The Truth About Cats (Not Dogs)
- Recently on Elfling, an attempt by one "Evenstar" to
translate some French proverbs into neo-Quenya
(post #32037) led to a discussion of the Qenya word
_meoi_ 'cat' found in QL. The primary concern, as
usual, was how this word might be properly "updated"
for use in neo-Quenya, but Thorsten Renk (post
#32155) made some interesting observations about
_meoi_ in its original context:
"Maybe it would be worthwhile pointing out that
_meoi_ is actually Qenya, not Quenya, that the
original plural based on the Early Qenya Grammar
would rather be something like _*meoili_ instead
of _*meoir_ (the latter form probably being dative)
(cf. PE14:43f) [...] it seems rather likely that _meoi_
is actually coined after the sound made by a cat -
so I don't think it should be a plural. _Tevildo meoita_
is said to translate 'prince of cats' - so should we take
_meoita_ as genitive plural 'of cats'? If so, it doesn't
seem to agree very well with the EQG, so maybe the
true pattern is yet a different one. And yet it could
also be just an adjective 'cattish Tevildo'..."
This set me to thinking about the etymologies of
_meoi_, _meoita_, and other words and names for
cats in the early lexicons. That _meoi_ is onomatopoeic,
as Thorsten suggests, seems beyond dispute -- but
despite the fact that QL lists _meoi_ as a headword
with no root provided, can we trace it further back
to an original onomatopoeic stem, as we can do for
other animal names in QL, such as _mâwe (i)_ 'gull'
and _moa_ 'sheep', both from MAWA- 'cry, bleat'?
Perhaps. I suspect that the form of the original root
underlying _meoi_ is more clearly represented in
_Miaulë_, the name of Tevildo's feline cook in "The
Tale of Tinúviel" (II:28), i.e., onomatopoeic *_miaw-_
(virtually identical in pronunciation to English _meow_).
_Miaulë_ is apparently the Qenya cognate of Gn.
_miauli_ 'she-cat' in GL (this was emended to
_maulin_). Most of the cat-words in GL appear to
derive from *_miaw-_: Gn. _mio_ 'cat' (>> _miog_),
_miaug, miog_ 'tomcat', and genitive plurals
_Miothon_, _Miaugion_ 'of cats' in _Tifil Miothon_
or _Miaugion_ 'Prince of Cats' (GL) and _Tifil (Bridhon)
Miaugion_ 'Tevildo Prince of Cats' (II:15). Note that
the original diphthong _au_ is retained in stressed syllables
(_miauli(n)_, _Miaugion_) but usually reduced to _o_ when
unstressed (_mio_, _miog_, _Miothon_; the exception,
_miaug_, is perhaps archaic).
[NOTE: Gn. _mui_ 'cat' also appears in GL, in two
rejected names of Tevildo, _Mui Tifil_ and _MuiDifil_
s.v. _Tifil_; the word was allowed to stand (perhaps
through an oversight) in the phrase _cuithos hû le
mui_ 'a cat and dog life' s.v._cuithos_. _mui_ 'cat'
could derive from the QL root MAWA- 'cry' bleat'
cited above, i.e. *_mâwi_ > *_môwi_ > _mui_ -- cp.
the phonological development of the preterite of
Gn. _haw-_ 'to lie': *_hâwi_ > _hôwi_ > _hui_ (PE11:48),
a developmental sequence that also accounts for
_fui_ as the preterite of Gn. _fau_ 'it smells' (PE11:34).
Note that *_mâwi_ is also almost certainly the primitive
form of Q. _mâwe (i)_ 'gull' in QL; the fact that there is
no cognate word for 'gull' in GL suggests that Tolkien's
intention was that the Gnomes chose to apply the
primitive word *_mâwi_ 'crier' to cats rather than gulls.]
Returning to Q. _meoi_ -- can this be plausibly derived
from *_miaw-_? According to the Qenya Phonology, _áwi_
(in which the acute accent indicates stress not quantity; I
use _w_ here for _u_ with a subscript arch in the original)
gave _oi_ (_ávi_) in Qenya (PE12:12). So we might expect a
form *_miáwi_ to yield *_mioi_. The Q. Phonology also allows
for a tendency of short _i_ to sometimes shift to _e_:
"(2) where _i_ remained short it has a tendency to be
assimilated to _-e-_ especially followed by _-r(a)-_, as
second syllable of dactyl" (PE12:8) (the phrase "as second
syllable of dactyl" was an addition; see footnote 46). Since
this states that _i_ > _e_ "especially" (not "only") occurred
when followed by _-r(a)_, and since the phrase about
dactyls was an addition, this might allow us some "wiggle-
room" to propose that *_mioi_ might have become _meoi_,
with _i_ "assimilating" to _e_, this lowering resulting in a
smoother transition to the following diphthong _oi_.
Nonetheless, I cannot yet provide a supporting example,
and skeptics may be justified in regarding this proposal
as _phonologia ex machina_!
Finally, a word about the ending _-i_ in my proposed
ancestral form *_miawi_. This was not pulled from thin
air -- it may be seen in another animal name, again
echoic in origin, namely _oi_ 'bird, hen' < OHO 'cry' in
QL, presumably < *_ohi_ 'crier'. Thus *_miawi_ 'meower,
-- Patrick H. Wynne