Saturday, January 2, 2010

Words for 'cat'

Frédéric Dichtel wrote me to ask about my research on words for 'cat', so I thought I would devote this week's blog entry to a summary of what I've done. I got interested specifically in words for 'cat' while researching neologisms in American languages (which I was researching in order to publicly support my private opinion that American languages more often create new words for new things rather than borrowing a word from another language). I noticed that, contra most other types of words, animal words were usually borrowed, often from English, but also other European languages. The word for 'cat' is a prime example of this, and displays probably more similarity cross-linguistically than any other word I looked at. My paperon the topic makes the claim that these similarities are due to a small set of widely diffused borrowings, rather than many separate instances of borrowing.

Similar words in different languages can be similar for four primary reasons: (i) the similarity is due to chance, (ii) the languages are genetically related, (iii) the form is borrowed, either from one language to the other or both from the same external source, or (iv) the words are similar due to some language universal. If languages are unrelated and in contact, the most likely scenario is usually (iii). Some examples are included below.
LanguageFamilyWord for 'cat'Source
MohawkIroquoiantakóósMithun (1999)
Munsee DelawareAlgonquianpóóšiišSwiggers (1985)
MahicanAlgonquianpóscheesMithun (1999)
BlackfootAlgonquianpóósFrantz & Russell (1995)
KootenaiisolatepusKCC (1999)
Chinook JargonChinookanpús(h)James Crippen (p.c.)
HanisCoosanpuusGrant (1997)
Klamathisolatep'oosBarker (1963)
Umatilla SahaptinSahaptianp'uusThomas Morningowl (p.c.)
Walla Walla SahaptinSahaptianp'uus, pišpišThomas Morningowl (p.c.)
Nez PerceSahaptianpicAoki (1994)
CayuseisolatepicpicThomas Morningowl (p.c.)
TlingitNa-DenedóoshJames Crippen (p.c.)
HaidaisolatedúusEnrico (2004)
Coast TsimshianTsimshianicdúusDunn (1979)

Most likely these forms are from a combination of diffused borrowings from Dutch poes, the vocative form for 'cat' (i.e., how Dutch people address(ed) cats), English 'puss' and the English vocative 'psspss' used to call a cat. This would explain the prevalence of three types of forms: those that approximate poos, those that approximate pus (including almost all of the Salishan language, which I haven't included above), and those that approximate pispis. One piece of evidence that these are diffused borrowings rather than individual ones is that while Tlingit lacks labials, and thus has a form beginning with /d/ instead of /p/, Tsimshian and Haida have /p/, and thus must have borrowed the form from Tlingit rather than English or Dutch. James Crippen notes that the Tlingit form in turn is a borrowing from Chinook Jargon.

It's not clear what's so special about the word 'cat', but many northern languages have almost identical forms for this word, while other animal names are quite different. For example, the word for 'chicken' in the same languages displays remarkable variation, ranging from English borrowings to French borrowings to onomatopoetic terms to descriptive neologisms. Besides the northern languages, southeastern and southwestern languages also have very similar terms for 'cat', though they are from different borrowings (often old Spanish mozo or English 'kitty').


James Crippen said...

BTW, the Chinook Jargon form is often reduplicated and is rather variable. I’ve seen “puspus”, “pušpuš”, “pispis”, and “pišpiš” in various early sources, as well as monosyllabic examples.

I’m still thinking about Tlingit “dóosh” (phonetically /túːʃ/). Normally borrowings with labial stops are adapted to labialized velar stops, so /p/ becomes /kʷ/ and the like. I think that because there is a word “góos” /kúːs/ meaning “vulva” and “goosh” /kuːʃ/ meaning “thumb, dorsal fin” the predicted form in Tlingit was blocked and the apical consonant was used instead. It’s hard to test this hypothesis though.

Anonymous said...

Cat in AnatolianTurkic is called (keddi) and in Azerbaijani Turkic ( pishik), both languages are south-western/ oguz branch of turkic family of altaic languages.