Conference paper by Milad Abedi and Samira Müller at ICSTLL55: Donkey-eared or Rabbit-eared, that’s the question – Trans-Himalayan zoonyms as seen in relation with their neighbouring languages


At the 55th International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics (ICSTLL-55) Samira Müller and Milad Abedi presented their study about Trans-Himalayan zoonyms as seen in relation with their neighbouring languages


This study aims to shed light on the emergence of specific zoonyms by comparing terminologies for ‘rabbit’ and ‘donkey’ in Sino-Tibetan and Iranian languages respectively. The terminology of these two kinds of beasts is worth investigating since in many languages they have been used to describe each other due to various traits they share, i.e., long ears, fur colour, evasive character, and possibly also astonishing fertility. Western Himalayan languages reflect the Iranian way of calling the rabbit “the one with donkey ears,” e.g., Garo kʰɔrga. In regions where donkeys were used as beasts of burden for centuries the choice of describing a rodent with especially long ears as ‘donkey-like’ was probably very intuitive. In Iranian, the need for such a new word additional to the commonly known expressions developed from IE *ḱh₁es- ‘hare’, (Cf. Skt. śaśáâ- ‘hare’ OE hara ‘id.’ Khot. saha- ‘id.’, MPZ. Sahōg ‘id.’) implies that people encountered a new species of rodent. Rabbits were absent in the Indo-European world. There were but ‘hares’‚ a species which could not be bred (Beekes 2011: 37). The new species, i.e., rabbits, in contrast was not hard to breed and quickly became a welcome source of meat, leading to delicacies such as the ‘rabbit stew’ (MPZ xāmīz ī xar-gōš) mentioned in Middle Persian literature. The new and smaller hare-like species started to play a more pronounced role in the life of people than hares. Since rabbits became known much later in the Iranian speaking world than hares, various neologisms formed among different speaker groups. Whereas some chose an expression describing its tale (Cf. Bartangi x̌itum < OIr. *xišta-dauma- ‘cut-tail’), others named it by describing the size of its ears or their similarity to donkey ears (MPZ xar-gōš< OP *xara-gauša- ‘donkey-ear’). Yet another group named it based on the length of its ears, which led to expressions like Ossetic Ir. tærquš< OIr. *daraga-gauša- ‘long-ear’. The latter actually followed the concept of one of the less known Persian names for donkey: darāz-gōš ‘id.’. On the eastern ridges of the Himalaya, however, domestic donkeys were seemingly unknown until around the 3rd century BCE when a beast called lǘ 閭 (OC *kra) was first described as “long faced” and “rabbit-eared” (tù ěr 兔耳) (Cheng 2013). While standard expressions for the donkey and the mule were defined by the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE–9C E) in literary Chinese, an array of expressions for specific equids, which are difficult to identify until today, existed alongside them. Apart from words like jùxū 駏驉 (OC *g(r)aʔqʰ(r)a) for which the connection to the donkey was recognized in Chinese commentaries, there are several unclear terms which could have potentially described donkey-like beings: The ‘equid with kicking hooves’ juétí 駃騠 (OC *kʷˁet-dˁe), e.g. strongly reminds of Janhunen’s suggestion that the Proto-Dravidian donkey term kaẓutay was a compound literally meaning ‘kicker of the salt desert’ (Parpola & Janhunen 2011: 74). The word diānxí 驒騱 (*[d]ˤar-ɡˤe) mentioned as a special domestic animal of the Xiongnu has cognates in several rGyalrongic languages, often carrying the specific meaning ‘mule’. While there were probably many contacts between the Persian and Tibetan cultural spheres (cf. Zhang 2005), this word could in fact have travelled around the Himalaya region and be cognate with the Ossetic terms for rabbit mentioned above. The strong relation between words for rabbit and donkey can also be found in ST languages. Whereas hares thrived in the Himalayan region for millennia, the donkey was mainly known in the northern and western ridges. Thus, it would only be natural if the hare would have given its name to the donkey. However, in Written Tibetan a similar situation as in the Iranian language can be seen, as the expression for alpine hare (WT byi-ba-rkɑŋ-ríŋ) did not fit for describing the possibly newly introduced rabbit breed, which was thus called ‘mountain donkey’ (WT rǝ ɣoŋ).