Read on for the Difference Between Herds and Heads of Animals! [12: 4-6] (Latin)

Introduction
Summary
Translation
Splitting Hairs
The Duality of “Cow”
Closing

{A sheep – certainly a heard animal. Image from the National Library of the Netherlands}

Introduction

Welcome back to St. Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae – specifically book 12, part I (about herd and pack animals).

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Summary

This week’s entry sees St. Isidore explain quadruped herd animals before moving on to differentiate herd animals from working animals. Let’s get straight to it!

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Translation

[4] “They are called quadrupeds that walk on four feet: which are similar to herd animals save that they are not under human care; such as hinds, deer, wild donkeys, and others. But this does not include beasts like lions; nor pack animals, such as those humans may/can use like cattle.

[5] “We call all those lacking human languages and likenesses herds. On the other hand, strictly speaking, the name of a herd of such animals as those that are or could be used for food is called by this animal’s name alone, like sheep and pigs or those used for human convenience like horses and oxen.

[6] “The difference between herds and heads of animals: because beasts of burden gather in significance all such animals are called a herd, on the other hand heads of beasts are only those animals which graze, as do the sheep. But in general all that graze are called herd animals.”
(St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 12: 4-6)

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Splitting Hairs

Paragraphs [5] and [6] are definitely about splitting hairs. But that’s Isidore’s business here, to try to differentiate between things so finely that his words only differ in their inflection on the page, subtle differences only really visible in their conjugation.

The words that best exemplify this are “pecus, -oris,” meaning “cattle, herd, flock; animal,” and “pecus, -udis,” meaning “sheep, herd of cattle, beast.” Their genitive singular forms (the standard case for a dictionary headword) are clearly similar.

But what really makes their similarity muddying is that when Isidore is describing the difference between herds and heads of animals he only defines one of his two categories.

After all, he points out that herd animals “graze like sheep” (“eduntur, quasi pecuedes”) and then just implies that those that don’t are called by “heads of [animals]” (such as a head of cattle).

It might be something that’s coming through as a result of translation, but it seems that Isidore is struggling to really make himself clear because he’s making such fine distinctions. But before I read too far into this sense of struggle, onto the next word.

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The Duality of “Cow”

“Iuvenca, ae,” meaning “heifer, girl.” It’s probable that this word had a specific connotation when Latin was still spoken across the Roman Empire, but it’s still quite telling of Roman culture that the same word could refer to a girl and a heifer.

Perhaps this second meaning wasn’t necessarily negative, but it’s difficult to see it as anything other than an insult of one sort or another.

After all, such a connotation for “cow” is still present in Modern English; “cow” sometimes sits in for b@!$&h. See for yourself here.

Also, my Latin dictionary lacks the heavy distinction that I hope might be present between the words “cervi” and “dammae” both of which can mean deer (cervi can also mean “hind” but a hind is just a specific sort of deer). Maybe I need to get a better dictionary, or maybe I just need to turn to my readers for a bit of aid.

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Closing

If you’ve got a way to split apart the words that seem too close to me, or want me to translate more of Isidore per entry let me know about it in a comment.

And check back Thursday for Beowulf’s wrapping up of Hrethel’s woes in his informal history of the old king’s sons.

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