Goats + Sheep = Geep: A note on an unusual lexicalisation

As someone who has never had much do with agriculture or animal husbandry, fieldwork in Ethiopia is not only an opportunity to study a new language but also to learn more about cattle, goats, sheep, chicken, milk and meat production. I must admit that when I collected the Baskeet vocabulary of animal husbandry, I sometimes didn’t know how to translate certain terms into my native language German, although translational equivalents do exist – just not in the internal lexicon of urbanised people like me.

Goat in Baskeet

Goat in Baskeet

There are, however, Baskeet lexemes for which roughly equivalent one-word translations  are impossible to come by, because they reflect concepts that are absent from the languages I speak. One of those concepts is the topic of today’s post: the geep-concept.

In the semantic field of goat and sheep, I have found the following mono-morphemic (i.e. unanalysable) non-periphrastic Baskeet lexemes (1):

  • dorti ‘goat’ (sex not specified)
  • kol ‘billy-goat’
  • gawli ‘uncastrated, bad-smelling male goat’
  • korp ‘young female goat (before sexual maturity)’
  • dori ‘sheep’ (sex not specified)
  • dak’sha ‘young female sheep (before sexual maturity)’
  • marzi ‘ram’

Apart from the terms given above, Baskeet also has a cover term for an animal that is either a goat or a sheep:

  • deyshi ‘goat or sheep’

This term is used when it is not considered necessary to specify whether an animal is a goat or a sheep. As plural number does not have to be overtly expressed in Baskeet, the term can also refer to a group of animals that consists of either goats or sheep, or of goats and sheep. Which convenient translation can I use? Let’s just say geep, which is a blend of the words goat and sheep, keeping in mind that the animal referred to by the Baskeet term deyshi is, of course, not a goat-sheep hybrid.

Sheep and goats are biologically closely related and it is not very surprising that a language should have a term for the sub-family including goats and sheep. It is just that most languages have chosen not to lexicalise ‘geep’. Therefore, I was curious to find out more about the distribution of this lexicalisation pattern. As I had some anecdotal evidence that other languages of the area also had ‘geep’-lexemes, I browsed the books on my shelf and found examples in the following works:

  • Dhaasanac (Cushitic): ʔáy ‘sheep and goats’ (Tosco 2001: 480)
  • Tunni (Cushitic): áran ‘sheep and goats’ (Tosco 1997: 286)
  • Arbore (Cushitic): ʔeɗi ‘sheep and goats (collectively)’, ʔeɗante (msc.) / ʔeɗinte (fem.) (2) ‘individual sheep or goat’ (Hayward 1984: 183, 338)

Note that all languages mentioned above are Cushitic languages (and languages of pastoralists) (3), whereas I have not yet found any ‘geep’-lexemes in Omotic languages, the language family to which Baskeet belongs (4). I am curious to know which other languages in Ethiopia and in the world have a ‘geep’-lexeme. Just leave a comment below!

A final note on language change: The influence of the national language Amharic, which has no term for ‘geep’, can be perceived in the language of Baskeet people that are fluent second-language speakers of the national language. They tend to use deyshi only to refer to a goat. In their language, deyshi has become synonymous to dorti ‘goat’.

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(1) Kids and lambs, for instance, are referred to by periphrastic terms (“goat children”, “sheep children”).
(2) Tone marking on Arbore words has here been left out.
(3) Tosco (1997) describes the Tunni as both agriculturalists and pastoralists.
(4) The languages most closely related to Baskeet, e.g. Wolaitta, seem to use nouns that are related (cognate) to the Baskeet ‘geep’-lexeme (deyshi) only for ‘goats’ (cf. Lamberti & Sottile 1997: 347, 349). The Baskeet ‘sheep’-lexeme (dori) has the same origin as ‘sheep’ in closely related languages (e.g. Wolaitta dor-sa) (Lamberti & Sottile 1997: 347). This leaves us with the question where the Baskeet ‘goat’-lexeme, dorti, comes from. Acc. to Bender (2003: 254), in the Aroid languages, which are (at best) only very distantly related to Baskeet (but which are spoken in the Baskeet neighbourhood), there is a lexeme derti ‘goat’.
Bender, M. Lionel 2003. Omotic Lexicon and Phonology. Carbondale, IL.
Hayward, Dick 1984. The Arbore Language: A First Investigation. Including a Vocabulary. Hamburg: Buske.
Lamberti, Marcello & Roberto Sottile 1997. The Wolaytta Language. Cologne: Köppe.
Tosco, Mauro 1997. Af Tunni. Grammar, Texts and Vocabulary of a Southern Somali Dialect. Cologne: Köppe.
Tosco, Mauro 2001. The Dhaasanac Language. Cologne: Köppe.
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6 Responses to Goats + Sheep = Geep: A note on an unusual lexicalisation

  1. Getachew Yohannes says:

    I appreciate your effort and I am happily using some useful things like pictures from your post. Your post will help many who are interested in Basketo and I am one of them.

  2. Guillaume Jacques says:

    In Chinese you have the term 羊 yang that can designate sheep, goats (the domestic species) or some wild species belonging to the subfamily Caprinae. Can deyshi be used for related wild animals?

  3. Thanks, Guillaume! I have never heard deyshi being used for wild animals. But let me check this in my upcoming field trip. I will report back to you.

    • I had the opportunity to ask about the use of deyshi for wild animals during my last fieldtrip: My Baskeet assistant had never heard it being used for a wild animal. But he was also not aware of goat/sheep-like wild animals in the area.

  4. Lameen says:

    Korandje has išni “goat/sheep”, and Taine-Cheikh’s dictionary of Zenaga gives təkših “ovin/caprin”. Both terms have cognates elsewhere in their families, however, referring to only a single species.

  5. Pingback: Goat skin: A note on a (possibly) unusual lexicalisation | Basket to Ethiopia

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