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Tracing Semantic Change in Athapaskan Body-Part, Effluvia and Ephemera Terms

Conor Snoek (Alberta)

Sunday, May 20
Buchanan B213

Inspired by Wilkins’ (1996) seminal work, this study sets out from a circumscribed semantic domain, the human body, and seeks to exploit insights from Cognitive Semantics in order to uncover word etymologies. As a conceptual domain, the human body encompasses not only those parts whose removal would constitute great loss to the organism, but also those that are dispensed with regularly, such as bodily excretions, or periodically, like fingernails.

The data gathered for this study included all three types, here referred to respectively as: Bodyparts (for the permanent parts of the body, such as ‘head’, ‘arm’), Effluvia (for bodily products that are dispensed with regularly ‘feces’, ‘urine’) and Ephemera (for bodily substances that are temporary or easily removed, such as ‘fingernails’, ‘warts’). Terms from were gathered into a database called BEET. The BEET (Body-part, Ephemera and Effluvia Terms) database covering 29 Athapaskan languages and dialects was constructed for this purpose. An onomasiological grid of 131 English language terms formed the basis of the data gathering technique. Published sources, chiefly dictionaries, but raw field notes as well, provided the main sources of the data.

In view of the scarcity of diachronic data for Athapaskan languages, studying the etymology of BEETs requires comparing terms both language internally and across languages to unearth cases of semantic shift, and propose older and younger meaning-form associations. The use of the BEET database provides a rigorous and anon-opportunistic data gathering technique against which rates and types of semantic change can be quantitatively assessed and evaluated.

The reconstruction of the word histories of BEETs in Athapaskan therefore also contributes to the wider research field of semantic change by strengthening the case for the systematicity of semantic change as proposed in Wilkins (1996), as opposed to the more widespread attitude that change in meaning is random and unpredictable (Hock 1998: 308, Anttila 1972: 147).


Anttila, Raimo. 1972. An Introduction of Historical and Comparative Linguistics. New York: Macmillan Publishers.

Hock, Hans-Heinrich. 1999. Principles of Historical Linguistics. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Wilkins, David P. (1996) “Natural Tendencies of Semantic Change and the Search for Cognates”, In The Comparative Method Reviewed, Durie, Mark and Malcolm Ross (eds.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 264-304.

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