MAMMAL NAMES | Hippos & Dunkeys:

The Hidden Connections Running Through the Names of Ireland's Horses and Donkeys

The Latin and Old Irish words for 'horse', equus and ech, are thought to derive from the Proto-Indo-European root-word for 'horse', ekwo

For thousands of years, horses and donkeys have served to connect humans with one another, for good or for bad. We have used these domesticated animals to transport us across vast continents, carrying warriors, families, goods, and riches from one land to another. From the vast grasslands of Central Asia to the cities of ancient Greece, from the Roman Empire to modern Ireland, these animals have served to bring people together, whether they be traders, clashing armies, nomads, or race-going enthusiasts. It is no wonder, then, that the names of Ireland’s horses and donkeys are all about connections, the roots of their English, Irish, and scientific names revealing hidden links that unite them in fascinating ways.


We can begin with Equus, the name of the genus to which Ireland’s horses and donkeys belong to. Equus is simply the Latin word for ‘horse’, and it can be possibly traced to the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root-word for ‘horse’, ekwo, which may derive from ōku, meaning ‘swift’. But the Latin equus is far from the only word that may derive from ekwo, as words for ‘horse’ in many other languages are thought to be its children, including the Greek hippos, the Old English eoh, and the Old Irish ech.


Of these three words, the Greek hippos is surely the most familiar, and it turns up in many English words related to horses, such as hippodrome (horse-racing track), hippophobia (the fear of horses), and, of course, hippopotamus (‘river horse’). The horse, then, and not the gigantic tusked beast of Africa, is the original hippo. In fact, hippos turns up very regularly in the names of fossil horses, usually in the Latinised form hippus, for example, in the name of the earliest horse in the fossil record, Pliolophus, which may have lived in Ireland.

The hippopotamus gets its name partly from the Greek word for 'horse', hippos

However, there is only one genus of horses left on Earth today, all living members of the horse family Equidae belonging to Equus, and, of course, the preeminent member of this genus is undoubtedly Equus caballus, the domesticated horse. Like the genus name, the species name caballus is rich with hidden connections, the unearthing of its roots bringing links between different languages into the light.


Like equus, caballus is a Latin word and in Classical Latin is was used only by poets to mean ‘work horse’ or ‘pack horse’, or more pejoratively to denote a ‘hack’ or ‘nag’. However, in Vulgar and Late Latin, caballus eventually came to displace equus as the word for ‘horse’. But where the word caballus itself originally came from is a matter of dispute.


Some hold that caballus is probably derived from Greek, which has words such as keballion, meaning ‘work horse’, or kaballes, meaning ‘nag’. These Greek words, in turn, are thought to derive from other languages, possibly a Balkan, Anatolian, or Iranian language. For instance, there are obvious similarities to the Proto-Slavic kobýla, Turkish kaval, or old Iranian kabala. Such a transmission is entirely plausible as these areas are among the leading contenders for the origins of horse domestication, and the spread of horses is also known to be linked with the spread of Indo-European languages.

Horses may have helped the spread of Indo-European languages and the exchange of words between them

If the scientific name of the horse reveals a myriad of linguistic links, though, the very same can be said of the common English term, and, like caballus, there is disagreement over the ultimate origins of this word. Within the Germanic languages, tracing the origins of ‘horse’ is pretty straightforward, it being derived from the Old English hors and Old Saxon hros (itself from the same root as the Old Norse word for ‘horse’, hross, which we encountered in last month’s post in relation to the walrus, the ‘horse-whale’). However, beyond the Germanic languages the derivation of this word is contested.


Some argue that it can be traced from the Germanic root horso to the pre-Germanic kurso, itself derived from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root-word kurs, which is also the root of the Latin word currere, meaning ‘to run’. If this is true, then both the Latin word for horse, equus, and the English word are ultimately rooted in a notion of swiftness or speed. However, others are not convinced by this, and argue that the word ‘horse’ is derived from a word in Sarmatian, an Iranian language, which is also at the root of horse-related words in other languages, such as the Finnish varsa, meaning ‘stallion’.


In any case, this is yet another example of how the exploration of the names for Ireland’s horses can bring us on a fascinating journey through many lands and languages. This is perhaps to be expected when we are dealing with an animal held in such high esteem as the horse, but if we suspected to have to reign in our expectations of fascination when it comes to the humbler donkey, we would be in for a welcome surprise.


The interesting and exotic origins of the donkey are immediately revealed by its scientific name, Equus africanus asinus. The wild species Irish donkeys are the domesticated form of is the African ass, Equus africanus, which brays in the rocky deserts of Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia, over five thousand kilometres from Ireland.

The middle word in the donkey’s scientific name, then, speaks for itself, while the third one, asinus, is simply the Latin word for ‘ass’. Considering their similarity, it will probably come as no surprise that the modern Irish word for ‘donkey’, asal, derives from the Latin asinus, although slightly obliquely, coming from the diminutive form of the word, asellus, meaning ‘small/young ass’.

The African ass (Equus africanus) of which Ireland's donkeys are the domesticated form, hence their scientific name Equus africanus asinus

The Irish word asal and the English word ‘ass’ have venerable roots, then, deriving from the Latin asinus, which itself has even deeper roots, thought to be a loan-word from a language in southwest Asia where wild asses are also found. However, the same cannot be said of the word ‘donkey’, which has now almost completely superseded the word ‘ass’, in everyday speech at least.


The first record of the word ‘donkey’ comes from as recently as the late eighteenth century, but even though it has a far more recent origin than many of the words we’ve encountered so far, its derivation is similarly a matter of dispute.


‘Donkey’ is thought to have originated in slang or a dialect, but it is unclear what gave rise to the word. Some think it may derive from the English word ‘dun’, meaning ‘dull gray-brown’, presumably a reference to the colour of this animal’s coat. However, others think it may come from the familiar form of the name Duncan, and in this sense is similar to other terms for the donkey such as neddy, which is the pet form of the name Edward.


You may be asking yourself at this point why the words ‘dun’ and ‘Duncan’ are in the frame as possible origins for the word ‘donkey’, as they do not sound particularly like this word. This is all begins to make sense, though, when you become aware of the fact that the original pronunciation of the word was actually ‘dunkey’, and, indeed, because of this the spelling of the word may have been influenced by the word ‘monkey’.


Of course, this also allows us to make an interesting observation on how Irish people speak English. Today, there are still plenty of people in Ireland who pronounce ‘donkey’ as ‘dunkey’, and so what we re hearing in this case may not be some quirky Irish deviant form of an English word but rather a spoken relic of its original pronunciation in England too.

The word 'donkey' was originally pronounced the same way as 'monkey'

And this point sits within a much larger one regarding the way Irish people pronounce many English words. The pronunciation by some Irish people of ‘tea’ as ‘tay’, ‘meat’ as ‘mate’, or ‘beat’ as ‘bate’ is not due to past Irish people taking the words of the English language and giving them a little Hibernian twist. Rather, they are pronouncing the words as they were originally pronounced in English before the Great Vowel Shift significantly altered the pronunciation of words in England between the three centuries from around 1400 to 1700.


As promised, then, the names of Ireland’s donkeys have served up just as many curious connections and linguistic links as the horses did before them. Together, their names have performed the same function the animals themselves have since we first domesticated them thousands of years ago, transporting us vast distances, in this case not just across lands but across languages, allowing us to steal a glimpse of the commonality at the root of many of the languages which have influenced Ireland. Whether it is Greek or Latin, English or Irish, Ireland’s horses and donkeys carry us to their source, their names illuminating hidden connections.

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