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  • Author: Piotr Gąsiorowski x
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The notion of HEAD is reflected in the basic lexicon of all known languages; the identification of the head as a distinct and vitally important body part, labelled with a simplex word, seems to be a cross-cultural universal. Thanks to their high frequency of use and their “basic concept” status, words meaning ‘head’ tend to be diachronically stable and therefore important for comparative reconstruction. Their expected retention rate - as estimated on the basis of data from several uncontroversial language families - is on a par with words meaning ‘heart’ or ‘foot’. On the other hand, culture-specific factors may lead to the proliferation of secondary meanings, the rise of stylistically marked nearsynonyms, and consequently to locally accelerated lexical evolution. This seems to have happened repeatedly in the Indo-European family, in which not only the oldest reconstructible ‘head’ word, *ḱreh₂- but also secondary, branch-specific terms have often been subject to lexical replacement. This unusual variability of words for HEAD in Indo- European contrasts with the remarkable conservatism of words for several other bodypart concepts, such as EYE, EAR, TOOTH and HEART. In this paper, we shall attempt to identify recurrent patterns of semantic change in the emergence of new synonyms and the polysemic development of inherited ‘head’ words. Insights derived from recent studies of “embodiment” will be used to explain the observed tendencies.


The origin of the Germanic suffixes forming occupational titles and agent nouns – masculine *-ārijaz (the ancestor of Modern English -er) and its feminine counterpart reflected in Old English as -estre and in Modern as -ster – is an old problem in Germanic historical morphology. The masculine “agentive” suffix, which occurs in all the subgroups of Germanic, is generally presumed to be of Latin origin, though it occurs mostly with native derivational bases even in the earliest attested Germanic languages; the latter is believed to be native, but has no accepted etymology, and its limited range of occurrence in Germanic remains unexplained. It will be argued that the two suffixes are etymologically connected in a hitherto unsuspected way, that the traditional opinion about the origin of *-ārijaz should be revised, and that both suffixes have interesting Indo-European cognates outside Germanic.