Word of the Day / Khatool - The Word Cat: Evidence of an Ur-language in Proto-humans?

What do Israeli street cats and Japanese proto-leopards have in common? Possibly an ancient etymology.

Ruth Schuster
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A black khatool.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Ruth Schuster

The Hebrew word khatool simply means "cat" – felis silvestris catus – which Wikipedia helpfully explains is "a small, usually furry, domesticated, and carnivorous mammal."

Yes, there are bald ones out there, but actually, purists, such as this writer, might take issue with "domesticated."

After all: "Whereas other once wild animals were domesticated for their milk, meat, wool or servile labor, cats contribute virtually nothing in the way of sustenance or work to human endeavor," as Carlos Driscoll wrote in Scientific American (2009). So possibly, if anything, they domesticated us.

Be that as it may, cats are everywhere. They apparently evolved in Asia and now thrive in every continent with the exception of Antarctica. No cats there. Therefore, there is no reason to go there. Q.E.D.

Every language of mankind has a word for cat and most are of striking similarity. in fact there seem to be two main groups, apparently stemming from two ancient roots.

A black cat in Tel Aviv.Credit: Avshalom Halutz

In fact, the words for cat are so alike that they could serve as an argument for the postulated Ur-language – the "monogenesis" theory that there was an ancient proto-tongue spoken by an early clan of humans, which fathered the nations of man around today.

A domesticated cat in Tel Aviv.Credit: Avshalom Halutz

As that clan scattered through the eons, with descendants slowly spreading around the globe, the theory says, their languages evolved.

A rare Israeli sandcat and newborn kittens at the Ramat Gan Safari: Ancient humans knew cats like these very well.Credit: Moshe Blank

Of course, we can never know if there was a single proto-language, but it is fun to postulate, and how else did so many peoples on the planet wind up with such similar words for cat?

A Japanese sign featuring a rendering of a rare wild cat.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The two roots, which seem to stretch back into eons long gone, are qat and mao. We can also give honorable mention to pusi.

The common Hebrew term for cat is, as said, khatool – see the khat? The formal Arabic is qot (or qet); the vernacular Arabic is biss (shades of puss!), and the English is – figure it out for yourself. The ancient Assyrians and the Asturians called it the qatoo.

Over the millennia the oo seems to have disappeared. Today's French has chat, German has katze, Greek has gata and Icelandic has kottur. Catalan settles for gat, like modern Arabic, and the Basque language that is said to be unique calls the noble animal the catua.

Seeing a pattern here? Moving down to the African languages, we find katti in Nyanja, elkati in Zulu and pakka in Swahili.

As for the second root, some mainly Asian tongues seem to have derived their word for cat from the meow: the Sanskrit call the cat marjara, while Mandarin goes straight for mao. (There you thought you were saying of your kid, "He's the cat's meow," but all along you were saying, "He's the cat's communist dictator".)

Of course, where you have two peoples you have three opinions and somebody at some time evidently had an original mind. Gujaratis are among the minority that preserved neither the qat sound nor the musical meow, instead calling the cat biladi – the Hindi is billi. Tamils call it poonai. Go figure.

Gypsies call the cat muca, preservng the meow and the ca. Romanian and Samoan lean towards the pusi section of cat words.

The Japanese word for a generic cat is neko, also commonly known as yamaneko. Which brings us to the Iriomote-yamaneko, an exceptionally rare and primitive wildcat found on the remote island of Iriomote (sometimes also called yamamaya – there's that mao – which means "the cat in the mountain." Some call it yamapikarya – "that which shines on the mountain." Yeah.)

For eons, the yamaneko's existence was unproven: It was mere legend on the island, famous for its fierceness. Even when the existence of this extremely endangered proto-leopard was proven in 1965 with the help of dead specimens, the only documentation was drawings and paintings because the cat is entirely nocturnal and painfully shy.

There's a legend that scientists wanted pictures of the real deal, still alive, and were not about to be frustrated by some ill-tempered missing link in feline evolution. So, goes the tale, they set up baited cameras. The idea was that the cat would take the bait, triggering the camera.

It worked, to a degree. Thing was, the yamaneko's reactions were so lightning fast that from the time the camera was triggered to the time the photo was taken, the cat would turn tail and flee. And thus for years, science was gifted with great photos of the yamaneko's behind, and nothing more.

Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.