Cats and Dogs

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Cats and Dogs: Our Ancient Friends

In response to my last entry, one of my Yale ’76 classmates, Stephanie Wald, posed a very interesting question: what is the relationship, if any between Cat, Late Latin Gattulus, and the Hebrew Khatool (חתול). Thank you Stephanie for this great question.

Of course, although I like cats a lot, I have always been a dog person. Happily today, I am owned by a wonderful Skye Terrier, Angus (see photo below). In the past, I’ve been a human of a Cocker Spaniel and a Rhodesian Ridgeback. I say this because, when Angus and I go out for a walk, I carry little bags to pick up after him, not he for me. So who’s in charge? LOL. I think that when extra-terrestrials visit, they will call this the Canine-Human planet. Therefore I broadened my inquiry into Dogs as well as Cats.

To present my cat credentials, I must tell you about my experience of tutoring a 2011 USF grad who needed to learn Latin for a European Mediaeval graduate program she wanted to enter. Each time we met, one of their two cats came right up and sat right on the page of Wheelock that we were studying. The only way to dissuade her was for me to cuddle her and purr, while we were doing declensions, conjugations, and the like. Happily we did well and my student got into the prestigious program she wanted to. I miss that cat!

So here are the results of my research. I am far from a Hebrew scholar, and Stephanie is a life-long linguist, so this is just fun for me, learning new things.

Cats Across Language Groups


Cat Coffin from the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, San Jose, CA. Photo (c) 2012 Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum

As many may know it is difficult to connect words across language groups, and one would need to find a “smoking gun” for borrowing or assimilation. His rebus dictis (these things having been said), Cattus (Gattus) / Catta (Gatta) is first attested in the 4th Century CE in Latin.The conflation of C and G in Latin is perfectly natural. In Archaic Latin, the letter “C” (the western version of the Greek gamma Γ, γ) represented the sound of both hard C (cat) and hard G (Caius = Gaius). By the 3rd Century BCE, a new letter “G,” clearly a C with a horizontal stroke on the lower lip replaces the Latin Z, which is not needed for native Latin words. The original alphabet was ABCDEFZH… Now it was ABCDEFGH… Later, Y and Z (the Greek Upsilon Υ,υ and Zeta Ζ, ζ would be added back in at the end of the alphabet to use with words imported from Greek. Still today, Y is i-griega in Spanish and i-grec in French = Greek i… humans have long memories!). Latin, especially in the people’s Latin, Vulgar Latin (no nastiness intended, vulgus = popular), C and G often interchanged. The Latin suffix -ulus is a diminutive, and so Cattulus would roughly be “kitty.”

Cattus vs Feles

But where does this Cattus come from? The cultured, upper-class Latin for cat is “feles.” Pretty different! At first glance it appears to be a borrow word from the Afro-Asiatic family of languages (including Late Egyptian čaute): Semitic languages are part of this language family. The Hebrew words are: a male cat = khatool (חתול); a female cat = khatoolah (חתולה). Seeחתול.

As for names of Cats in Ancient Egypt, they usually kept those to themselves (names have power), and were just called, Ta-Mieuw, or “The Meower.”

Since the Romans and the Jewish community had many points of contact, including Jerusalem, Alexandria and Rome, prosopograpy would tell us that there is certainly the opportunity for cross over, so that by the 4th Century, the classical Feles (cat) is supplemented by Cattus/Gattus.

Some assert that Martial used cattus in his epigrams, but I have not been able to find the passage yet. And I wonder if the Roman cognomen Catullus / Catulus is related to cattus? Whether or not this borrowing came through Hebrew, Egyptian or in some other way, I do not know. After all, Egypt is certainly the land of cats!

Now all this would be fine; however we have to also take account of the (Proto-)Indo-European roots for “cat.” It turns out there are two: *bʰel- (wildcat) and katta (cat). Feles (classical) is descended from the first, while cattus/gattus (Late Latin, and Vulgar Latin –> Medieval Latin: is arguably cognate with the second.

With such similar sounding roots for cat in the Indo-European family and the Afro-Asiatic family of languages, it is tempting to suggest that the root for cat is evidence for the theoretical Proto-Human language from our species’ origins in Africa, This is far deeper than I can go, however; nevertheless, it appears that cats have been with us for a very long time.

Our English words come from both roots. As we have seen, English (as well as several other IE languages) does not so much choose between one or the other…why not use both?

Cat is clearly from the ancestor of the PIE root katta and similar Afro-Asiatic root, possibly from African Proto-Human. Our more fancy word, feline, is from the PIE *bʰel via Latin. French has chat and félin, Spanish has gatto and felino.

So to answer Stephanie’s question, it certainly looks like all of these Cat terms are related, and arguably go back a VERY long time. After all, we are all “Out of Africa,” the Mother Continent of modern humanity (at least as far as we can tell now).



Angus, the One Who Must Be Obeyed!

The history of our words for dogs is a bit different, but exhibits some similarities. As they say in Southeast Asia: “Same, same, but Different!”

In English, not surprisingly, we have at least several Dog words: Dog, Canine, Hound. Let’s look at these.

Dog comes from our Germanic language heritage, as Wiktionary says:

Middle English dogge, from Old English docga (“hound, powerful breed of dog”), a pet-form diminutive of Old English -docce (“muscle”). More at dock. In the 16th century, it superseded Old English hund and was adopted by many continental European languages.”

My dog-master Angus would certainly like that…Muscular Breed of Hound!

Then there’s the English/French/Italian Canine, from the Latin Canis, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European ḱwṓ. Cognates include Ancient Greek κύων (kuōn), and Sanskrit श्वन् (śván).

We also have Hound, cognate with the German Hund. This is from the Old English hund. Hound has this suggested etymology:

Proto-Germanic *hundaz, from Proto-Indo-European *ḱʷn̥tós, derived from Proto-Indo-European *ḱʷōn (“dog”).  The K sound morphs into the H sound. In many languages, including English, K is sometimes aspirated (a voiceless plositive for those who are following along in their linguistics textbooks), especially when it starts the word, or the stressed syllable. For example, say the name of Barbie’s friend “Ken,” which we actually pronounce as Khen. To simplify it, there is an expulsion of air after the K sound here, and there is not when it is in an unstressed syllable, say for example, “chicken.” We don’t say chi-khen, just chi-ken. (Be patient, the IPA will be introduced in a few weeks. It makes everything much clearer!)

So Canine and Hound actually come from the same PIE root! As Mr. Burns would say, “Release the *ḱwónn̥s (PIE accusative plural of hound)!” I’m pretty sure he is old enough that he spoke PIE before matriculating at Yale. At least I suspect Bart and Homer think so…!

But where did the Spanish perro come from? It may surprise Spanish speakers, but the original Spanish word for dog is Can obviously from the Latin Canis. Nobody actually has figured out where perro comes from. One speculation is that it might be an originally pejorative word associated with how one calls dogs. We can compare this with the Galician apurrar (“set the dogs on”).

Now let’s turn to our neighboring language group, the Afro-Asiatic, with which our languages have had so much interaction over the millennia. Dog is a little different:

Proto-Afro-Asiatic: *kar-/*kayar-
Meaning: dog

Semitic: *wakar- ‘fox’

Western Chadic: *kyara-

Central Chadic: *kur-/*kir-

Saho-Afar: *kar- ‘dog’

Low East Cushitic: *kayir- ‘dog’

Warazi (Dullay): *kaHar- ‘dog’

South Cushitic: *ta-kur- ‘bat-eared fox’ 1, ‘wild dog’ 2

Dogs in Ancient Egypt were called  iwiw (probably from their bark, and had some wonderful names: Brave One, Reliable, Good Herdsman, North-Wind, Antelope, Useless (!), Blacky, the Fifth.

Some of the Afro-Asiatic roots seem to be at least a bit similar to the PIE *ḱʷōn, but I am not expert enough to compare them. Perhaps someone can comment on these roots.

In Egypt, there is evidence of domesticated dogs approximately 6,000 years ago, as too with cats. The evidence for worldwide domestication of dogs goes back a lot further. The latest evidence suggests that dogs and wolves split about 100,000 years ago, and the earliest evidence of domesticated dogs is about 30,000 years old. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that those dogs survived the Last Glacial Maximum, and our dogs today seem to be descended from the ones who domesticated us (LOL) about 15,000 years ago.

To speculate, I would not be at all surprised to learn (from the Extra-Terrestrials who have been watching our planet since it coalesced) that about 2.3-2.4 million years ago, when Homo Habilis first differentiated itself from the australopithecines, the proto-dogs took one look and said, “This is very promising. We’re gonna work with these new guys, and make sure they succeed. We’ll get them to feed us and clean up after us! What a deal!” Cats, on the other hand, waited to see how the Dog experiment worked out. The genetic evidence suggests that all our house cats come from five African Wildcats from 8000 BCE. They must have been the brave five who decided the Dogs had succeeded, and then they got worshipped in Egypt. What a deal!

(I know this is all so anthropomorphic, but when the  Alpha-Centaurans (or Stargate’s Asgard) tell us the real history of our planet, I suspect animal intelligence is going to play a huge part!)

So cats and dogs have been with us a long time. We are lucky!

For future work, think of all the words about them we haven’t explored: kittens, puppies, Arf, Bark, Meeow, etc.! There’s always more to discover.

Go hug your pet!


Steven ArmstrongTutor, Editor, Consultant