Sunday, July 07, 2013

What are the different names for "cat" in different languages?

A couple of days, Haaretz's Word of the Day was Khatool, meaning "cat." I have no idea if the article's discussion of the word "cat" is at all accurate, linguistically speaking, but it's fun.
Every language of mankind has a word for cat and most are of striking similarity. in fact there seem to be two main groups, apparently stemming from two ancient roots. In fact, the words for cat are so alike that they could serve as an argument for the postulated Ur-language– the "monogenesis" theory that there was an ancient proto-tongue spoken by an early clan of humans, which fathered the nations of man around today. 
As that clan scattered through the eons, with descendants slowly spreading around the globe, the theory says, their languages evolved. 
Of course, we can never know if there was a single proto-language, but it is fun to postulate, and how else did so many peoples on the planet wind up with such similar words for cat? 
The two roots, which seem to stretch back into eons long gone, are qat and mao. We can also give honorable mention to pusi
The common Hebrew term for cat is, as said, khatool– see the khat? The formal Arabic is qot (or qet); the vernacular Arabic is biss (shades of puss!), and the English is – figure it out for yourself. The ancient Assyrians and the Asturians called it the qatoo
Over the millennia the oo seems to have disappeared. Today's French has chat, German has katze, Greek has gata and Icelandic has kottur. Catalan settles for gat, like modern Arabic, and the Basque language that is said to be unique calls the noble animal the catua. [For another article on different cat names in European languages, see Etymon - cat].
Seeing a pattern here? Moving down to the African languages, we find katti in Nyanja, elkati in Zulu and pakka in Swahili. 
As for the second root, some mainly Asian tongues seem to have derived their word for cat from the meow: the Sanskrit call the cat marjara, while Mandarin goes straight for mao. (There you thought you were saying of your kid, "He's the cat's meow," but all along you were saying, "He's the cat's communist dictator".) 
Of course, where you have two peoples you have three opinions and somebody at some time evidently had an original mind. Gujaratis are among the minority that preserved neither the qat sound nor the musical meow, instead calling the cat biladi – the Hindi is billi. Tamils call it poonai. Go figure. 
Gypsies call the cat muca, preserving the meow and the ca. Romanian and Samoan lean towards the pusi section of cat words. 
The Japanese word for a generic cat is neko, also commonly known as yamaneko. Which brings us to the Iriomote-yamaneko, an exceptionally rare and primitive wildcat found on the remote island of Iriomote (sometimes also called yamamaya – there's that mao – which means "the cat in the mountain." Some call it yamapikarya – "that which shines on the mountain." Yeah.)
There's a problem with this idea when it comes to the Semitic languages. I can see how Hebrew khatool is related, in some fashion, to Arabic qot, although where did the ool part of the word come from? (Perhaps the oo is from Assyrian - but the l?). So how do we have shunra, in Aramaic? It's not related to any of the three basic words for cat in the world, at least according to this article.

When looking at the Wiktionary article on "cat" in Syriac, the mystery appears to be solved. The word for cat in Akkadian is shuranu, in Arabic it's sinnawr (this must be only one of the Arabic names for cat, because above the Arabic word for cat is qot or biss). (See also the entry in the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon).


  1. Delightful article on this topic (well, the Semitic part anyway) by John Huehnergard, who wrote the introduction to the Semitic languages roots section in the American Heritage Dictionary.

  2. Thank you for this article. Although the Haaretz source is not too clever, it does raise some interesting questions. Obviously, the original homelands of cat species are likely the places where humans first need a word for them. My cat Ephrem responds to the Syriac "Shunnar!" "Shunnara dil!" I believe this name refers to the animal's capacity for sleep.

  3. Thank you for the reference to the John Huehnergard article on cats. I studied two different Aramaic dialects with him when I was a student at Harvard - Targumic and Babylonian Jewish Aramaic. We never discussed cats, however.

    1. Glad you enjoyed Huehnergard's article. Small world that you were his student. I got to your site via The Ha'aretz piece is, uh, less than learned, but still fun.

  4. The Zulu word for cat is actually "ekati" without the "l." Not having a word in their language for a common housecat, the Zulu people simply took the word "cat" ("Kat" in Afrikaans) and added an "e" in front, hence the mentioned term which is pronounced "EE-KAH-TEE". The same approach applies to a number of words "borrowed" from foreign tongues, i.e. simply add the "e" prefix, and the word is instantly Zulu, e.g. a "motorcar" becomes "Imoto," and so forth. It appears to me problematic to employ such "loan words" found in African tongues, i.e. those having been derived from the languages of foreign "invaders," in order to substantiate the "'monogenesis' theory that there was an ancient proto-tongue...."! Whilst the latter might be a possibility, I wonder how many of the words appearing to have a singular "primordial root," so to speak, are actually due to, as it were, "interracial linguistic cross fertilisation"!