Shades of Meaning from Context

Trying to build a dictionary from linguistic field notes is tricky. Many words only appears once or twice, and so we have to rely on the original field recorder for the translation – and hope it is correct!

One interesting problem I ran into recently are multiple words for ‘hair’ and ‘feather’.

xnek is the common word for ‘hair’, specifically head hair. Yalaq is grey hair, nuxw is crinkly or bristly hair and sinhl is pubic hair. However, there is a word yiakw which appeared only once in a story recorded by Leo Frachtenberg about 100 years ago. In his glossary, Frachtenberg defined the word simply as meaning ‘hair’ – with no shades of meaning to differentiate it from the more commonly used word for ‘hair’, xnek.

yiakw appears in the story about the young woman who turns in to a bear – she grows yiakw (hair) on her back and shoulders. So from context, perhaps yiakw refers to body hair and/or fur, unlike the word xnek which always refers to head hair.

Untangling all the different words for ‘feather’ has been a more difficult task, since there is less clear cut contexts given for those words. wetl’ is the word given by most sources (Frank Drew and Annie Miner Peterson to Mel Jacobs; Jim Buchanan to Frachtenberg, and Martha Harney Johnson to Jane Sokolow). But, the word kwexw is used for feather twice in the Creation story Jim Buchanan told, in the context of the two Arrow Young Men using an eagle’s feathers to create douglas fir trees – so kwexw might refer to the feathers of large birds, or of eagles specifically.

kwinis appears twice in one story – always in the context of ‘blown away like a feather’ – so kwinis might imply specifically small feathers.

likwit is used once to describe red headed woodpeckers. The red feathered scalps of these woodpeckers were a wealth item used to decorate regalia, so likwit might refer specifically to these feathers.

Unfortunately, all we have are these small and subtle clues to guess at a richer meaning for all of these words.


About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
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2 Responses to Shades of Meaning from Context

  1. Pingback: Why 2 words for Jealousy? | Shichils's Blog

  2. Pingback: More puzzling meanings of words from context | Shichils's Blog

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