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Awesome forces and warning signs: Charting the semantic history of tabu words in Vanuatu

Abstract : The Proto-Oceanic etymon *tabu (the source of Proto-Polynesian tapu, and of English taboo) is also preserved in other Oceanic languages, notably those of Vanuatu – albeit with phonetic and semantic changes. Reflexes of *tabu combine the notion of prohibition with the sentiment of awe before the sacred. Sometimes, they simply refer to the mundane warning signs that are put up in various locations to fend off unwelcome visitors. But *tabu words are also often linked with supernatural powers, good or evil, and with the sense of fear they induce upon us. In Vanuatu languages in particular, the root may evoke the numinous power of high-ranked dignitaries filled with mana; or the world of ancestral spirits or ghosts, and the forces of death. Semantic maps prove helpful in visualizing the internal organization of the root‘s lexical domain, as we compare modern languages with each other. Adapting the principles of the Comparative method to semantic change, this study reconstructs the meaning of *tabu at the level of Proto-Oceanic. The full potential of semantic maps becomes even more heuristic as we take a historical perspective: they offer new ways to visualize the evolution of polysemous roots, and to retrace the precise paths taken by changes in meaning.
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Contributor : Alexandre François Connect in order to contact the contributor
Submitted on : Thursday, December 23, 2021 - 10:27:42 PM
Last modification on : Wednesday, July 6, 2022 - 2:55:57 PM


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Alexandre François. Awesome forces and warning signs: Charting the semantic history of tabu words in Vanuatu. Oceanic Linguistics, University of Hawai'i Press, 2022, 61 (1), pp.212-255. ⟨10.1353/ol.2022.0017⟩. ⟨halshs-03092520⟩



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