Cats and Dogs – a deep divide, including languages

Rumour has it that there is a fundamental difference between cats and dogs. Linguistically, it’s quite obvious.

Couple of weeks ago, and idea popped into my mind, when I was leaving Dream’s realm to join again the Land of the Living. Why do the French, people speaking a Romance language essentially derived from Latin, call cats, chats, a word similar to the Germanic languages that I speak (more or less): Katze in German, katt in Swedish. The scientic (latin-derived name) is Felis silvestris, the Wood Cat (although also in Latin cattus has been used). Swedish and German share quite a lot of existential words, hence, Germans have little excuse to not learn Swedish (but Swedish politeness makes it too easy for us, to not). Like the word for dog: German Hund, Swedish hund. Something still also found in the English language (‘hound’), but chien in French (lat.: Canis lupus familiaris, literally the wolf-dog belonging to the house). The French seem to fancy calling animals with ‘ch’ (phonetically: ‘ʃ’) at the start of the word (in contrast to other Romance languages): cheval for horse, in German Pferd; chèvre for goat, which in High German is Ziege, but Geiß, Goaß or variants thereof in southern German dialects, similar to the Swedish get. But sheep, Schaf in German, is a får in Swedish, and mouton in France, totally different words (to non-linguists) but easily apprehended and memorised because of Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep found on TV in all European countries I lived in (must to see, adult or not).

Not being yet awake, I fathomed one should map this somehow. And thanks to Mattis List (, a linguist and fellow blogger on David Morrison’s Genealogical World of Network, we gave it a first try.

A phonetic comparsion of the words for cats in Indo-European and other languages.
See here for the science.
As it turns out, cats are called pretty much the same all over western Eurasia, and the word is quite invariable in other parts of the World. Note how cat is pronounced in Chinese. No enigma where that comes from:

Even the Basques seem to use the same word, katu, than found in all Romance languages (except French), gato (phonetically very similar to cat). Which is odd, since Basque language (classified as Vasconic and distantly related to any other language in the modern world) seems to be entirely based on the principle to be impossible to understand for any non-Basque person (on global scale; I am a whole-hearted regionalist, but I will never forgive you for curving through your picturesque cities searching for ordinary places and being guided only by signs in your language because you took off all the Spanish ones; please change to pictograms).

But for dog, the situation is nigh-on different; here even related languages can differ profoundly (literal, i.e. in writing, and phonetically).

A phonetic comparsion of the words for dogs in Indo-European and other languages. Note that this only shows the main words, some few languages use(d) more than one word for dog.
See here for the science.
By the way: In Basque, where you have to follow hondartza signs to find the beach, the dog is txakur, but something similar to the Latin canis in the neighbouring, equally regional and proud, Romance dialects/languages (can in Aragonese and Galician).

According to archaeology and genetics, the dogs travelled our side since the Palaeolithic, 15,000 or more years. So it's little surprising our word for them changed so much and diversified. When some of us travelled to the New World via the Bering Street to bring the first, long-forgotten god to America1, dogs, tamed wolves, accompanied them. When the Germanic tribes left the steppe to find a new home in the West, and couple of centuries later the Baltic and Slavic peoples, they likely brought their dogs with them, but probably no cat was sitting on the horse-backs or saddle-bags. [Allow me a little excurse: Heimat is currently a topic of debate in Germany, and some still confuse it with Vaterland or nation; both of which never provided a homely Heimat for modern Germans, but exclusively meant misery and war. In contrast, my actual Heimat, which is the region around Germany’s oldest town Trier – not Germanic but Roman town, naturally – only has positive connotations (for me): beer in indestructible stubby bottles, called Stubbies, ‘sweet’ Viez with onion cake, Riesling (white wine) that can be dry as dust or edelsüß (and very pricy), and a deeply relaxed and beautiful landscape; like the many other Heimats Germans linger to, none of which is Germany itself. You say Kartoffel (potatoe), I say Grumpern (potatoe), you say Ziege, I say Geiß; you say Tür (door), I say Purt (from Latin porta; our most famous one is on the UNESCO World Heritage list), ...]

For some reason, the cat, once domesticated – or opportunistically living with us because we farmed grain to provide it with inexhaustible numbers of their preferred prey and build houses as convenient alternatives to the caves and other holes they were used to – was already there with all other commodities of modern civilisation. And wherever migrations brought humans, their loyal dogs and their native languages (note: it’s mother’s tongue but father’s land, what makes you feel more at home?): Once they settled down, they seemed to have picked up the word ‘cat’ from the settled – usually more civilised – locals, whose home was now shared with barbarians. [Irony of history: some of the latter, mainly the supporters of AfD, CSU, ÖVP, FPÖ, PiS, Fidesz, Jobbik etc are now being afraid of even sheltering much less barbaric refugees, even those using the same word for cat than we do.]

Asking what that animal does (nothing really), the newcomers faced being purred at, and ‘cat’ became part of their lexicon and world. So, it has good reasons that Haviland Tuf, the unlikely captain of a derelict Terran Imperial seed ship2, qualified human cultures throughout the universe by the way they treat cats: civilised people cherish them (or even treat them as gods), barbaric don’t.

And so still the best lines to describe and differ between cats and dogs are:

A dog thinks
it feeds me, it cuddles me, it gives me shelter, 
it must a god!

A cat thinks
it feeds me, it cuddles me, it gives me shelter,  
I must be a god!

Naturally, you don’t invent too many names for a god.

Some links and further reading 

Neill Gaiman, The Price – A short-story about a rugged stray black cat and what it does each night. Included e.g. in Coraline & Other Stories, Bloomsbury, London, New Dehli, New York, Sydney.
, A Dream of a Thousand Cats. In: Sandman, Vol. 3. Dream Country. – A story about the dream of 1000 humans, and how this relates to the cute movements that your kitten makes when dreaming (don't read through the Wikipedia article, it spoils reading the story).
K. Kris Hirst, Animal Domestication – Table of Dates and Places. – A quick introduction with some links to scientific literature, and interlinked articles and most domestic animals such as cat, dog, goat and sheep (the latter two will be topic of Mattis’ and my next co-post on
Mattis List & Guido Grimm, “Man gave names to all those animals”: cats and dogs.
The Oatmeal, My dog. the paradox.
— & The Dog, How I see my dog/ How I see my FriendBeast.
Nils Uddenberg, Gubbe och katt. En kärlekshistoria, Natur & Kultur, Stockholm. – An old man falling in love again, with a stray kitten invading his home and live, and his philosophic pondering about how this could happen.

Want to join the discussion? 

For scientific comments, follow the post on Genealogical World of Networks; for all others feel free to comment here.
Also possible to engage on Twitter, Mattis’ tweet already triggered some response.

Mattis’ tweet

My tweet (new to the business, 140 signs don't really do it for me)

1Neill Gaiman, American Gods, The Author’s Preferred Text. Headline Publishing Group, London
2George R.R. Martin, Tuf Voyaging, Gollancz, London

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