Why is the word “cat” almost the same in all languages?

The word cat is the same in a lot of languages, for the same reason that Coca-Cola is the same in even more languages. Because most cats were domesticated, and originated, in one place: Egypt.

Not all cats: there was a separate domestication, Wikipedia tells me (Cat), in China. And extremely early domestication in Cyprus as well. (It’s one of those cruel ironies of fate that the site for the 7500 BC cat find in Cyprus is Shillourokambos. “Dog Tail Plain.”)

But the main site from which the languages you have in mind got their word—and their speakers got their cats—was Egypt: we think it’s from the Late Egyptian (1300–700 BC) čaute, ‘female wildcat’. That gave us, inter alia,

  • Latin cattus, and all its Romance, Germanic, and Slavonic progeny. Which includes Byzantine Greek kata, from cattus, and Modern Greek ɣata, from Italian gatto .
  • Egyptian Arabic keta قطة , as reported by Ahmed Ouda, and Tunisian Arabic قطّوس ‎qaṭṭus, as reported by Wiktionary: cattus – Wiktionary

It didn’t give us Latin feles (which may be cognate with the Welsh for marten, just as the Katharevousa Greek γαλῆ is actually the ancient Greek for ferret). But at some time like 300 AD, the colloquial Roman word borrowed from Egypt started following the cat, and kept on following it throughout Europe.

I reserve especial ire in this answer for people who do not allow comments on their answers, and then write answers needing correction.

Why do we romanticise last words?

Once more, I’m going to cite the renowned Greek humorist Nikos Tsiforos. It worked for me quite well with Nick Nicholas’ answer to What do Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland think of each other?

Ελληνική Μυθολογία του Νίκου Τσιφόρου (Μέρος 1)

Once upon a time, there was a guy called Goethe. A German and a sage. But so what if you are a German and a sage? If your time’s up, you’re going to die. So in the year 1832, Johann Wolfgang Goethe decided it was time for him to kick the bucket, and fell into his bed. And when he was about to die, he cried out:

—Light. More light.

That’s what the man said, and he made a most dignified exit into nothingness. But people are cattle and clueless, so they took these words and made them into an omen.

—Just look what the sage said!

—What’d he say?

—More light should flood into humanity. Into our spirit. That we might see the truth clearly.

—He said that, did he!



And noone considered that the poor guy was dying, and he wanted more light, because his eyes were glazing over with death. The lamp grew dark, and at a time like that it didn’t occur to him to utter philosophies and preach nonsense: he found himself, like any human, in an hour of weakness, and spoke it. If a common person had said that, that’s how they’d interpret it. The natural way. But Goethe was a sage. And if one sage says something stupid, all the other sages will work overtime to grant it a deeper meaning; otherwise they won’t be considered sages any more.

What is the pragmatics wastebasket?

To my embarrassment, I did not know what the pragmatics wastebasket was, so I did some googling.

The history of linguistics is a succession of scholars saying: X is what we will pay attention to, and Y is crap we can’t be bothered dealing with, because it’s too messy.

  • 500 BC: morphology is all we deal with in grammar
  • 100 AD: morphology, (rudimentary) syntax, and rhetoric is all we deal with in grammar, and why you would speak at all is philosophy, not grammar.
  • 1850: language change is all we deal with, and what language has ended up as is boring
  • 1920: the language system (langue) is what we deal with, and what comes out of people’s mouths (parole) is boring
  • 1960: syntax is what we deal with, and semantics is the philosophers’ problem, not ours
  • 1970: syntax and semantics is what we deal with, and pragmatics is a philosopher’s invention, not ours.

Now something changed in the 1960s into 1970s.

Sociologists started looking at what came out of people’s mouths, and not just their underlying model of language. That gave rise to sociolinguistics and discourse analysis.

Philosophers of language started looking at why people said things in the contexts they did. That gave rise to pragmatics.

Yehoshua Bar-Hillel was as formal a linguist as formal linguists could be. Machine translation people like to burn effigies of him, because Bar-Hillel wrote a report to the US military in the late ’60s, that the effort to date on machine translation was never going to pay off, thereby stopping all research in machine translation for the next 20 years. (He was right, btw: machine translation in practice has nothing to do with formal grammars, which was the route machine translation had been taking. But Chomsky got plenty of NATO funding out of machine translation, before Bar-Hillel’s report.)

Bar-Hillel did something very cool in 1971; especially cool for a formal linguist.

He wrote a little note in Linguistic Inquiry (the home journal of Evil Chomskian Formalists), saying something like this:

“We’ve been treating pragmatics as a waste-basket of random crap that we don’t bother to account for in language. Every so often, someone goes through the waste-basket of random crap, and picks out something they think they can account for in their new shiny formal syntactic–semantic theory.

Instead of treating pragmatics as a waste-basket, and cherrypicking it for bits to account for formally, why don’t we instead start taking pragmatics seriously, and account for the stuff in the “waste-basket” on its own terms?”

The pragmatics waste-basket is what linguists have since been getting away from. Instead of treating it as random crap, shoved into Generative Semantics if it will fit (which is what the fashion was in the late 1960s), pragmatics started being treated seriously as its own discipline, with its own way of explaining phenomena. Just as sociolinguistics and discourse analysis did.

Is it not unfair that Quora counts [math] as 6 letters when writing questions?

Are we talking about the same Quora editor that counts all non-ASCII characters as two letters (because Unicode is just this passing phase—in the year 2016), and which accepts no Plane 1 characters at all? (Nick Nicholas’ answer to Will Quora ever support emoji?)

… No, OP. I don’t think “unfair” is the adjective you’re looking for.

Report the shortcoming, and a shortcoming it surely is. But, for all that text editors are in fact a solved problem, I can hear the familiar words of my Quora Jedi Master Scott Welch, ringing in my ears…

Technical debt… Technical debt…”

How long has it been since a bot has collapsed one of your answers for shortness (Sept 2016)?

February 2016, as far as I can tell. I joined August 2015. I was collapsed quite a bit at the start.