The Joy of Language Learning

About Tribes and Tribunals

Long before the practices of today, where humans all around the world connect and assimilate rather effortlessly, was a time we preferred staying in and around a group of known individuals called tribes. Tribalism was important as it helped in the development of social bonding which is necessary for social animals like ourselves. Essentially being the stepping stone to the civilization we are now, the significance of tribes and tribal communities cannot be undermined and of similar value is the word tribe and its derivates.

The word tribe was derived from the Latin tribus which referred to the three ethnic divisions of the original Roman state. Its Greek counterpart is phylum which is still used in biology for species classification.

Image Credit: Le Monde illustré/

The head of a tribe was called tribunus in Latin and officials appointed to protect the rights of the common folks were referred to as tribunes. Even now, tribunes is referred to as someone who is a champion or protector of human rights. Its extension, tribunal, in law, still refers to a seat or bench for judges. It can also mean a committee that has been granted the power to judge a particular matter.

When any of the Roman tribes was allotted or granted something, it was called tribuere which later became tribute. You might have heard of ministers paying tributes to Mahatma Gandhi on Gandhi Jayanti, which essentially means that the ministers are offering a gift of remembrance or gratitude to the great man. It can also be equated to granting recognition as in ‘it is a tribute to the dedication of this group. If you’re familiar with some basic geography, you have met tribute’s derivative, tributary. Earlier, it would have meant a person who pays tribute but now it is used to refer to smaller rivers and streams that pay a tribute of water to the main river.

Image Credit: PMO, GoI

When the prefix ad- (to) was added to tribuere, the word condensed to form attribuere which meant to assign or allot. It is the ancestor the term attribute. Thus, if we attribute a lot of importance to something it means that we are giving it a lot of importance. If we talk about the attributes of a good leader, we highlight the characteristics assigned to (i.e. expected of) a good leader. Similarly, when any work of art is attributed to a particular artist, his/her name is being assigned to the work of art.

Soldiers distributing food
Image Credit: US National Archives

Other prefixed versions include words like distribute (Latin dis: individually, thus the complete meaning being to assign individually) and contribute (Latin con: together, the meaning to assign or grant in common with others). Similarly, the term retribution (Latin re: back) originally meant to assign or give back but has evolved to convey a punishment inflicted on someone as vengeance. Its verb cousin is retribute which still means to pay back.

Here’s a quick summary and a short quiz for you. This will help you solve the crossword ahead.

Table Summary:

TribeA group of people who are of the same kind or have the same occupation or interests
TribuneAncient Roman officials chosen by plebeians to protect their interests.
Tribune-alA body of judges established to resolve certain disputes
TributeAn act, statement or gift intended to show respect or admiration
Tribute-aryA river or stream flowing into a larger river or lake
Re-TributeTo give or pay back
Re-Tribute-ionPunishment for a wrong or criminal act
At-TributeTo assign; characteristic
Dis-TributeGiving a unit of something to each individual
Con-TributeGive something in order to achieve or provide something
PhylumA classification of species

Welcome to your Tribe and Tribunal

The Sentinelese are one of the few remaining uncontacted ___________________.

What is the meaning of "tribute" here?


The Ghaghara is the largest ________________ of the Ganga river by discharge.

The meaning of "retribution" here is:


The chocolates were ____________ among the children. (given to each)

"Contribute" in the given headline means:


_____________ is a term used for species classification.

The word "attribute" here means:

Source: Hindustan Times

What does "tribunal" mean in the given headline?

Source: The Hindu

Click on the image below to be redirected to the crossword page:



3. A seat or bench for the judge/s

5. Officials appointed to protect the rights of common citizen

7. To pay or give back

9. An action to show respect or admiration

10. To give things to a number of people individually


1. Quality; characteristics

2. A label used for speicies classification

4. To give a part of the total

5. Small streams and brooks that meet the river

6. Repayment for a crime or injustice

8. A large group of people that have the same language and custom and a chief

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