At the Wording Desk

COW WORDS PART 2 looks at the words cow, Latin vacca, French vache and Spanishvaquero.

The Teutonic root for cow whose Old English reflex is has cognates throughout the Indo-European language family.
English kine (a Southern English plural of the word cow)
Dutch koe
German Kuh
Swedish ko
Sanskrit gau, gaus, gaiy-, go- गो
Latin bos, bovis (with its Late Latin adjective bovinus)
Classical Greek βοûς

A clever commercial use of the Greek word appears in BouMatic™, a manufacturer of automatic milking equipment and other dairy-farm systems. Their corporate name began in 1939 when Lawrence Bouma founded Bou-Matic Milkers Inc. in Ontario, California. Someone conversant with Greek soon realized that the company name could also be analyzed as a combination of bou Classical Greek βοûς ‘cow’ + -matic from automatic, itself from Greek automatos ‘self-acting’ from autos Greek ‘self’ + matos Greek ‘ready, willing, and able to act.’

My studies convince me that the word cow and several other lexemes meaning cow have sources older than Proto-Indo-European and may have been borrowed into PIE from more ancient languages, as I explain below.

The Echoic Cow
Cu is onomatopoeia, an imitation in letters of the sound made by the animal. The ancient Teutons heard ; we hear moo. The ancient Romans and Greeks heard boo hence their words for cow or bovine animal: Latin bos, bovis and Greek bous. The cow call “co-boss” often parsed as English ‘come, cow’ is still heard in Great Britian and North America but how do you explain its use in several parts of non-English-speaking Europe? My answer is that the call co-boss is a kind of doublet from some area of Europe where the Teutonic word for cow nudged up against the root as seen in Latin bos and Greek bous. “Bossy” as a name for a specific cow is widespread throughout Europe.

Cow Words Formed by Imitating a Moo Sound
Here is a sample of world cow words that all seem to be attempts to represent the characteristic lowing of cattle.

Arabic for cow is BAH-qa-ra. Not too far from Latin vacca. Could this be a pre-Proto-Indo-European root, reaching back to a language that preceded the domestication of the cow and the arrival of Indo-European peoples in Europe? I further posit an onomatopoeic ultimate source in which the first syllable of the Semitic cow words is echoic, representing how the hearers heard a cow’s moo.

A common Sanskrit term for cow is [ गो  ]  go, cognate with the English cow and Latin bos. The Sanskrit word for cattle is paśu obviously cognate with Latin pecu, possible PIE root being *peku. Cf. Latin pecus ‘cattle as wealth.’ Pecus is a close relative of the Latin word pecu ‘flock, herd, cattle’ and *pec seems related to the Semitic shoresh for ‘cow’ bqr whose reflex in Biblical Hebrew is baqar, in modern Arabic baqara. Shoresh is a Hebrew word designating any Semitic verbal root.

Modern Hebrew for cow is parAH, the female form corresponding to par ‘bull’ and may be related to the bqr root. It was also used in Biblical Hebrew where it is suggested that parah is related to an adjective meaning ‘fruitful.’

The immediate source of the bqr trilitteral verbal root might be a Hebrew verbal root like *bq ‘to pour out, to empty, hence ‘to milk a cow.’ But it may even predate proto-Semitic forms like baqr and hark back to a language that existed thousands of years before Semitic tongues arose. Perhaps then bqr is related to the Latin cow word vacca whose cognate in Sanskrit is vaçā ‘cow’ from Sanskrit vaç ‘to moo, to bellow.’ And they all stem from some much earlier Mediterranean language never written down and now utterly eroded from human ken by the sandpaper of abrasive word-borrowing, relentless linguistic evolvement and that ultimatum for all languages: verbicidal time.

[ 牛 ] Japanese for cow is oo-shi imitating the cow’s characteristic moo sound. We hear moo; the Japanese hear oo.

[ 牛 ] The Mandarin Chinese word for cow is niu. This too is possibly a human imitation of bovine lowing. Does the Chinese character look like the Japanese character? They are identical. Japanese borrowed the character from Chinese. The Cantonese vocalization of this character is ngau, also a mimetic moo!

Yakkety Yak, Do Grunt Back!
The bovine I am fondest of is the yak. There used to be a yak at the zoo near my aunt’s house. I loved its zoological name too: Bos grunnies or Bos grunniens, the domesticated yak, a bovine that makes frequent grunting noises, hence its zoological Latin name Bos grunniens ‘grunting ox.’ Wild yaks do not vociferate as frequently as domesticated yaks. Presumably they have less to bitch about and are not as bossy as other members of the ox tribe. For a wild yak there may also be a security benefit in not grunting too often, because wandering yetis love to munch down on a fresh yak burger.

So catchy is the zoological label that there was once a Toronto rock band named “Bos Grunnies.” One of their members must have been, as I was, a child visitor to Toronto’s High Park Zoo.

Vacca & Vache & Vaquero
Another common Indo-European word for cow shows up in Latin vacca, cognate with Sanskrit vaçā ‘cow’ root vaç ‘to bellow, to moo.’ As stated above, vacca may have been borrowed into PIE from some earlier language. Another sly guess, unproven, suggests that vacca is related to Latin words like vacare ‘to be empty’ and ancestors of our English words vacant and vacuum ‘empty,’ the metaphor being the emptying of a cow’s udder during the act of milking. Thus vacca would be the animal that one empties by milking. Such an etymology is supposititious, there being no certain evidence of that relationship.

Spanish vaca ‘cow’ is from Latin vacca and gives us the American cowboy word buckaroo, derived from an early American attempt at the pronunciation of the Mexican Spanish word vaquero ‘cowboy.’A vaquero drives cattle by waving a shawl-blanket (Mexican Spanish sarape) in several famous drawings by American Wild West artist Frederic Remington.

Bill Casselman’s Personal Vache Story
I have a good French vocabulary and an accent halfway between Ontario High School French and joual de Montréal. So I am not illiterate but I stand out as a foreigner in France trying to speak their language. It has been my experience that, to language beginners or foreign students, the continental French are generally rude, impatient and nasty, quite in contrast to Italians who will smile at your verbal mistakes and cheerfully correct them. The Germans, after you commit a small error in a German sentence, stare at you, natürlich, and then scream, “Aber das is kein Deutsch!” after which they make furtive attempts to administer a blood test to see if you are an Aryan. Such a test must be firmly refused. It only encourages them.

Anyhooooo, there I was in southern France, in the pleasant town of Grasse, lolloping through fields of perfumed fleurs. Noon came and I entered a small grocery store to buy bread. “Bon jour. Avez-vous du pain, monsieur?” I said pleasantly to the owner who had baked bread lovingly ovened and wreathed in warm wheaten aroma sitting in rows along his wooden counter.

The grocer/baker pretended he could not understand my French. I tried spelling the word pain in French. I pointed dramatically at the loaves and made chomping motions with my parched lips as I brought palsied hands up to my mouth. The grocer had decided never to understand. I unzipped my backpack, took out a set of Parisian sock puppets and performed a modest two-act charade detailing the discovery of bread-baking in ancient Mesopotamia.

Nothing availed. I rolled on the floor imitating a French bread stick. He pointed at his head to indicate that I was insane, tout fou. I asked him why he refused to understand my simple, clear French.            “Parce que vous parlez français comme une vache espagnole!” ‘Because you speak French like a Spanish cow.’

"Mercy buckets to you too, mon ami!" I said, as I left his shop. The grocer shrugged his shoulders and said in perfect English, “Were you trying to say Merci beaucoup?"

Bill Casselman

May 03, 2016

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