Mmegi Blogs :: Deciphering the ancient names of animals (Part 3)
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Deciphering the ancient names of animals (Part 3)

In this mini-series, we first explored the names of selected animals – firstly in general, but with special emphasis on those associated with biblical antiquity. Then last week we concentrated on domesticated animals.
By L M Leteane Fri 08 Apr 2016, 14:57 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Blogs :: Deciphering the ancient names of animals (Part 3)








In this third and final instalment of our mini-series, we delve into the ancient etymology of animals that have lived long with mankind but were never – and perhaps could never be – domesticated. Instead, these animals would raid farms and settlements to feed on the domesticated animals themselves, or decimate field crops and stored grain. In typical fashion, all etymologies show off Setswana as a true protolanguage whose etymons echo even in supposedly unrelated language families.

Let us begin with the fox. This stealthy creature is well known across all cultures as a notorious raider of chicken and small stock. It slyly evades traps to get its plunder, leaving the irate farmer to later count his losses. Indeed, a fox’s raid seemed like the very visitation of a phantom, hence its ancient association with ‘an invisible gust’: a foko or phoko. Evidently, ‘fox’ was once pronounced foko-je (‘phantom eater’), and thus shared an ancient common etymology with Setswana’s phoko-je. This evident association is, of course, opaque to linguists who regard the biblical Tower of Babel incident in Genesis 11 as pure myth, but I will continue to unearth traceable vestiges of the still-discernible protolanguage described therein.

But what, in the first place, makes me believe that the etymon foko/phoko is a proper, valid ‘proto-term’? In a prior article, I related the Latin term voca (‘words’:  as in ‘vocabulary’) to the Setswana term foka, thus ‘foko’. Indeed, the Setswana term foka means ‘flutter in the wind’ and ‘words’ are ma-foko,  thus literally meaning ‘that which, like moving air, is felt but not seen’. Since the prevailing ‘wisdom’ in linguistics is that Latin and Setswana have no ‘genetic’ relation with each other, the common etymology of not only voca/foka, but of ‘fox/phokoje’, should count either as mere ‘coincidence’…or yet another sign of the now-lost mother language. Let us track down more such ‘coincidences’ in this article.

A rather more difficult name to trace is that of the wolf, the rival of the fox. Part of the reason for this difficulty is that in Setswana we do not have a true wolf in our region quite like the one that features in European fairy tales like ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘The Three Little Pigs’. What we have is its domesticated cousin, the dog. So, although the Setswana name for ‘wolf’ is ‘phiri’, this actually refers to a hyena – which is also of the same broad family. But whether one speaks of a hyena or a wolf, the common characteristic about them is their proclivity towards secretively snatching away domestic animals to feed on. Unfortunately, victims occasionally included children –hence the plethora of scary tales about wolves in European cultures and hyenas in African traditions.

Now, I have encountered the Sumerian term phiri-je (‘secretive eater’) in, for example, A Praise Poem to Shulgi.

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So, it seems to me that this was the original name for a wolf: a tribute to its well-known stealth when stalking its prey. (Western translators of the praise-poem mistranslate the term phiri-je as ‘lion’, but it most probably meant ‘wolf. And in employing the term, Shulgi – a historically-attested Sumerian king of the Ur III dynasty – was, on another level, boasting that he will stubbornly continue as the ‘secret eater’ of the goddess Inana despite being impeached for this by the gods…but this subtlety – an embedded theme echoing throughout the poem – is lost to translators: it requires some knowledge of peculiar Sumerian terms, and a good knowledge of Sotho-Tswana, to properly crack it.)

What about the etymology of ‘wolf’ itself? We might as well help out our Western counterparts.  Different from formal dictionary etymologies (which are unable to properly trace the name), I discern that the name arose from the distinctive howl of the creature. ‘Wolf’, I aver, is actually ‘wooo-olofa’ (‘to howl’). In short, the name is onomatopoeic. In Setswana, the name for such ‘singing’ is to ‘leufa’ which now means ‘to sin’ but whose own root etymology ‘low-fa’ means to ‘lower oneself’. The original connotation, as regards singing, was that one’s voice faltered (‘lowered’) instead of maintaining pitch. It can also mean a low (bass) sound as in cattle ‘lowing’. And since the wolf’s howl also reminded people of the distinctive wailing of grief, to leufa was superstitiously seen as ‘to invite grief’ and thus discouraged. The association with ‘sin’ was an easy-to-relate, opportunistic linguistic coalescence. Now, the f/p sound-change in ‘leufa’ and ‘leupa’ is quite like that of foka/phoka, so in Latin a wolf is a leupa (lupa).

Turning now to grain-eating animals, we look at the rat. This destructive animal, a rodent, actually lives within the homestead and survives by expertly hiding itself and moving quickly yet silently and stealthily.  Dictionary etymologies reveal that the original Old English (OE) name was ratte. In Setswana, rate! is an active expression that conveys the act of ‘sneaking upon’…and this is precisely what a rat has to do on the grain for it to survive. It is composed of two morphemes ra + te. Ra! connotes ‘bursting out’ or ‘suddenly appearing’ (thus ‘radiate’) and  thee! in Setswana connotes ‘slipping away’ or ‘disappearing’. Combined, they infer ‘something that appears and disappears suddenly’.  Peba (pee…ba!) connotes the same and the Sotho term lehohlo suggests something that quickly ‘darts into a hole (hohlomela)’. Lastly, we consider the monkey – an animal notorious for stealing not only crops in the fields, but food and objects at home. Being very quick and agile, it is a successful ‘taker’ (a mo-nki). Batswana, and the Mayans of South America, chose to name it as a chuen/chuenyi…a harasser! Comments to leteanelm@gmail.com

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