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An interdisciplinary view of cows and bulls. Part 1: cow

When people began to domesticate the cow, what could or would they have called the animal? Ideally, a moo. This is what children do when they, Adam-like, begin to invent names for the objects around them. However, the Old English for “cow” was , that is, coo, if we write it the modern way, not . Obviously, cows don’t say coo. Pigeons do. Therefore, we are obliged to treat this word in the traditional way, that is, to look for the cognates, reconstruct the most ancient form, and so on. German has Kuh, pronounced very much like Engl. coo, and the same is, in principle, true of Dutch koe, except that the vowel is much shorter. They differ from Engl. cow, because in the remote past, they sounded as , not as . The Old Norse word was close to the Old English one. Thus, the first conclusion we should make is that the Common Germanic form for “cow” did not exist: the differences were small but apparent.

Once we leave Germanic, but, as long as we keep looking for monosyllabic words, we run into Latin bōs (genitive bōvis; familiar to English speakers from bovine “ox-like”) and Classical Greek boûs. Yet the meanings are partly unexpected: in both languages the words mean “bull, ox; cow,” though more often “cattle.” Especially interesting is the Latvian form, namely, gvos “cow” (dictionaries usually cite gùovs). There is of course no certainty that an ancient Indo-European word for “cow” existed, but, if it did, we note that Germanic has initial k, Greek and Latin had b, while Latvian gvos begins with gv. Germanic was subject to the so-called First Consonant Shift. For instance, for Latin duo English has two. Likewise, Latin gelu “frost” (compare Engl. gelid, and Italian gelata “ice cream”) corresponds to Engl. cold, German kalt, and so forth. It is the g ~ k correspondence that interests us here. Surprisingly, the Latin and Greek words for cattle begin with b, rather than g. And that is why Latvian gvos is so important. If we assume that the protoform began with gv– or rather gw-, everything falls into place. (I am leaving out some minor complications.)

A holy cow. Image credit: Mahabharata by Ramanarayanadatta astri. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Long ago, language historians suggested that some ancient Indo-European words began with gw, usually written as gw in our textbooks. This reconstructed but probably very real gw changed to Germanic kw, as expected (a sound easy to pronounce: English has it in quick, quack, quest, quote, quondam, etc.). Now, while pronouncing w, we protrude the lips, and, if the next vowel also requires labialization, to use a special term, this w may be lost. It does not have to be lost (compare quote and quondam!), but in no English word do we find kwu– ~ kwoo-. The Germanic name of the cow must have begun with kwō- or kwū-. Surprisingly, when the ancient group gw– occurred in Greek and Latin, not the w element but the first one (g) was lost, while w was even reinforced and became b (hence bōs and others). When we look up cow or its Germanic cognates in detailed etymological dictionaries, we find the protoform gwōu- translated as “cattle.”

Do we then have to assume that “cow” is not our word’s original meaning? Before we can answer this question, one more digression is needed. Even though the complex gwou (never mind the diacritics and tiny letters) and its reflexes (continuations) with initial b– are quite unlike the expected moo, perhaps they too resemble the sound made by a cow or a bull. Is then our animal name onomatopoeic (a soundimitative word)? After all, moo is not exactly what the cow “says” (however, mu- and its variants are indeed the preferred verbs for mooing all over the linguistic map). I think the only animal “word” that people perceive in the same way in the whole world is meow ~ miaow. Other than that, compare bow-wow, barf-barf, ruff-ruff, and arf-arf, used to render the noise made by the dog. In Russian, dogs “say” gav-gav (almost the same in Spanish) and tiaf-tiaf. The English word to low has nothing to do with mooing. In the past, it began with hl-, which (once again!) corresponds to non-Germanic kl-, as in Latin clāmare “to shout.” It is anyone’s guess whether the root klā– is sound imitative and belongs with Engl. call, Russian golos and Hebrew qol “voice,” and many others. Thus, the onomatopoeic origin of cow is not impossible.

Vermeer, The Milkmaid and Ecce Homo, Caravaggio. Image credits: (Left) The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (Right) Ecce Homo by Caravaggio. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

If the Indo-European word for the cow was gwōu-, what do we do with Latin vacca, from which Spanish has vaca, French has vache, and so on? No trickery can connect vacca with cow, and this circumstance teaches us an important lesson. A language may have an old, inherited word and replace it with another. The origin of vacca is obscure despite the existence of a similar word in Sanskrit; the old comparison with Engl. ox, the animal name with cognates everywhere in Germanic, is certainly wrong. The double letter in the middle of vacca denoted a long consonant (a long consonant is called a geminate; remember the constellation Gemini?). Geminates in the root occurred most rarely in Latin (ecce, as in ecce homo “behold the man,” consists of two morphemes: ecce), but in many languages, they are typical of expressive and pet names. Probably vacca was one of such words.

As long as we stay in the Romance territory, we may remember that Italian has not only vacca but also mucca, seemingly a blend of mu– and vacca—an ideal coinage. Too bad, we don’t have Engl. mow, rhyming with cow and meaning the same. Also the Slavs had the Indo-European word for “cow” but substituted karva- for it. Its root is kar-, as in Latin cervus “deer,” related to English (and Germanic) hor-n, with h corresponding to non-Germanic k by the self-same First Consonant Shift. There is an opinion that the Slavic word was borrowed from Celtic, but details need not concern us here. The word must have meant “cattle,” and this is the sense we have observed in Greek and Latin. The sense “cow” is the result of later specialization, dependent on the progress of economy. The first animal people domesticated was the sheep. The cow was the second, and in this process, very much depended on whether cows were used for meat or for milk (judging by my experience, no one remembers the English phrase milch cow “dairy cow”; even the spellchecker does not know milch). With the specialization of the cattle’s functions, new words appeared. As long as nouns had three genders, the name of the female (cow), naturally, became feminine, while bull became masculine. Later, all kinds of words like heifer sprang up. We can now answer with certainty that “cow” was not the word’s original meaning

Is this the kingdom from which the name of the cow wandered east and west? Image credit: Upper part of a gypsum statue of a Sumerian woman. The hands are folds in worship. The eyes would have been inlaid. A sheepskin garment is wrapped on the left shoulder. Early Dynastic Period, c. 2400 BCE. From Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. The British Museum, London, by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg). CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

There’s the rub we say, imitating Hamlet. Etymology is full of rubs. We have wandered over the map of the Indo-European languages, but the world is wide, and the ancient Indo-Europeans, nomadic or seminomadic, had contacts with the speakers of other language families. It turns out that the Sumerians had a similar word for “cow,” and so did the Chinese. Could it be a so-called migratory word? Yes, it could: there are many such. Everything depends on where people began to use cows for milk. Their neighbors might learn the art and borrow the word, which would “migrate” from one end of the earth to the other.  We’ll never know. Such is the result of trying to take the cow by its horns. In any case, think global.

Featured Image: This is the constellation Gemini. While looking for or at it, think of geminates. Featured Image Credit: Abbaye St Philibert à Tournus – Mosaïque du déambulatoire by D Villafruela. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Maggie Catambay

    Professor Liberman,

    Are you thinking of the Sumerian word “gud”?


  2. Jules F Levin

    ? Russ govno < *gov'no (dermo)–'cow shit', cf. ?Sanscrit/Hindi caste surname Govinder…? 'Cowherd'. Sorry, too old and tired to check these…working from memory.

  3. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    it’s GOVS (with a dihthong, from earlier Latvian *gùovis) 6th declension, i-stem

  4. Constantinos Ragazas

    Hi Anatoly,

    Since, “OED notes that the variant form chow was very common in 16-17th c.” …

    …how unreasonable is it that “cow” derives from “chow”?

    Constant chewing/chowing being the most characteristic activity of cows.

    Do we know when the name “cow” is introduced in English?


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