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"Meow" is just Another Name for "Cat"

"Meow" is just Another Name for "Cat"

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Published by Jennifer Ball

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Published by: Jennifer Ball on Nov 16, 2011
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21 June 2013 8:54 PM © Jennifer Ball, Sept. 3, 2010“Meow” is just another name for “cat”
 Meow.
We know this is the sound a cat makes. Five thousand years ago, so did the An-cient Egyptians. They just pronounced it “miw
,”
according to Sir Alan Gardiner, the de-ceased expert on Egyptian grammar. The “i” you see above is not really pronounced as an“i” but instead as a
 y
sound (in the world of linguistics, sounds are written in
italics).
Thetittle of the “i”—a tittle is the dot over an “i”—is curved (see pink circled tittle at right)to show you that its sound is somehow perverted—in this case from an “i” to a “y”—so this word for “cat” really should be written as
myw,
which suggests that
 
the AncientEgyptian word for cat was probably not far from “mew,” another sound we recognizeas emanating from a feline.I apologize for bringing up curved tittles—and if the sound of this word makesyou titter, it is not a coincidence. Our language is loaded with Cro-Magnon baggage, such aswords and letters that show a similarity to sticks, weapons, and human body parts. We think our
letters are not pictures. This is part of our myopia. The alphabet is a simplied form of what was
important to early man: things found in nature. Our letterforms are pictorial, but the pictures are soderivational that we’ve forgotten—as a society, and on purpose perhaps—what they represent. It isconvenient to think that our alphabet is not as logographic as Chinese, for example, but that’s be-cause many of us are in some form of denial, and perhaps even elitist: “Their language is pictures;ours is not.”
The Chinese word for “cat”—
ma
o (top)—ispronouncedwith a high,sustained tonewhich soundslike a cat’s cry.This character isapproximately3,000 years old.Highlighted in pink is the sound correspondence betweenthe Chinese word for “cat” and Ancient Egyptian word for 
“cat.” A form of “meow” has been a signier for “cat” for at least ve thousand years.
The hieroglyph for “cat” in Sir AlanGardiner’s
EgyptianGrammar 
, the bibleof Egyptologists,is transcribed as“miw” (bottom).Ancient Egyptian hi-eroglyphs date from3,200 BC.
hieroglyphGardiner's interpretation
Chapter 2
“Meow” is just another name for “cat”
 
by Jennifer Ball © September 3, 2010
Curved
tittlecircled inpink.
 
2
21 June 2013 8:54 PM © Jennifer Ball, Sept. 3, 2010“Meow” is just another name for “cat”
Part of the problem is this curved tittle. The way to keep people
from knowing things is to use arcane symbols or insufcient descrip
-tion. For example, Gardiner interprets the human arm hieroglyphas having “a guttural sound not found in the English language” (seebelow). He doesn’t even describe this sound. Why? Because then youwould know too much, and linguists would have to kill you.
1
Ridicule has replaced homicide as society’s response to someonewith a new idea. We marginalize by deprecation. The “Bow Wow”theory, as it is known, postulates that the origins of speech are based onearly humans’ imitation of animal sounds. You can guess by the namehow seriously this theory is considered. Onomatopoeia—a word thatsounds like the thing it names—is the term for the class of words thatthe “Bow Wow” theory covers. Words like “bees,” “crow,” “cuckoo,”and “hawk,” would appear to have been named after the animal thatmakes that respective sound. “Meow,” though not recognized in our
culture as a formal word, still signies for most humans as the sound acat makes. Onomatopoeic words are obvious choices for rst vocaliza
-tions because the imitation of a sound takes only mimicry. It’s easier tocopy than be original, and humans are good mimics. Perhaps an earlyspeaker made the sound of a cat. An early listener understood what was
meant was “cat.” It’s not difcult to imagine. Based on the Chinese and
Ancient Egyptian words for “cat,” humans have heard and interpreted
sound the same for at least ve thousand years, and no doubt longer.
Linguists allow that there are similar-sounding words for some
concepts across all cultures, but these congruencies are considered insignicant because they have
the excuse of being onomatopoeic or else they fall into the category of “baby talk.” Wouldn’t
those early words of children, uttered before the culture has had a chance to take a rm hold, more
clearly suggest the origins of language? Should we discount words simply because they fall in thecategory of “too obvious”? Consider: Over the last 5,000 years humans have fought wars over
religion, women, and body modication—but we agree on the word for “cat”? An irrelevant coin
-cidence linguists would say.Are coincidences of this magnitude irrelevant? The congruence between sound and mean-
ing over a ve thousand-year period in three distinct cultures—Ancient Egyptian, Chinese, andours—for the concept of “cat” seems signicant, especially because human evolution would be a
logical explanation for this similarity. Humans have primal needs, and these needs dictate that hu-mans’ behavior follows patterns, much like children have characteristic stages as they grow (thiscould explain the pyramids existing in disparate cultures with no apparent contact). These depen-dencies ended up imprinting our earliest vocalizations. The consonant-vowel pattern
meow
maynot seem important in our language, but in Chinese, this sound pattern—spelled “miao”—occurs1 To hear this sound, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voiced_pharyngeal_fricative
In Chinese, the sound
mao
(seen above) isthe signier for “cat”
and sounds to theAmerican ear like“Chairman Mao”; how-
ever, the line over the
“a” means that thepitch of this soundshould be near a con-cert “D” on the piano(according to Mc-Naughton and Ying’s
Reading and Writing Chinese,
p. 30).
 Cat 
=
 mao
An example where a linguist could have been informative rather than obscure. Taken from page 27
of Gardiner’s
Egyptian Grammar.
 
3
21 June 2013 8:54 PM © Jennifer Ball, Sept. 3, 2010“Meow” is just another name for “cat”
16 times by itself, and at least 78 times in conjunction with other characters, according to
www. MandarinTools.com.
The Miao of China—one of the meanings of “miao”—are an ancient peopleknown for their farming and embroidery; the word also means “family, progeny, sprout.”The Oxford English Dictionary does not include a listing for “miao” or “meow.” Theclosest word is “miaow,” and it means, “Imitative. Similar representations of the cry of a cat (andcorresponding nouns and verbs) are very widespread in numerous languages: compare e.g. Ger-man
miau,
Spanish
miau,
Russian
mjau,
Turkish
miyav,
Finnish
miau,
Chinese
miao,
etc.” Eventhough OED claims the word is widespread, the earliest date given is 1288. Ancient Egyptian isn’tmentioned. Under “cat” however, OED offers, “History points to Egypt as the earliest home of thedomestic cat, and the name is generally sought in the same quarter.” Not discussed is the fact thatthe Egyptians used the word “miw,” even though Gardiner’s book was published in 1927. Nation-al Geographic says that the oldest evidence of a “pet” cat was found in Cyprus inside a 9,500-yearold human grave.
2
The remains of the cat, eight-month’s old when it died, was 16 inches from thehuman remains. Almost ten thousand years later, owners still bury theirpets and provide for the animals should they predecease them. Cats anddogs have made themselves desirable to humans, so we cultivate them:it’s the perfect gene strategy.Language functions similarly to genes. Sound replicates if itmeans something.
 Meow
transcends culture because so many culturesrecognize this pattern of sound as signifying “cat.” Mewing is an auto-matic way to communicate the concept of “cat.” Perhaps the fact thathumans are more than 99.99% genetically identical means we hear thesame and think the same, so some amount of coherence exists betweenpeople, even if we haven’t been raisedthe same. Based on early scripts, it ap-pears that we notate the same: Not onlydo the Ancient Egyptians and Chineseshare a similar sound for “cat,” theirdepictions share a similar structure.As you can see, both the hieroglyphfor “cat” on the left and the sinographfor “cat” on the right include meaning
and 
pronunciation in their “words” thatdesignate “cat.” In each language, thescript for “cat” includes two levels of coding: content (meaning) and sound(pronunciation)—and in this case, bothagree. Two ancient cultures not onlypronounce the word for “cat” nearlythe same, they also graphically depictthe concept of “cat” in a similar man-ner. However this similarity takes aneffort to see because they are so un-2 http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/04/0408_040408_oldestpetcat.html
pronunciation
meaning
“Cat” in Chinese
Ancient Egyptians andChinese coded their words for sound
and 
meaning. Both cul-tures depict “cat” witha picture of an animaland a key to the ani-mal’s pronunciation.The cat-looking char-acter on the left con-tributes no sound. Thecharacter on the rightis considered the pho-netic component andcontributes the sound,though not necessarilywith exactness. Thesetwo characters to-gether are pronounced
mao,
but the phoneticcomponent on right is
miao
when alone
.
A hieroglyph can run left or right; one reads a glyph in thedirection the characters arefacing, in this case, the right.
The cat is the “determinative”
because it determinesthe meaning, though itcontributes no sound. Thesound comes from the threecharacters on the right.
pronunciationmeaning
“Cat” in Ancient Egyptian

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