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Presumably, before the development of a proper spoken language, humans referred to a cat as a "meow", the sound it makes. That is just the natural candidate for what to call an animal. This is what little kids do, before they learn what a cat is called in English (of any other language spoken by their parents).

However, almost no present day language retains any footprints indicating that animals were called by the sounds they make, except perhaps Chinese, where one of the words for a cat is "mei".

In general, words in a language are not as intuitive as one might expect them to be. My question here is, why, during the course of early development of a language, do words like "meow" get replaced by unintuitive ones like "cat" or "kat"?

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    FWIW, the Chinese word is 'mao' in standard Mandarin, which is closer to 'meow' than 'mei'. – WavesWashSands Nov 24 '17 at 10:22
  • And the same Chinese character is read 'myo' in Korean, which is even closer! – jick Nov 24 '17 at 23:24
  • In Central Thai, the word is แมว "maew" which is indeed the sound it makes. Note that Central Thai does not have as huge an influence from Chinese as some might think. – jeffmcneill Nov 27 '17 at 5:15
  • And in Middle Egyptian (ca 2500-1800 BC) the word for a cat was 'miw' – Ned Nov 28 '17 at 19:38
  • Although it may be coincidence, catt[us] and fel[es] might be perceptions of hissing cats, and can[us] (hound) the baying of hunting dogs. – amI Dec 4 '17 at 21:46
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Welcome to Linguistics SE.

1) Do you have anything to support the presumption that says words like "meow" get replaced by unintuitive ones like "cat" or "kat" ?

2) In general, words in a language are not as intuitive as one might expect them to be; is wrong, that does not hold true, as no words are forced into the vocab in a language, the words develop as people want them to (there are exceptions, lots, but not in the words of daily use, not in the realm of words you are talking about).

3) Google says that cat comes from: Old English catt, catte, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch kat and German Katze ; reinforced in Middle English by forms from late Latin cattus.

Assuming (1) to be true, the reason for that might be:

a) English (like many other languages) doesn't have it's own set of words (i.e. the set is not exclusive), it has borrowed words from many other cultures and languages along the way and will continue to do so.

b) Every language has it's own phonotactics, which I -personally- think might have been another reason for dropping "meow" and accepting "cat".

(I don't know how universal this is, but, kids/ people still use meow for identifying cats, it's not vanished yet!) :)

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  • It is reasonable to assume that before languages developed, animals were referred to by the sounds they make. So although it is only an assumption, I don't think there could be any other more plausible assumption. I believe that almost all words came into being through a natural process of evolution of the language. But that is not what I mean by intuitive. Words like "thunder" are intuitive. One can presume that the word sounds like thunder. But there are words that have no obvious connection to what they refer to. Also, cat came cattus, but the question applies to cattus as well. – Bharath H M Nov 24 '17 at 6:56
  • _ I believe that almost all words came into being through a natural process of evolution of the language._ does this apply non-sound-making-objects as well? e.g. word, language, senses etc. – WiccanKarnak Nov 24 '17 at 7:00
  • Yes. Language evolves in time and so all words evolve in time. In fact, there are fewer words that refer to real physical objects than those that refer to emotions, situations, thoughts, events etc and those that refer to classes of objects (like an "animal", "plant", "living being"). Abstraction is an essential process in every language. – Bharath H M Nov 24 '17 at 7:09
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    @BharathHM, the oldest traces of human languages are dated circa 5k years ago. Most animals have been known by then (in proto-languages which we have no information about), so we can safely assume that these words underwent a long history of evolution. We can tell how words evolved, but not how it appeared in the first place. Also, assuming onomatopoeic origin for words denoting animals is unjustified. For example, in modern Thai, the word for "pig/pork" is /moo/. – bytebuster Nov 24 '17 at 7:21
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    @Bharath H M How on earth it the word thunder intuitive? It comes from old English thunor, originating in Germanic thunras, which itself comes from Protoindoeuropean stem *(s)ten-. Where it the intuitiveness of that? The notion that the word form is connected to the contents is deeply misguided. – Eleshar Nov 25 '17 at 13:12
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This is one of the basic tenets of linguistics - in simplified terms, the tie between the designated reality and the word-sign used for it is arbitrary. There might have been a time when this was not the case and the word-signs were formed solely on the basis of imitation, but that would be a long gone prehistory and we have evidence that no such thing is necessary when forming proto-language-like structures (e.g. when apes are taught sign languages).

Of course you have certain exceptions to this general rule, the onomatopeic words, however these just come and go. A famous example given by Saussure is the word pigeon, which by no means appears to be onomatopoeic, except it is because it comes from Latin pipio, but it evolved to the existing form following the laws of sound change affecting the entire language and resulting in what we now call French (from which English deemed fit to take the word). As such, if you go deep enough for the word cat, traced to the Latin cattus, which might have come from some non-IE language, which itself changed radically during the previous millenia, you might come to a form that came up to existence as an onomatopoeic.

Now beware of impending rant:

However, allow me also to finish by pointing short-sightedness of such view. When we think of onomatopoeics, i.e. words created on the basis of similarity, we limit ourselves just to a sound correspondence, but that is just our arbitrary decision, made from assumptions about fully developed languages. Who are we to say that the similarity was based solely on sound similarity? The proto-languages in early human history might have very well made heavy use of non-audio-oral signal transmission, i.e. besides the words/grunts, they may have used also a lot of gestures. Furthermore one cannot know how much priority they assigned to their senses, i.e. the sense of smell was probably much more important than it is now for us but it is unlikely they were able to capture this with language-relevant means, so they might have had to be arbitrary from the start.

One has to rid himself of humanocentrism in this - e.g. there is a rather famous video of an elephant that was trained to paint a flower when they put it in front of him and people typically marvel at the elephant's intelligence and deep soul. However do we really believe that what the elephant paints is a flower? Is this the way the elephant really perceives it? as a visual object representable on two-dimensional canvas? Or is it more likely we just trained the elephant to execute a certain set of moves when that flower is in front of it and that it sees no connection whatsoever between the drawings on the canvas and the flower in front of it (except perhaps the pain it had to suffer during the harsh training)?

It is necessary to take this step away when discussing the origins of language because many of the principles we work with routinely might not have been applicable back then... First of all, people could not talk (obviously...), so that might have had a rather significant effect on their general cognisance. Besides that, they probably had somewhat different physiology and generally different outlook at the outside world, so there is no a priori reason to think that symbols they would have formed would necessarily be more likely to be based on sound similarity between the symbol and some limited aspect of the object it referred to.

E.g. why would you reduce the cat to meowing? is it more interesting than the fact that it is e.g. black? that it is so fast, elegant and agile? that is has such hypnotic gaze? so reminiscent of the terrible predators of you ancestors you may hear in legends about? or that is kills mice that plague your food supply... Sorry, but your westernocentric "meow" just does not cut it in terms of intuitiveness...:)

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  • I'm reminded of this video. Is he conducting the orchestra, or has he been taught a routine? (I wonder particularly about the bit at 2'11'') – Colin Fine Nov 26 '17 at 23:21

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