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I was reading about problems with the assumption of basic vocabulary in Lyle Campbell, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction:

Some 'basic vocabulary' appears to change rather easily for cultural reasons, for example, terms for 'head' in various languages. Proto-Indo-European *kaput- 'head' gave Proto-Germanic *haubidam/*haubudam (hence old English heafod > head) and Proto-Romance *kaput. However, several Germanic and Romance languages no longer have cognates of these terms as the basic form referring to the human head. For example, German Kopf 'head' originally meant 'bowl'; the cognate from *kaput is haupt, which now means basically only 'main', 'chief', as in Hauptbahnhof 'main/central train station'. French tête and Italian testa both meant originally 'pot'; the French cognate from Latin *kaput is chef, but this means now 'main, principal, chief', not a human head. (p. 206)

In Dutch, hoofd is still the basic word for human head, but kop is also used in some expressions and impolite usage, for animal heads as well as for 'cup'. I suppose like with German Kopf the latter is the original meaning.

Is there a reason bowl/pot/cup > head is a common semantic change (that happened independently?) in different languages? Or is this due to borrowing or loan translation? (Campbell notes that French tête was borrowed from Italian testa, but there's also German and Dutch).

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Wikipedia says that "The use of a human skull as a drinking cup in ritual use or as a trophy is reported in numerous sources throughout history and among various peoples, and among Western cultures is most often associated with the historically nomadic cultures of the Eurasian steppe." (Skull cup, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skull_cup ) –  Alex B. Jan 10 '12 at 14:04
Now that I wrote the question down, I see a possible explanation: from 'object with shape of head' to derogatory term (as still observed in Dutch), then into general usage replacing the previous word. Does that seem plausible, or has it maybe been proposed in this case or others like it? –  arjan Jan 10 '12 at 14:11
Is there any evidence of a similar pairing in other families? Semitic? Dravidian? Sinitic? –  Mitch Jan 10 '12 at 14:11
Campbell notes one other change involving head: Pipil (Uto-Aztecan) tsuntekumat 'head' comes from tsun- 'top, hair (in compound words only)' + tekumat 'bottle gourd', and has replaced Proto-Nahua *kwayi- for 'head'. Not a drinking tool, but maybe there are head-shaped bottle gourds? –  arjan Jan 10 '12 at 14:21
Interesting: the Portuguese word for gourd is cabaça, which sounds a lot like cabeça, "head". But cabeça comes from Latin capitia < capitium < caput, while cabaça, according to the Wikitionary, comes from Kimbundu, a Niger-Congo language. Would it be just a coincidence? –  Otavio Macedo Jan 10 '12 at 15:42

1 Answer 1

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Bowls, pots, and cups are the most common everyday things in European cultures that are hollow. A conventional insult is that one’s head is hollow. So transfer from one to the other is fairly easy via slang. Gourds are used for the same insult in tropical areas where they are cultivated or harvested.

I think ‘has a hollow head’ is a pretty common insult cross-linguistically, but I’m not aware of any studies on the topic. There was once a journal called “Maledicta” where such things may have been discussed. Another common insult is that one’s head is full of water, or that it is full of fat, or that it is full of a starchy paste (mashed potatoes, sago palm mush, oatmeal, rice pudding, etc.). An inspired researcher could conceivably investigate this by trawling through a huge pile of dictionaries and ethnographies. It’d be a very long term project to gather enough data to really make the argument solid though. Either that or it would require a large number of collaborators, or undergraduate assistants, or the like.

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Also throw in gongs, drums, hollow logs, and other things that make ‘hollow’ sounds when you hit them. –  James C. Jan 11 '12 at 1:19
Thanks - I have no plans to investigate this further (at this moment) ;). But if anyone knows of relevant references or similar examples, you could leave those in a comment or answer. –  arjan Jan 11 '12 at 18:04
A good reference is Buck's A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages, especially sections 4.20 HEAD, 4.202 SKULL, 4.203 BRAIN, 4.204 FACE, 4.205 FOREHEAD, 4.206 EYEBROW, 4.207-9 JAW CHEEK CHIN, on pp 212-224. It cites the PIE roots and all the known cognates. –  jlawler Jan 12 '12 at 3:08

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