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Patterns in the diffusion of nomenclature systems

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Abstract

This paper explores some of the principles that affect diachronic change in ‘nomenclature systems’; i.e. closed sets of terms within a particular semantic domain, whose members are defined predominantly by their mutual relations within the set. Of special interest are changes that such sets undergo as they are borrowed from one language to another. The first part of the paper summarises the (largely known) history of the spread of the names for days of the week through Europe from classical times to the present and categorises the kinds of changes that are found – such as partial translation, renaming, updating, and system-internal internal analogies – and the (etymological and geographical) patterns that result from these changes. Then attention turns to the systems of social nomenclature, especially eight-term ‘subsection systems’, found in many Australian Aboriginal languages. Lessons learned from the days of the week discussion are applied to reconstructing the (undocumented) history of the spread of these terminologies. This study can be seen as a contribution to diachronic typology as well as an exercise in applying its results to linguistic reconstruction among languages without a written history.

References

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