the linguistic relativity hypothesis by Sapir-Wharf), which bears a deep relation with national culture. Nevertheless, it is quite possible to look for cross-language correspondences, even if not completely exact.

In this article, our main purpose is a comparison of the ways of expression of the notions related to non-adultness, rather than a profound semantic analysis of each word, though some semantic analysis is employed. Detailed description of all the possible meaning of the words being discussed goes beyond the scope of this article, so only the meaning that seems to be primary is considered. Words whose primary meaning is in another semantic field are excluded from our analysis: e.g., imp is a young devil and thus not a human being. Jargon lexicon is also excluded.

Feature set

Let us consider the nucleus of our semantic field: the notion non-adult. In explanatory dictionaries of all three languages, the main meaning of adult is defined like “mature, having attained full size and strength.” Thus, non-adult is immature, not attained full size and/or strength. Though usually people tend to define adult and related concepts such as child, young, etc., through the concept of age, this intuition is misleading. There are no references to age in the dictionaries we have analyzed: the parameter age just correlates with adultness rather than defines it.

However, usually the speaker knows what age approximately corresponds to each concept in the semantic field, such as child, teenager, etc. Indeed, we usually can say that somebody is adult or not, without knowing his or her exact age, however, it is possible to approximately guess the age of a person.

Thus, people can determine maturity of a person by some external features. These features are evaluations based on physical, social, or moral characteristics of a person. The evaluations by different scales are used at the same time. Such evaluations are not discrete but rather reflect relative position on some scale. Besides such evaluations, there are additional features that may characterize the concepts of the semantic field in a more objective way: typical behavior, like crybaby, social status, like schoolboy, etc.

For our tentative comparative analysis, we use the method of semantic features. We suggest the following basic set of semantic features for all languages being compared:

1.    Physically determined evaluations:

·      Size;

·      Constitution, proportions;

·      Face: peculiarities, countenances, feature forms, etc.;

·      National evidence;

·      Sexual attribution.

2.    Sociability-determined evaluations:

·      The maximum possible stage of dependency, may be including feeding at the breast.

·      Possibility to take limited care about him/herself;

·      Possibility to take care about others, including family.

3.    Social characteristics:

·      Relation to social institutions: e.g., schoolboy, scout;

·      Juridical fixed norm: e.g., minor;

·      Social status: e.g., wench;

·      Relationship to or within a family: e.g., firstborn, foundling.

4.    Evaluations of behavior, outer manners or abilities: e.g., crybaby, whippersnapper.

Using this feature set, we can describe the prototypic adult person as follows. His/her size will not increase; his/her constitution is “typical adult” (this evaluation is based on a generalization of the images of all adult persons); his/her face does not look very young; s/he can take care about him/herself; s/he can take care about other persons (is ready to create a family or has already created it). Negation of all features of a prototypic adult gives a prototypic non-adult. For example, negation of adult constitution is a specific childish constitution (proportions of the body) or angular constitution of a 14–15 years old person.

For our comparative analysis, some grammatical and stylistic characteristics are also useful, e.g., such grammatical features as, gender, plural, substantivation[1], and stylistic ones as neutral, pejorative, colloquial, indecent, obsolete.

Some pejorative concepts like milksop seem to be applicable to a person of any age, the only condition being that the speaker should consider him/herself older.

Sometimes it is important to emphasize the relationship between the meaning and the inner form of a word. E.g., in Russian grudnichok is a baby fed at the breast (grudj); novorozhdennyj is a newly born child (novyj + rozhdat’ ), etc.

Comparative data

Let us consider some specific concepts that exist in the selected languages. Here we could list only a small fragment of the material. In apostrophes (‘’) approximate translations are given; it is important to realize that these translations are not literal. Russian words are transliterated in Latin alphabet.

Russian (67 concepts)

General concepts

Rebjonok, ditja (obsolete)‘child’: prototypical non-adult.

Mladenec ‘baby’: rebjonok whose size is very small and who absolutely can not take care of him/herself; cf. metaphoric usage “he plays chess like a baby.”

Grudnichok ‘baby’: mladenec who is fed at the breast.

Novorozhdenny ‘neonate’: mladenec who was born recently.

Otrok (obsolete)‘child’: rebjonok or podrostok (see below) who can take care of himself to some extent and has certain duties in his family (take care of others to some extent). So, he is not a small child. Sexual attribution: male.

Podrostok ‘teenager’: prototypical non-adult whose size is evaluated to be close to standard for adult and who has a specific angular constitution.

Junosha, paren’ (masc.), devushka (fem.) ‘teenager’: practically adult, but in the speaker’s evaluation based on his/her appearance (mainly, face) is unable to take care about family. Sexual attribution is various.

Malchik ‘boy’, devochka ‘girl’: rebjonok with sexual attribution.

Junec (pejorative)‘callow youth’: junosha who is mentally a child (negation of his adult mental abilities). Thus, he is adult only at sight. Sexual attribution: male.

Size and constitution

Malysh (masc.), malyshka (fem.)‘little child’: rebjonok with emphasis on small size. Sexual attribution is various.

Malenkij (masc.), Malenkaja (fem.) (substantive)‘little child’: rebjonok with emphasis on small size. Sexual attribution is various.

Maljutka ‘little child’: rebjonok with emphasis on small size. Expression of certain fondness.

Kroshka, kroha ‘little child’: rebjonok with special evaluation of it as very small. Expression of a certain fondness.

Karapuz ‘little child’: rebjonok of small size; especially stressed specific childish constitution.

Butuz ‘dumpy little child’: rebjonok with emphasis on small size and very solid constitution (but not fat).

Relation to social institutions

Oktjabrjonok ‘octobrist’.

Pioner ‘pioneer’, komsomolec ‘komsomol-member’, shkolnik ‘school-boy’, student ‘student’, peteushnik ‘student of PTU’, detsadovec ‘kindergartner’, doshkolnik ‘preschooler’; sexual attribution: male.

Pionerka, komsomolka, shkolnica, studentka, peteushnica, detsadovka, doshkolnica – same as above, but sexual attribution is female.

Juridical fixed norm

Nesovershennoletnij (masc.), nesovershennoletnjaja (fem.) (substantive)‘minor’: a child under the juridical fixed norm (in Russia the norm is 16 years). Sexual attribution is various.

Social status

Barchonok (masc.), barchuk (masc.), baryshnja (fem.)(all obsolete): a child of a Russian landlord. Sexual attribution is various.

Kazachok (obsolete): child for service, usually like a batman[2].

Relationship to a family or in a family

Sirota ‘orphan’: a child that has no parents[3].

Pervenec ‘firstborn’: a child that was born first in the family.

Posledysh (pejorative)‘last-born’: a child that was born last in the family.

Najdjonysh ‘foundling’:a child that lives in a family as a part of it but was found rather than born in this family.

Podkidysh ‘foundling’: a child that lives in a family as a part of it but was found rather than born in this family, because someone intentionally left him in a place where it would be found (probably) by a member of this family.

Besprisornik (masc.), besprisornica (fem.)‘gamin’: a child that lives without a family and has no home. Sexual attribution is various.

National attribution

Kitajchonok[4], tatarchonok, zhidjonok (pejorative), turchonok, arapchonok (obsolete), negritjonok ‘Chinese, Tatar, Jewish, Turkish, Arab, black child’, respectively; sexual attribution: male.

Evaluations of behavior, outer manners or abilities

Plaksa[5], rjova ‘crybaby’: used for those crying frequently and for insignificant reasons.

Pisklja ‘crybaby’: rebjonok that is used to cry or complain in especially high-pitched voice.

Zaznajka, zadavaka (both pejorative)‘whippersnapper’: rebjonok who is not important in fact but whose behavior is offensively presumptuous, who thinks that he is better than others in some aspect.

Krivljaka (pejorative)‘~ mugger’: rebjo­nok who tries to express his feelings using his body or face in a bad manner.

Shalun (masc.), shalunja (fem.) ‘frolic child’: rebjonok who makes something to entertain him/herself that can annoy others. Sexual attribution is various.

Ozornik (masc.), ozornica (fem.)‘prankster’: rebjonok or podrostok who makes something to entertain him/herself that can harm others. Sexual attribution is various.

Balovnik (masc.), balovnica (fem.)‘prankster’: rebjonok or podrostok who makes something useless to entertain him/herself. Sexual attribution is various.

Prokaznik (masc.), prokaznica (fem.) ‘prankster’: rebjonok or podrostok who makes something to entertain him/herself that can heavily annoy others. Sexual attribution is various.

Sorvanec ‘romp’: rebjonok or podrostok who demonstrates behavior (usually, negative) typical for a boy. Sexual attribution: male.

Neposeda ‘fidget’: rebjonok who is always doing something and can not stay without a movement even for a moment.

Poprygunja: rebjonok who is always changing her activities without accomplishing them. Sexual attribution: female.

Postrel, postreljonok: rebjonok who manages to do everything very well and quickly or on time. Sexual attribution: male.

Pochemuchka: rebjonok who asks the questions starting with “why” too frequently.

Vunderkind ‘child prodigy’: rebjonok with brilliant (usually intellectual) capabilities.

Pererostok (pejorative)‘overgrown child’: rebjonok whose physical conditions are too developed as compared with a norm for a collective, status or conditions in which s/he is found.

Akselerat (masc.), akseleratka (fem.)‘rapidly growing adolescent’: podrostok whose physical conditions are more developed than is expected for his/her age.

English (52 concepts)

General concepts

Child: prototypical non-adult.

Kid (colloquial): a child.

Lad: a boy. Sexual attribution: male.

Youth (masc.), stripling, lass, lassy, maid, maiden, damsel (all fem.): practically adult, but the speaker’s evaluation on the basis of his/her appearance (first of all, face) is that s/he is not able to take care of family. Sexual attribution is various.

Preteen, preadolescent: a child who is not yet teen or adolescent but close to it.

Adolescent, teen, teenager (the inner form is related to the numerals ending in -teen, from 13 to 19): a child whose size is evaluated as more or less standard for an adult.

Infant, baby: a child whose size is small and who can not take care of him/herself.

Neonate: a baby who was born recently.

Boy (masc.), girl (fem.): a child; sexual attribution; may be baby.

Toddler: a child who starts to walk, but is not doing it very good.

Size and constitution

Tyke, tot: a child, with emphasis on small size.

Moppet: a child, with emphasis on small size. Expression of certain fondness.

Relation to social institutions

Scout, schoolboy (masc.), schoolgirl (fem.), kindergartner, preschooler, cadet (masc.), coed (fem.): a child belonging to the respective organizations.

Juridical fixed norm

Minor: a child under the juridical fixed norm.

Social status

Wench: a country lass (girl).

Relationship to a family or in a family

Firstborn: a child in a family that was born first.

Orphan: a child who has no parents.

Foundling: a child that lives in a family and is a part of it but was found.

Waif, gamin: a child that lives without a family and has no home.

National attribution

Pickaninny: a black child.

Papoose: a North American Indian child.

Evaluations of behavior, outer manners or abilities

Crybaby: a child that used to cry frequently and for insigificant reasons.

Chit, minx: a girl whose behavior is pert. Sexual attribution: female.

Urchin: a boy whose behavior is mischievous. Sexual attribution: male.

Whippersnapper (pejorative): a child who is unimportant but whose behavior is offensively presumptuous.

Tomboy, hoyden: a girl whose behavior is typical for a boy. Sexual attribution: female.

Romp: a child who used to play lively or boisterous games.

Brat: a child whose behavior is annoying and impolite.

Hobbledehoy: a youth who is awkward, ungainly.

Nymph: a beautiful girl with some features of sexuality. Sexual attribution: female.

Youngster: a child with the accent on his/her physical youth.

Spanish (62 concepts)

We will not specially mention sexucal attribution for Spanish words that follow the regular -o/-a alternation rule, e.g., niño (masc.) versus niña (fem).

General concepts

Niño ‘child’: prototypical non-adult.

Lactante, criatura, rorro ‘newly-born infant’: who is fed at the breast.

Infante, bebé, nene, inocente ‘baby’: who needs an adult to take care of, but feeding at the breast is not stressing.

Crío, chamaquillo, chavalillo, muchachito ‘child, preteen’: who can take care of himself in restricted sense and is of a small size.

Preadolescente ‘initial teenager’: adolescente, with emphasis on that s/he shows only some initial adolescence characteristics.

Adolescente, muchacho, chamaco ‘teenager’: personwhose size is evaluated as more or less standard for an adult.

Jovencito, chico, chavo ‘rather matured teenager’: practically adult, but the speaker’s evaluation is that s/he could not take care of family.

Joven‘rather matured teenager’: practically adult.

Niño ‘boy’, niña ‘girl’: child, with sexual attribution.

Size and constitution

Chiquitín, pequeñito ‘baby’: bebé who starts moving by him/herself, maybe not walking.

Chiquito, pequeño, pequeñuelo, chamaquito ‘little child’: niño, with emphasis on small size.

Comino, varoncito, hombrecito (all masc.), mujercita (fem.)‘little child’: niño, with emphasis on small size, but emphasizing his abilities or characteristics similar to those of older children.

Chicuelo, escuincle ‘teenager’: chamaco or adolescente, with emphasis on physical childlessness, sometimes pejorative.

Relation to social institutions

Boy-scout (masc.), niña guía (fem.)‘scout’.

Acólito ‘church helper’: a boy that helps to catholic priests in the mass.

Cadete ‘cadet’: a boy or male teenager taking military instruction.

Colegial (masc.)‘schoolboy’, colegiala (fem.)‘schoolgirl’ , estudiante ‘student’, escolar ‘schoolboy or schoolgirl’.

Párvulo, preescolar, niño de kinder ‘kindergartner’.

Juridical fixed norm

Menor ‘minor’: a child under the juridical fixed form; in Mexico the norm is 18 years.

Social status

Señorito (masc.), amita (fem.) (obsolete): a child of rich land owners, with explicit sexual attribution.

Niño bien (phraseological unit) ‘rich teenager’: teenager with high economic position of his family and a special behavior.

Relationship to a family or in a family

Primogénito ‘firstborn’: a firstborn child.

Benjamín ‘last-born’: a last-born child.

Expósito ‘abandoned child’: a baby that was abandoned.

Huérfano ‘orphan’: a child who has no parents.

Adoptado ‘foundling’: a child that was legally adopted as a part of family.

Recogido ‘foundling’: a child that lives in a family as a part of it but s/he was found rather than born in the family.

National attribution

Boshito:Yucatan child.

Evaluations of behavior, outer manners or abilities

Chillón, llorón ‘crybaby’: niño that used to cry frequently.

Malcriado, mimado, consentido, mocoso ‘spoiled child’: niño who is ill mannered because of the lack of good parental education.

Marimacha: niña (girl) that has a behavior like a boy. Sexual attribution: female.

Travieso ‘mischievous child’: niño causing annoyance, harm, or trouble.

Discussion and Conclusions


All three languages have special words for a baby. A baby is evidently a child. Most of the other general concepts that are defined using the concept ‘child’ have presupposition that he or she is not a baby (we do not repeat this in our definitions), except for boy and girl. Thus, a baby has no specific properties but sex.

All three languages have special words for non-adult persons with national attribution, but only for those nations that have clear distinctive features from the speakers of this language, and are important in the given culture, e.g., for neighboring nations: black and indigenous people in American English; Turks, Tatars, and Chinese in Russian; Yucatan in Mexican Spanish (these Mayan-speaking people are opposed to Aztecs living in Central Mexico).

It might seem strange that the concept of negr ‘black person’ is present in Russian. Probably the explanation is in their sharp visible distinction from the average Russian speaker. Historically, kitaec ‘Chinese person’ was (and sometimes is) used in Russian to denote the Asian-type people.

The words connected with relationships in the family and to juridical fixed norm are nearly identical in the three languages. The words connected with relationships to social institutions obviously depend on the institutions existing in the corresponding countries. Therefore, the words connected with social characteristics are practically the same, being adjusted for the differences in social institutions and culture.


Only Russian seems to have concepts related to the body constitution (butuz, karapuz, podrostok). Spanish has more concepts related to size: 10, while Russian has 7, and English 3.

Of the words related to evaluation of behavior, in Russian, the most frequent concepts are connected with child’s entertaining behavior (ozornik, etc.: 5 of 18), English with wrong behavior of girls (chit, minx, tomboy, hoyden:4 of 12), and Spanish with bad manners (malcriado, mimado, consentido, mocoso:4 of 8). Probably this reflects the most socially marked behavior.

The three languages differently segmentate the rubric of general concepts (except for babies).

First, they differ in a scope for a prototypic non-adult. In Russian, teenager, like podrostok, junosha, are not anymore children. In Spanish, matured teenagers, like joven, are not children, but teenagers, like muchacho, still are so. In English, all non-adult persons can be referred to as children.

Second, the time scale is different. Some time ago Russian had four stages: rebjonok – otrok – podrostok – junosha, but now otrok has become obsolete and its place on the scale was occupied by rebjonok.

In English, there is one binary opposition: teenager – preteen (or adolescent – preadolescent, these pairs seem to be equivalent), with very few words in each part. It has a special group of words denoting practically adult persons, like youth, maid, etc.; the members of this group also are adolescents.

In Spanish, there is a three-level gradation: muchachito – muchacho – joven, as in modern Russian. However, the place of obsolete Russian otrok that was in modern Russian occupied by a younger rebjonok, in Spanish is occupied by older muchacho. Also, Russian rebjonok intersects on the scale with Spanish muchacho. Besides, in Spanish, unlike Russian, for each position on the scale there are several words.


1.    Apresyan, Yu. D. Selected Papers, Vol. 2. Integral description of language and systemic lexicography (in Russian). Languages of Russian Culture, Publ., Moscow, 1995.

2.    Lakoff, G. Women, fire and dangerous things. What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1987.

3.    Wierzbicka, A. Semantics, culture, and cognition: Universal human concepts in culture-specific configurations. Oxford University Press, New York, 1992.

4.    Wierzbicka, A. Cross-cultural pragmatics: The semantics of human interaction. Mouton de Groyter, Berlin, 1991.

5.    Bolshakov, I., P. Cassidy, A.Gelbukh. Russian Roget: Parallel Russian and English Hierarchical Thesauri with Semantic Links, Based on an Enriched Roget's Thesaurus (In Russian). Proc. of the Annual International Conf. on Applied Linguistics Dialogue-95, pp. 57 - 60, Khazan, May 1995, Moscow, Russia.

* The work done under partial support of CONACyT and SNI, Mexico.

[1] In this article, we leave apart the collective nouns because they usually do not have special semantic features.

[2] This word also has other meanings.

[3] It is important for a child, because he can not take care of himself. When he grows up, formally he still is an orphan, but it is not so important any longer.

[4] It is interesting that plural is used only for “kitajchonok” and “negritjonok”. Maybe it is connected with the fact that they are used for denoting the corresponding races (see the Discussion section).

[5] The concepts from plaksa to poprygunja may also denote adult persons, though such behavior is typical mainly for children.