Concerns about a word in the year of the 牛 ox

It is not possible for me to avoid the topic on the first day of the year which will be dominated by a metal ox: the name of this animal in Chinese and in other languages.

When you check on articles that provide information on the Chinese lunar calendar and its so-called ‘zodiac signs’, you find in English, the most simple translation for what we have now: the sign of the ‘ox’. These two letters achieve the double job of summarising the idea of a bovine animal and of persuading people that it has nothing in common with western free bulls. This, as I discovered, is not free from cultural biases. A lot of modern languages indeed, use several words to talk about the exact same animal but considered in different contexts : male, female, castrated male, young adult, child, or… meat. After checking the official translation of the concept in other languages that I know, I realise that strangely enough, it is not acknowledged in the same way everywhere.

For once, French and Italian agree together against Portuguese and Spanish. For the French and Italian, the Chinese sign of the 牛 is considered as a ‘buffalo’ : French 「buffle」 and Italian 「bufalo」 . But Spanish and Portuguese both prefer the same hypernym also used for the category of bovine meat, known in English as ‘beef’ : Spanish 「buey」 and Portuguese 「boi」. Finally, English has retained the castrated adult male version : 「ox」.

Chinese languages hypernyms work differently from European languages systems. The more single and simple is the character, the biggest category we have to deal with. When you end up with such a simple and straightforward character as 「牛」, you can’t treat it as a specific subcategory but you really have to consider it as an idealistic generality.

I remember having been wondering about the exact category of the animal, in 2015, for the year of the 羊. In English, everyone was calling it the year of the ‘goat’. Some people used the concept of ‘sheep’ though and I know in French, we have both : most of the time ‘goat’ 「chèvre」 and sometimes ‘sheep’ 「mouton」. That was the year when I discovered the wonder of Chinese hypernym lexicon system, and the fact that in order to discriminate between a ‘goat’ and a ‘sheep’, you need to add an adjectival or nominal epithet before, as for example : 「山羊」 a ‘goat’ (= mountain 羊) and 「綿羊」 a ‘sheep’ (= soft 羊).

The same happens to the morpheme attributed to the character 「牛」 which actually means ‘anything bovine’. You may call it a bull, an ox, a cow, or just beef, the character stands for the whole species. And the more I think about it, the less I understand why the popular conception of a cattle animal emasculated and used for agricultural work instead of other features its species usually allude to, should be favoured over the actual meaning of the original vocabulary. In our Greek zodiac, we seem to be proud to refer to a wild, strong and unrestrained animal like the bull you can see in the Taurus sign. Why would we need a different translation for the Chinese zodiac? I leave this question open, as I may not have all the historical and sociological keys to understand this lexical choice, and I move on to another strange point.

Sinitic languages are not supposed to have ancient connections whatsoever with Indo-European. The first encounters might have been due to the Tocharian presence in West China, but there was most probably a big stock of Sanskrit loanwords that got into Chinese thanks to the Buddhist teachings moving from Central Asia toward the East. So when comparing the pronunciation of a word such as 「牛」 with the Indo-European equivalents, I can’t imagine those to be cognates, but I’m still shocked by their phonetic confluence.

Mandarin comes from a Sinitic dialect that has been simplified with time and it appears that Southern Chinese languages are considered as the closest to Classical Chinese itself, at least in terms of how they kept many consonants that purely disappeared in Mandarin. 「牛」 is pronounced [niú] [1] in Mandarin, but here are other Sinitic languages pronunciation for the same character:

Cantonese : [ŋə̀w] (ngau4 in Jyutping [2])

Hakka : [ŋiù]

Min Nan : [gû]

A reconstruction of Old Chinese [3] states that it could have been pronounced [ŋʷə] during the first millenium BCE.

Here are now, some famous Indo-European words for the concept of ‘bull’, ‘ox’ or ‘cow’ :

Ancient Hellenic : [gʷóus] → Proto and Ancient Greek : [bóus] (change from [g] to [b] was usual in many European languages)

Old Armenian : [kov]

Italic : [gʷows] → Latin : [bówis] (genitive) [4] → Spanish : [bʷɛʲ] / French : [bœf]

Tocharian : [kewa]

Sanskrit : [go:]

The similarities between Indo-European languages are nothing extraordinary, but those between them and the Sinitic languages are amazing. Some linguists have been wondering about these similarities [5], but no one has ever been able to conclude with certainty that the word has been borrowed from IE by Sinitic languages – or the other way around? However, this strange, and maybe accidental resemblance, is as remarkable as the elegance of the divine animal whose year we are entering right now. Oh, and of course: 新(牛)年快樂, happy new year of the ox-bull-cow-beef!


[1] squared brackets show pronunciation in a version of International Phonetic Alphabet

[2] see pronunciation guide for Jyutping :

[3] Old Chinese predates Middle and Classical Chinese

[4] Romance languages rather evolved from accusative : [bówem]

[5] like Victor Mair here, on Language Log :

Lascaux cave paintings showing cattle and horses

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