κατσούλι “kitten”: where did the cutesy /ts/ come from?

By: | Post date: 2011-02-21 | Comments: 14 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Mediaeval Greek, Modern Greek
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Tom Recht had a simple question in comments the other day, which admits of an almost simple answer. There is a catch, in that there is no clear phonological reason for what has happened, and I offer an unconvincing guess at it.

Tom Recht’s question:

I’m curious about the word κατσούλι, which is intriguingly similar to the Hebrew for ‘cat’, [xatul]. Of course they’re both presumably related to cat, Byzantine κάττα/κάττος, Latin catta/cattus, etc. (ultimate origin unknown), but none of those has the -ul- part that you see in κατσούλι and xatul. Any idea where the Greek word comes from?

Anonymous delivered, in his response:

The “oul” in greek is part of the suffix -ouli.

The part that needs explanation, I think, is rather how kati gave katsi. Did a tsitakistic(sic) dialect give it to the standard?

This all makes sense, but let me unpack it a bit more slowly.

Ancient Greece was not familiar with cats; Greeks kept weasels (γαλῆ) as pets, and you’ll occasionally see pedants calling cats γαλῆ, but the real exposure to cats was in the Roman era. There was a Classical word for cat, αἴλουρος, which Puristic has preserved: felines are αιλουροειδή, “aeluroids”. But that’s the name for an exotic animal from Egypt; once people routinely interacted with cats, they used the Roman name for cats, cattus.

(I could be completely wrong about this, but I’ll keep going.)

In LSJ, cattus is reported as κάττα and κάττος, both from Scholia. This is a fairly common occurrence in LSJ: the scholia on Ancient text explain the old words using contemporary, mediaeval words. LSJ is strip-mining the scholia for snippets of antiquity, and adds these glosses to its coverage artificially, although properly they’re out of its scope.

In Standard Modern Greek, the word was reborrowed from Italian gatto, as γάτα. In Greek, unlike Italian, cats are by default feminine, and the masculine γάτος is explicitly a tomcat. That’s Standard Greek; but Greek dialect preserved the earlier, Latin form: the Cretan for “cat” is κάτης. Hence the Renaissance poem Ο Kάτης και ο Μποντικός, “The cat and the mouse”, which has just come out in a new edition. (You can get an earlier edition online via Tassos Kaplanis’ Cretan Lit class wiki.)

Now, once Greek has borrowed a foreign stem, it can play around with its inflections and derivational morphology. From γάτα “cat” (Standard Greek), you get:

  • γάτος “male cat”
  • γατί “neuter cat; (implicit) diminutive of cat”
  • γατάκι “neuter diminutive of cat, kitten”
  • γατούλα “different, feminine diminutive of cat, she-kitten”
  • γατίλα “cat smell”

A “kitten” in the sex-kitten sense is thus going to be γατούλα, as memorably and annoying chanteused about by the Greek, infantilised equivalent of Brigitte Bardot (God help me), Aliki Vouyouklaki (0:29):

Νιάου νιάου βρε γατούλα / με τη ροζ μυτούλα / γατούλα μου μικρή—τσα τσα τσα
Νιάου. Σ’ έχουνε μη στάξει / κι είναι από μετάξι / η γούνα σου η γκρι
“Meow meow, kitten, with your little pink nose, my little kitten. Cha cha cha.
Meow. They treat you with kid gloves, and your grey coat is made of silk.”

Um, yeah. A younger, more innocent Greece. Glad that’s over.

Modern Greek doesn’t happen to have the normal neuter diminutive γατ-ούλι, just its feminine counterpart γατ-ούλα. As it turns out Cretan does has the equivalent neuter equivalent, and has had it at least since the Renaissance. The hyperlinks are the online abridged Kriaras dictionary; the citations are from the dead tree full version:

So κατσούλι is derived from κατσί, and κατσί in turn is derived from κάτης.

The problem here is that the neuter κατσί has changed /kat-is/ to /kats-i/, for no obvious linguistic reason. Anonymous, in delivering, wondered whether this was Tsitacism (τσιτακισμός). Tsitacism is the onomatopoeic word for the process in a large number of Greek dialects, of affricating what was the palatal stop [c], to [tʃ] or [ts]. This affrication is pretty common across languages, since [c] is a very unstable sound to pronounce: lots of contact area between the roof of the tongue and the palate, easy to let some air through when trying to pronounce a plosive.

We see that kind of affrication all the time with renderings of Latin /ki, ke/ and /ti/, which must at once time have ended up pronounced as [ce, ci]:

  • citatio [kitatio] > [citacjo] > Italian [tʃitatsione], German [tsitat], French [sitasjɔ̃], Spanish [θitaθjon], English [saɪtɛɪʃən]

The way to account for all these vaguely palatal modern pronunciations of what used to be /k/ and /t/ is that they were palatal stops as [c] (because of the following front vowel), and the two [c]’s then broke down, at different times in different languages, into various permutations of [tʃ, ts, s, ʃ, θ].

And Tsitacism would explain the τσ in κατσούλι as being from κατσί, because κατσί has a front vowel and κατσούλι doesn’t. (Kriaras’ etymology accordingly reads: “From the noun κατσί and the ending -ούλι, or less likely from Latin catulus“.)

But Tsitacism doesn’t explain κατσί, because in almost all dialects of Greece, the only phoneme to undergo that affrication is /k/: Κυριακή “Sunday” /kirjaki/ [cirjaci] ends up in dialect as [tʃirjatʃi] or [tsirjatsi], but Τρίτη [triti] does not end up as *[tritʃi] or *[tritsi].

There are three exceptions where /t/ does palatalise, and they don’t account for κατσί in Crete. The two Hellenic exceptions are Lesbos and Tsakonia. Tsakonian is spectacular with its palatalisations: it palatalises not only /k/ and /t/ before front vowels, but also /p/. In fact, historical /k/ ends up pronounced further front than /p, t/: πίνω /pino/ > κίνου [cinu] “to drink”, τιμώ [timo] > κιμού [cimu] “to honour”, κήπος [cipos] > τχήπο [tɕipo] “garden”. (Or, using a Tsakonian transcription other than the one I’ve invented, τζήπο [tsʰipo].)

The non-Hellenic exception is Aromanian, which is still a language of Greece: it likewise palatalises /t/ to [c]. The Aromanian specialist Nikos Katsanis has in fact claimed Tsakonian and Aromanian palatalise /t/ for the same reason.

  • Katsanis, N. [Κατσάνης, Ν.] 1989. Κουτσοβλάχικα και Τσακώνικα (Arumanian and Tsakonian). Ελληνική Διαλεκτολογία 1: 41-54

No, not because there is a Romance substrate to Tsakonian; but because Tsakonian and Aromanian are both far enough removed from written Greek, that they would not have been subject to its conservative influence, making them pronounce <τ> as written.

But κατσί is unlikely to have wandered to the Morea from Lesbos, Tsakonian, or the mountain pastures of Thessaly. So affrication can’t be the explanation.

Kriaras’ dictionary has these references for κατσί:

  • Triantaphyllides, Manolis. Collected Works I 358.
  • Pernot, Humbert. Études linguistiques III 423.

Both are foundational works. Pernot’s work is supposed to be his grammar of the dialect of Chios; it ended up being his historical grammar of Modern Greek.

  • Pernot, H. 1907. Études de Linguistique Néo-Hellénique I: Phonétique des parlers de Chio. Fontenay-sous-Bois.
  • Pernot, H. 1946. Études de Linguistique Néo-Hellénique II: Morphologie des parlers de Chio. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.
  • Pernot, H. 1946. Études de Linguistique Néo-Hellénique III: Textes et Lexicologie des parlers de Chio. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

Triantaphyllides vol. I, pp. 305–490 is his PhD thesis Die Lehnwörter der mittelgriechischen Vulgärliteratur, 1909, Trübner: Strassburg.

The Collected Works of Triantaphyllides are easy to find in University libraries—but I’m at home, and have not photocopied that text; Google Books is giving me one snippet for cattus, but not the right one. Pernot’s Études are less easy to find in my garage, but I did find them; he does not however explain the [ts], and I suspect Triantaphyllides didn’t either.

My suspicion is that the expected diminutive *κατίν—which we do see in Standard γατί—was modified to κατσί(ν) under the influence of the diminutive -ίτσιν, which was particularly widespread in Early Modern Greek. The accent is wrong for an analogy (*kaˈtin “cat” ~ piðimat-ˈitsin “little leap” < kaˈtsin). A haplology from *kat-ˈitsin “little cat” to kaˈtsin also is awkward, because the syllable being eliminated isn’t precisely repeated. But that’s my guess.

The Anastasiadis–Symeonidis reverse dictionary gives 10 words in Standard Modern Greek ending in stressed /ˈtsi/; there is a parallel to κατσί in βουτσί “barrel” < βουτίον (attested in the Hippiatrica) < Hellenistic βοῦτις “vessel in the shape of the frustum of a cone” (Hero of Alexandria) < Late Latin buttis. There’s less of a cause to pronounce “barrel” in a cutesy way than there is for “kitten”; so my guess is probably wrong; but there’s a large number of Ancient diminutives in -τίον that have stayed as -τί: αφτί, γατί, κουτί, πορτί, σκουτί, χαρτί. Whatever happened with βουτίον > βουτσί did not happen with κυτίον > κουτί “box”.

So this is a dread irregular phonetic change, and linguists appeal to analogy when they don’t have a better answer invoking phonological rules.

If someone has already solved this, I’ll be happy to hear it.


  • John Cowan says:

    The four palatalizations of the Romance words in English. The Appendix Probi and similar evidence suggests that citatio was already citasio before the palatalization of /k/ and /g/ began. An English example of the first palatalization is the clear /s/ in enunciate < enuntiatus, where the third palatalization has been suppressed because the following /i/ is syllabic, though /inʌunʃieɪt/ is not unknown.

  • John Cowan says:

    Recent Languagehat subthread on gato, which apparently starts in Arabic, moves to Latin/Romance, and loops back to Berber.

  • John Cowan says:

    Rereading this yet again makes me realize that the /g/ in gatto, Spanish gato, is itself anomalous, since the usual outcome of initial /k/ in the Romance languages is /k/ (French as usual singing a different tune). You can see this as "lenition only happens intervocalically" or as "initial unvoiced stops are effectively geminated". That's how we know that Classical CATUS was CATTUS in VL: it was degeminated in Spanish but not voiced.

  • John Cowan says:

    Still poking about….

    I'm reasonably sure that babsy was in OED1 days a double hypocoristic from baby < babe, itself a mama/papa word.

  • Tom Recht says:

    Yes, you're right: I should have said 'no more related than any other pair of west Eurasian cat-words'.

  • John Cowan says:

    The suffixes may be unrelated, but the roots probably are: domestic cats originated in Upper Egypt.

  • Tom Recht says:

    Not knowing Modern Greek, I don't have anything substantial to contribute to this conversation, but I'm glad to have provoked it; my disappointment that κατσούλι and xatul turn out to be unrelated is more than offset by having learned that ancient Greeks kept pet weasels.

  • gbaloglou says:

    Well, κουτί is of somewhat mysterious origin, apparently related to classical κύτος = "hull". It does not appear at all in the TLG, but there are a couple of examples in Kriaras, both in Ptocholeon (as κουτί and κουτάκι). So I suppose it is OK to compare κουτί and βουτσί (but not κυτίον* and βουτίον, as I demonstrated yesterday): if κουτί existed back then, it could have turned into κουτίτσιν (despite Ptocholeon's competing diminutive κουτάκι!) and κουτσί, much like βουτίον > βουτίτσιον > βουτσί — but it didn't, and that's your question (as I understand it).

    *see http://www.sarantakos.com/kibwtos/mazi/iwannou_kution.html for a good story about hopelessly and disastrously puristic κυτίον!

  • opoudjis says:

    Gbaloglou: the switch of vowel in κυτίον [kytion] to κουτί [kuti] requires a survival of the Ancient /y/ phoneme, which suggests to me it is a vernacular, and possibly Athenian word. (Old Athenian preserved /y/ as /u/—as did Tsakonian; the rest of Greek went to /i/.) Puristic was all about spelling pronunciations, so it would have provided no reason for κυτίον to be pronounced with a /u/.

    So I don't believe κουτί and βουτσί are of different pedigrees, and the explanation for the affrication must be sought elsewhere.

  • opoudjis says:

    John: affrication of cute(s)y but not cutie? Clearly lexically conditioned by the affix, since phonologically they're both cute + [iː]. Is this avoidance of homophony? Unlikely. I think you're right about -y making -t- affricate.

    Backwoodsy, I'd have thought, is formed from backwoods and not *backwood; so it's not an instance of -sy but of -y. So you're down to one other counterexample, babsy. babsy isn't in OED, and if Urban Dictionary is right about babsy job = "boob job", then it too is formed from a plural, babs "breasts".

  • opoudjis says:

    Nikos: no, you're right: "The two Hellenic exceptions are Lesbos and Tsakonia." I'm just more intrigued by Tsakonian than Lesbian, so I didn't discuss the latter.

    Yes, I'm saying "I'm just more intrigued by Tsakonian than Lesbian" with a straight face.

    Yes, I said "straight face".

    Oh, whatever. 🙂

  • gbaloglou says:

    The difference between κυτίον and βουτίον is that the latter does indeed have an orbit, however limited*, in Greek, while the former does not and seems to be a katharevousa formation. So βουτίον had plenty of time to turn into βουτίτζι(ο)ν and βουτσί, while κυτίον was simply not there to race it.

    *significantly, TLG shows a few βουτία in Typika Monastica and in Lives of Saints.

  • Not much of help re your main question, but I have heard from my grandfather that there was another Greek dialect that palatalized initial t to k, the dialect of Plomari in Mytilene; according to the story, when one asked the village μπακάλικο for "kiri", the μπακάλης would ask: do you mean kiri that people eat or kiri that people light up? (κυρί που τρώγιν ή κηρί που ανάφκιν;)

    Obviously, this may be a good (ben trovato) rather than a true story.

  • John Cowan says:

    Well, reading this made me wonder where cutesy got its s; it should be transparently cute + -y, as in the noun cutie. It turns out that the OED treats -sy as a suffix, and defines it thus:

    Hypocoristic dim. suffix added to (i) proper names, as Betsy, Patsy, Topsy, also in the form -cy, as Nancy, (ii) common nouns, as babsy, ducksy, mopsy, petsy, popsy, (popsy-wopsy). In adjectival formations expressing a degree of mocking contempt, as artsy-and-craftsy, artsy-fartsy, backwoodsy, bitsy, booksy, folksy, itsy-bitsy, teensy, etc., the suffix may be considered to represent a nursery form (cf. -y suffix 6), or the pl. (or even a singular ending) in -s + -y suffix 1.

    Now there is no word here about the phonotactics, but it's obvious that this supposed -sy appears mostly after /t/, either original or as a result of the regular change /ns/ > /nts/ as in Nancy, teensy. All but two of the other cases are after other voiceless voiceless stops, leaving only babsy and backwoodsy as anomalous. Plainly, tsitacism is at work here.

    (This -sy is distinct from the learned suffix in fantasy, epilepsy, apostasy, idiosyncrasy, all reflecting underlying -σία, and heresy, hypocrisy, poesy reflecting underlying -σις. The two types fell together in French as -sie > English -sy.)

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