Cantonese etymology of "Monkey"


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The Hong Kong movie "Iron Monkey" (which was actually shown in American/Canadian screens) is entitled titmaalau "铁马骝" in Cantonese (written in Simplified characters). Monkey seems to be maalau "马骝" in Cantonese (馬騮 in Traditional characters).

What does a monkey have to do with a horse: maa "马" and "legendary horse": lau "骝"?

Is the Standard Chinese/Mandarin word 猴子 ever used in Cantonese outside of formal/written contexts?
  • First of all the word 馬騮 (pinyin: ma3liu2; also written 馬留/馬流 in ancient texts) is not exclusively Cantonese (jyutping: maa5lau1). There's a well-known [folk] etymology concerning the word: it's believed that if a monkey is put among the horses, the latter would become, somehow, immune from diseases (thus 馬留 "horse-preserving").

    Based on this folk belief, Monkey (in the novel Journey to the West 西遊記) is given the grandiose title 弼馬溫 by the Jade Emperor, when the former is appointed a groom in the Heaven Stable. Monkey is understandably furious when he finds out later that 弼馬溫 bi4ma3wen1 is actually a pun on 辟馬瘟 pi4ma3wen1 "[one who] drives away equine plagues".

    It's unlikely the the word ma3liu2 has anything to do with horses, though. Like many animal names in Chinese, "monkey" has a monosyllabic version as well as disyllabic one (compare 蝶~蝴蝶). Now the monkey is known as 猴 but also as 獼猴mi2hou2*/母猴mu3hou2/沐猴mu4hou2/馬猴ma3hou2 in ancient texts. The different written forms suggest that this is a disyllabic morpheme (or perhaps a monosyllabic one with an initial consonant-cluster?), instead of a compound word. And 馬騮 ma3liu2 seems to be a cognate of this disyllabic word. I don't know how to explain the /x/~/l/ variation, though.

    *In modern times 獼猴 has been used to denote the genus Macaca.
    母 *mə- seems to be a morphologically atrophied element originally attached to the stressed root 猴 *go (< Baxter-Sagart's reconstruction *mə-ɡˁo 母猴). 猴 always came with 母 and never stood alone during the Pre-Qin era (e.g., 《呂氏春秋》狗似玃,玃似母猴,母猴似人; 《韓非子》 以棘刺之端為母猴者). By the time of the Han Dynasty, the first syllable was dropped in the Central Plains, but it was preserved in the Chu region, taking the form of 沐猴 *mokgwa (陸璣云:猱,獼猴也。楚人謂之沐猴). The Old Chinese 母猴 was borrowed by other Chinese dialects, in which the originally meaningless first syllable was reanaylzed as an independent word with a lexical identity such as "big" (母音轉爲馬, 馬之言大也 ==> 馬猴) and "mother" (方言呼母曰㜷, hence 母音轉爲彌 ==> 獼猴). The timing of these changes can be inferred from the following: (1) 獼 was not attested in 《说文解字》, and (2) 三國吳 陸璣 defined 猱 as 獼猴. Also, (3) 馬's pronunciation in the Han Dynasty has been reconstructed as *mrǟ́ and in the Early Postclassic Period as *mạ̄́, which is a better match with 母 *mǝ̄́. To sum up, we can assume: Early Old Chinese *mgo "monkey" > Late Old Chinese *mə-ɡo > Han Dynasty *() ɡwa > Early Postclassic *(mV) gōw.

    馬's association with "monkey" could be a result of linguistic interference (e.g., Austroasiatic: Proto-Vietic *k-mah, Chứt mah, Alak məəw "monkey"). 馬留/馬流 also has cognates in the proto-forms of neighboring languages (e.g., Proto-Lolo-Burmese *mhlukx "monkey"; Zhuang 壯語 maxlaeuz; 黎语 *mlok). 狖 "a type of ape" was attested in the Western Han but absent in 《说文解字》, an indication that it was a newly introduced word. It was probaby pronounced as *Łuh (余救切), whose latteral fricative mirrors -hl- in Proto-Lolo-Burmese *mhlukx. That is to say, 馬留/馬流 is possibly a loanword.

    Of course, based on 黎语 *mlok,Proto-Lolo-Burmese *mhlukx, Old Chinese *mgo, and other proto-languages, we may reconstruct something like *mluko, which however would not be called "Chinese" and therefore will not be discussed here.
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    Sanskrit markaṭa "monkey, ape", Hindi markat, Old High German mericazza, Dutch meerkat "monkey", English meerkat "a small southern African mongoose".
    Proto-Altaic *mḗča "monkey"
    English meerkat is a fairly modern borrowing from Afrikaans. Otherwise, the Germanic words for "monkey" seem to represent a mediaeval borrowing from Indo-Aryan, reinterpreted by folk etymology as meer+catte "sea cat".
    English meerkat was already in existent in English meaning "monkey" in the late 15th century, so I'm not sure whether it is best described as a recent borrowing from Afrikaans or a recent semantic shift due to language contact.

    Anyway, the reason I listed those words is to show that *m- seems to be an integral part of the word. It is to support my treatment of Old Chinese 母 *mə- as a "morphologically atrophied element" rather than a "prefix".
    According to the OED, "mercat" (monkey) is attested between 1481 and 1598 only, while "meerkat" (in its current meaning) does not show up until 1801. So it probably better to keep them separate.