Sunday, July 14, 2013

More on Semitic cats

I should be heading off to the library to work on my chapter on Testament of Job, Joseph and Aseneth, and Philo, instead of writing blog posts, but when it comes to cats, it's hard to resist.

My cat Zachary, a North American cat
One of the commenters on my earlier blogpost about cat names pointed me to an interesting article by John Huehnergard on Semitic (in particular, Arabic) names for cats. The article is entitled "Qitta: Arabic Cats," in a Festschrift for Wolfhart Heinrichs, Classical Arabic Humanities in Their Own Terms (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 407-418.

On page 407, he says that "while a common word for 'dog' appears in nearly all of the Semitic languages, allowing us to reconstruct a Proto-Semitic word *kalb-, there is no pan-Semitic word for 'cat'; instead, a variety of terms is attested." The situation is similar in Indo-European. He posits that this is because the cat was domesticated so much more recently than that the dog, and says that "It is generally agreed that the cat was first domesticated in Egypt, some four thousand years ago." Recent genetic studies, however, have shown that cats were domesticated about 10,000 years ago, at about the dawn of agriculture (as I have posted earlier in this blog).

On page 408, he uses a delightful story to illustrate the wide variety of terms for cats in Arabic: sinnawr, hirr, qitt, daywan, hayda, haytal, dam. The article then goes on to discuss these and several more.

One name for cats in Arabic is bass or biss - meaning "cat" and "sound made to a cat." As he comments, "They are similar, of course, to English puss (also in other Germanic languages) and to Berber muss (found also in Moroccan Arabic), all of which are probably onomatopoetic imitations of feline hissing."

On page 408, he writes about the word haytal, and he speculates that the word might be connected to Mishnaic and later Hebrew hatul (חתול) and Jewish Aramaic htula (חתולא). "All of these may
have been influenced by medieval Latin cat(t)ulus 'kitten,' i.e., small cat(t)us."

Another name is sinnawr. As he writes (p. 411), "Several eastern Aramaic dialects, namely, Syriac, Babylonian Jewish Aramaic, and Mandaic, have a form sun(n)ara 'cat'. This form is a metathetic variant of surana, which is also attested in Babylonian Aramaic. The latter first appears in the consonantal writing srn in the eighth century BCE Aramaic inscription from Sefire, where it probably denoted a local wildcat; it occurs in a curse formula alongside other animals that frequented abandoned sites:
May Arpad become a tell for [the inhabitants of the si,] the gazelle, the fox, the hare, the wildcat (srn), the owl, [...] and the magpie.
On page 412 he writes that the earliest attested Semitic word for "(wild)cat," Akkadian suranum, appears in an Old Babylonian text from the time of Hammurapi (early 18th century BCE). In Old Akkadian texts from the third millennium BCE, suranum is a personal name.

On page 413 he writes about qitt(a), dialectically qatt and qutt. This name is connected with Syriac qatta/qattu and "unavoidably, it seems, with Greek kattos, katta, and Latin cat(t)us, catta from the early centuries C.E. (the latter replacing feles when the domestic cat was introduced into Rome) and the wide array of similar forms in European languages." Some of the Arabic lexicographers considered the word qitt already to be a borrowed word. This word was not borrowed from Egyptian, where the word was miw, with Coptic emou - as he says, miw is imitative, and seems to me to be like our English word miaow, for the sound a cat makes. On page 414 he comments that one of the Arabic terms for cat is al-ma'i'a or al-ma'iyya - "the form of a participle of the onomatopoetic verb ma'a, 'to mew.'" It might also reflect the ancient Egyptian miw.

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