Tuesday, November 28, 2017

“Man gave names to all those animals”: goats and sheep

This is a joint post by Guido Grimm, Johann-Mattis List, and Cormac Anderson.

This is the second of a pair of posts dealing with the names of domesticated animals. In the first part, we looked at the peculiar differences in the names we use for cats and dogs, two of humanity’s most beloved domesticated predators. In this, the second part (and with some help from Cormac Anderson, a fellow linguist from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History), we’ll look at two widely cultivated and early-domesticated herbivores: goats and sheep.

Similar origins, but not the same

Both goats and sheep are domesticated animals that have an explicitly economic use; and, in both cases, genetic and archaeological evidence points to the Near East as the place of domestication (Naderi et al. 2007). The main difference between the two is the natural distribution of goats (providing nourishment and leather) and sheep (providing the same plus wool). This distribution is also reflected in the phonetic (dis)similarities of the terms used in our sample of languages (Figures 1 and 2).

Capra aegagrus, the species from which the domestic goat derives, is native to the Fertile Crescent and Iran. Other species of the genus, similar to the goat in appearance, are restricted to fairly inaccessible areas of the mountains of western Eurasia (see Figure 3, taken from Driscoll et al. 2009). On the other hand, Ovis aries, the sheep and its non-domesticated sister species, are found in hilly and mountainous areas throughout the temperate and boreal zone of the Northern Hemisphere. Whenever humans migrated into mountainous areas, there was the likelihood of finding a beast that:
Had wool on his back and hooves on his feet,
Eating grass on a mountainside so steep
[Bob Dylan: Man Gave Names to all those animals].

Goats were actively propagated by humans into every corner of the world, because they can thrive even in quite inhospitable areas. Reflecting this, differences in the terms for "goat" generally follow the main subgroups of the Indo-European language family (Figure 1), in contrast to "cat", "dog", and "sheep". From the language data, it seems that for the most part each major language expansion, as reflected in the subgroups of Indo-European languages, brought its own term for "goat", and that it was rarely modified too much or borrowed from other speech communities.

There is one exception to this, however. The terms in the Italic and Celtic languages look as though they are related, coming from the same Proto-Indo-European root, *kapr-, although the initial /g/ in the Celtic languages is not regular. In Irish and Scottish Gaelic, the words for "sheep" also come from the same root. In other cases, roots that are attested in one or other language have more restricted meanings in some other language; for example, the Indo-Iranic words for goat are cognate with the English buck, used to designate a male goat (or sometimes the male of other hooved animals, such as deer).

The German word Ziege sticks out from the Germanic form gait- (but note the Austro-Bavarian Goaß, and the alternative term Geiß, particularly in southern German dialects). The origin of the German term is not (yet) known, but it is clear that it was already present in the Old High German period (8th century CE), although it was not until Luther's translation of the Bible, in which he used the word, that the word became the norm and successively replaced the older forms in other varieties of Germany (Pfeifer 1993: s. v. "Ziege").

Figure 1: Phonetic comparison of words for "goat"


The terms for sheep, however, are often phonetically very different even in related languages. The overall pattern seems to be more similar to that of the words for dog – the animal used to herd sheep and protect them from wolves. An interesting parallel is the phonetic similarity between the Danish and Swedish forms får (a word not known in other Germanic languages) and the Indic languages. This similarity is a pure coincidence, as the Scandinavian forms go back to a form fahaz- (Kroonen 2013: 122), which can be further related to Latin pecus "cattle" (ibd.) and is reflected in Italian [pɛːkora] in our sample.

This example clearly shows the limitations of pure phonetic comparisons when searching for historical signal in linguistics. Latin c (pronounced as [k]) is usually reflected as an h in Germanic languages, reflecting a frequent and regular sound change. The sound [h] itself can be easily lost, and the [z] became a [r] in many Scandinavian words. The fact that both Italian and Danish plus Swedish have cognate terms for "sheep", however, does not mean that their common ancestors used the same term. It is much more likely that speakers in both communities came up with similar ways to name their most important herded animals. It is possible, for example, that this term generically meant "livestock", and that the sheep was the most prototypical representative at a certain time in both ancestral societies.

Furthermore, we see substantial phonetic variation in the Romance languages surrounding the Mediterranean, where both sheep and goats have probably been cultivated since the dawn of human civilization. Each language uses a different word for sheep, with only the Western Romance languages being visibly similar to ovis, their ancestral word in Latin, while Italian and French show new terms.

Figure 2: Phonetic comparison of words for "sheep"

More interesting aspects

The wild sheep, found in hilly and mountainous areas across western Eurasia, was probably hunted for its wool long before mouflons (a subspecies of the wild sheep) were domesticated and kept as livestock. The word for "sheep" in Indo-European, which we can safely reconstruct, was h owis, possibly pronounced as [xovis], and still reflected in Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Polish. It survives in many more languages as a specific term with a different meaning, addressing the milk-bearing / birthing female sheep. These include English ewe, Faroean ær (which comes in more than a dozen combinations; Faroes literally means: “sheep islands”), French brebis (important to known when you want sheep-milk based cheese), German Aue (extremely rare nowadays, having been replaced by Mutterschaf "mother-sheep"). In other languages it has been lost completely.

What is interesting in this context is that while the phonetic similarity of the terms for "sheep" resembles the pattern we observe for "dog", the history of the words is quite different. While the words for "dog" just continued in different language lineages, and thus developed independently in different groups without being replaced by other terms, the words for "sheep" show much more frequent replacement patterns. This also contrasts with the terms for "goat", which are all of much more recent origin in the different subgroups of Indo-European, and have remained rather similar after they were first introduced.

The reasons for these different patterns of animal terms are manifold, and a single explanation may never capture them all. One general clue with some explanatory power, however, may be how and by whom the animals were used. Humans, in particular nomadic societies, rely on goats to colonize or survive in unfortunate environments, even into historic times. For instance, goats were introduced to South Africa by European settlers to effectively eat up the thicket growing in the interior of the Eastern Cape Province. Once the thicket was gone, the fields were then used for herding cattle and sheep.

Figure 3: Map from Driscoll et al. (2009)

There are other interesting aspects of the plot.

For example, as mentioned before, in Chinese the goat refers to the "mountain sheep/goat" and the "sheep/goat" is the "soft sheep". While it is straightforward to assume that yáng, the term for "sheep/goat", originally only denoted one of the two organisms, either the sheep or the goat, it is difficult to say which came first. The term yáng itself is very old, as can also be seen from the Chinese character used, which serves as one of the base radicals of the writing system, depicting an animal with horns: . The sheep seems to have arrived in China rather early (Dodson et al. 2014), predating the invention of writing, while the arrival of the goat was also rather ancient (Wei et al. 2014) (and might also have happened more than once). Whether sheep arrived before goats in China, or vice versa, could probably be tested by haplotyping feral and locally bred populations while recording the local names and establishing the similarity of words for goat and sheep.

While the similar names for goat and sheep may be surprising at first sight (given that the animals do not look all that similar), the similarity is reflected in quite a few of the world's languages, as can be seen from the Database of Cross-Linguistic Colexifications (List et al. 2014) where both terms form a cluster.

Source Code and Data

We have uploaded source code and data to Zenodo, where you can download them and carry out the tests yourself (DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.1066534). Great thanks goes to Gerhard Jäger (Eberhard-Karls University Tübingen), who provided us with the pairwise language distances computed for his 2015 paper on "Support for linguistic macro-families from weighted sequence alignment" (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1500331112).

Final remark

As in the case of cats and dogs, we have reported here merely preliminary impressions, through which we hope to encourage potential readers to delve into the puzzling world of naming those animals that were instrumental for the development of human societies. In case you know more about these topics than we have reported here, please get in touch with us, we will be glad to learn more.

  • Dodson, J., E. Dodson, R. Banati, X. Li, P. Atahan, S. Hu, R. Middleton, X. Zhou, and S. Nan (2014) Oldest directly dated remains of sheep in China. Sci Rep 4: 7170.
  • Driscoll, C., D. Macdonald, and S. O’Brien (2009) From wild animals to domestic pets, an evolutionary view of domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106 Suppl 1: 9971-9978.
  • Jäger, G. (2015) Support for linguistic macrofamilies from weighted alignment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112.41: 12752–12757.
  • Kroonen, G. (2013) Etymological dictionary of Proto-Germanic. Brill: Leiden and Boston.
  • List, J.-M., T. Mayer, A. Terhalle, and M. Urban (eds) (2014) CLICS: Database of Cross-Linguistic Colexifications. Forschungszentrum Deutscher Sprachatlas: Marburg.
  • Naderi, S., H. Rezaei, P. Taberlet, S. Zundel, S. Rafat, H. Naghash, et al. (2007) Large-scale mitochondrial DNA analysis of the domestic goat reveals six haplogroups with high diversity. PLoS One 2.10. e1012.
  • Pfeifer, W. (1993) Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Deutschen. Akademie: Berlin.
  • Wei, C., J. Lu, L. Xu, G. Liu, Z. Wang, F. Zhao, L. Zhang, X. Han, L. Du, and C. Liu (2014) Genetic structure of Chinese indigenous goats and the special geographical structure in the Southwest China as a geographic barrier driving the fragmentation of a large population. PLoS One 9.4: e94435.

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