Let’s make a language, part 20a: Animals (Intro)

The fauna to plants’ flora, animals are those living beings that move. That’s not exactly a scientific definition, but it suffices for linguistic purposes. Plants just sit there, except when their leaves are falling or their seeds are blowing through the air. Animals, by contrast, are mobile. They walk or fly or slither or swim. They hunt, and they eat. From the perspective of language, they’re more like us.

Just as languages will have words describing plants, they will have a large portion of their vocabulary devoted to talking about animals. Think about how many names of animals you know. More than likely, you can probably recall a hundred or more. (Ubuntu managed to pick one for every letter of the alphabet, although they had to resort to a few obscure ones, like “eft” and “quetzal”.) Add to that the number of terms for animals’ body parts, their young, their meat, and you’ve got a laundry list of language.

The words a given tongue will have for animals can be roughly divided based on a familiar rule: those animals that are known to a language’s culture for a long time are more likely to have native names. Hence, English has dogs and cats natively, but it has to borrow raccoons and koi. “Foreign” animals get foreign or descriptive names, octopus being an example of the latter. And the more obscure ones often have compound names…when they didn’t have to settle for scientific ones. (Interestingly, this is one way linguistic historians can track the movement of a speech group. If they borrowed a name for a “local” animal, then they might not have always been in a place to get to know it.)

Domesticated animals

Those animals that have been domesticated will have the biggest chunk of vocabulary dedicated to them. Not only are there the general terms for an instance of the kind (dog, horse, etc.), but these are more likely to have gender differences even if the language doesn’t normally distinguish gender. In English, for example, we have pairs like horse/mare or bull/cow, where one of the gender-specific words is also the generic, and we also see three-way distinctions such as the generic chicken, male rooster (or cock), and female hen.

Domestic animals can also earn special words for their young. Sometimes, these are derived from the “adult” word: chick, kitten. Others are unrelated: puppy, pony. Note that these are not the same as diminutives. Those refer to smaller animals, not necessarily younger ones.

Languages may also give this type of animal a whole associated vocabulary. Breeding is a popular topic, as seen from words like thoroughbred or mutt. Purpose, for working animals, is often denoted by compounding—lapdog, workhorse—but separate terms can arise, e.g., an ox is merely a specialized kind of cattle.

These animals are also more likely to provide us with a number of metaphorical and analogous words or phrases. We can speak of someone being hounded after, then being cowed into submission. A coward is a chicken, while someone feigning death is playing possum. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, as the saying goes—a rare bit of gender equality. The list goes on.

Wild animals

Those common yet untamed animals will be referred to by a different sort of terminology, but most of it will remain “native”, rather than borrowed. It’s still possible to have gender differences, but it’s more likely that the non-default sex will have a derived name: lion, lioness. Young may have dedicated words, but they probably won’t be specific to a single kind of animal. Bears and tigers both have cubs.

The rest of the vocabulary will be affected to the same, lesser, degree by wild animals. Some of the important ones get immortalized in metaphor (snake in the grass) or even slang (bear, as referring to a specific type of gay man). But they won’t be all that common.

Exotic animals

Even rarer are those animals which don’t really exist in the “natural” sphere of a language’s influence. For English, this includes anything out of the Americas, Africa, or Australia, along with quite a bit of Asia. These animals are much more likely to be called by borrowed names. Indigenous peoples gave us our words for a great many animals. As an American, I can point to raccoons, opossums, and moose, among others. An Australian would instead hold up the kangaroo, dingo, and wallaby, while South Americans and Africans can provide their own examples.

Another option (and this is, in fact, where many of the indigenous names come from) is onomatopoeia. Animals can earn names that resemble the sounds they make. It’d be like us calling a cow moo. Although that sounds strange, plenty of languages do just that.

Finally, a more scientifically advanced culture may try to give a name to everything. Our scientific names (or binomial names) serve to identify every living thing on Earth, including animals, plants, bacteria, and more. They are rigorously rational and mechanical, however, and every one of them is invented. (Not only that, but they’re then shoehorned into an entirely different language, Latin.) For a future language, possibly one needing to name alien species, this is an attractive option.

Mythological creatures

Not every animal named in a language actually exists. Some come from mythology and imagination. Greek myth, thanks to its influence on classical education throughout the West, has given us quite a few “creature” names: phoenix, basilisk, Pegasus, centaur. Dragons are common to many parts of the world, as are giants, which may be important enough to earn their own word. Elves, fairies, and anything else you can think of will fit in this section, as well.

Creatures of myth and legend can be named in any way. Many are derived terms (basilisk coming from the Ancient Greek word for “king”, wyvern from a dialectal form cognate to “viper”, werewolf combining “wolf” with an old term for “man”), but some are original. Sometimes, an entire “race” of creatures can be named after their mythological founder, as is the case with Pegasus.

Animal nature

Animals are very important to our lives. One of the ways we show that is by including them in such a large part of our language. Even the most generic terms have use, as we can speak of animal magnetism or the reptilian part of a brain. More specifically, an animal that we see every day, that we interact with regularly, will insinuate itself into our speech. We’ll compare things to it, judge others by it. And when we meet a new creature, we’ll give it a new name. Sometimes, we’ll relate it to what we already know. Other times, we’ll simply call it as the locals do. And that’s fine, too.

Still to come

After the usual Isian and Ardari posts, we’ll get back to more human concerns by looking at ways to work. Along the way, we’ll (finally!) pick up some more verbs, something we’ve been sorely lacking. I hope you’re having fun, because even though this is the 20th entry in the series, we’re not even close to done.

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