Horses, chariots and cars

Horses at Newborough on Anglesey - photo by Simon Ager

Today I saw a post on Facebook asking why words for horse are so different in languages like English and German, so I thought I’d investigate.

In English horse-related words include horse, stallion (male horse), mare (female horse), foal (young horse), filly (young female horse), colt (young male horse), pony (a small breed of horse), palfrey (a small horse with a smooth, ambling gait) and equine (a horse or horse-like animal; related to horses).

Horse comes from the Middle English horse / hors, from the Old English hors (horse), from the Proto-Germanic *hrussą (horse), from the Proto-Indo-European *ḱr̥sos (horse), from Proto-Indo-European *ḱers- (to run) [source]. This is also the root of the Proto-Celtic word *karros (wagon), from which we get the Latin currus (chariot, wagon), and the English words car, cart and chariot, and related words in other languages.

Stallion comes from the Middle English stalion, from the Middle French estalon and is of Germanic origin [source].

Mare comes from the Middle English mare / mere, from the Old English mere / miere (female horse, mare), from the Proto-Germanic *marhijō (female horse) [source].

Foal comes from the Middle English fole, from the Old English fola, from the Proto-Germanic *fulô, from the Proto-Indo-European *pōlH- (animal young) [source]

Filly comes from the Old Norse fylja [source].

Colt comes from the Old English colt (young donkey, young camel), from the Proto-Germanic *kultaz (plump; stump; thick shape, bulb), from the Proto-Indo-European *gelt- (something round, pregnant belly, child in the womb), from *gel- (to ball up, amass) [source].

Pony comes from the Scots powny, from the Middle French poulenet (little foal), from the Late Latin pullanus (young of an animal), from pullus (foal) [source].

Palfrey comes from the Anglo-Norman palefrei (steed), from the Old French palefroi, from the Late Latin paraverēdus (post horse, spare horse) [source].

Equine comes from the Latin equīnus (of or pertaining to horses), from equus (horse) [source].

The equivalent words in other European languages include:

Germanic languages

  German Dutch Danish Norwegian Swedish Icelandic
horse Pferd Paard hest hest häst hestur
stallion Hengst hengst hingst hingst hingst graðhestur
mare Stute merrie hoppe hoppe sto
märr
hryssa
foal Fohlen veulen føl føll
fole
föl folald

The German word Pferd and the Dutch paard come from the Middle High German phert / pherit / pferift (riding horse), from the Old High German pherit / pfarifrit / parafred, from the Late Latin paraverēdus (substitute post horse) [source], from para-, from the Ancient Greek παρά (from, by, near) & verēdus (a fast or light breed of horse), from the Proto-Celtic *uɸorēdos (horse) [source], *uɸo- (under) & *rēdo- (to ride; riding, chariot), from the Proto-Indo-European *(H)reydʰ- (to ride) [source].

The words hengst and hingst come from the Proto-Indo-European *ḱanḱest- / *kankest- (horse), which is also the root of the Welsh, Cornish and Breton words for mare, and of the Old English word for horse or stallion, hengest.

Romance / Italic languages

  French Italian Romanian Spanish Portuguese Latin
horse cheval cavallo cal caballo cavalo equus
stallion étalon stalone armăsar padrillo garanhão celo
mare jument giumenta
cavalla
iapă yegua égua equa
foal poulain puldero mânz potro potro equuleus
equulus
pullus
vitulus

In Latin there was another word for horse – caballus, which was only used in poetry in Classical Latin, and was the normal word for horse in Late and Vulgar Latin. It possibly comes from the Gaulish caballos [source]. This is also the root of the English words cavalry, cavalier, cavalcade and chivalry,

The word equus comes from the Proto-Italic *ekwos, from the Proto-Indo-European *h₁éḱwos (horse) [source].

Celtic languages

  Breton Cornish Welsh Irish Manx Scottish Gaelic
horse marc’h margh ceffyl capall cabbyl each
stallion marc’h margh march
stalwyn
stail collagh
grihder
greadhair
mare kazeg kasek caseg láir laair làir
foal ebeul ebel ebol searrach sharragh searrach

The Scottish Gaelic word for horse, each, comes from the
Old Irish ech (horse), from Proto-Celtic *ekʷos (horse), from the Proto-Indo-European *h₁éḱwos (horse), which is also the root of the Breton, Cornish and Welsh words for foal.

The Breton marc’h (horse), the Cornish margh (horse) and the Welsh march (stallion) come from the Proto-Brythonic *marx (horse), from Proto-Celtic *markos (horse), from the Proto-Indo-European *márkos (horse). [source]. This is also the root of the Irish marcaigh (to ride), the Scottish Gaelic marcaich (to ride), and the Manx markiagh (to ride).

You can find more about Celtic words for horse on my Celtiadur blog

Slavic languages

  Bulgarian Czech Polish Russian Serbian Slovak
horse кон kůň kón
konno
лошадь коњ kôň
stallion жребец hřebec ogier
rumak
конь
жеребец
жребец žrebec
mare кобила klisna klacz
kobyła
кобыла кобила kobyla
foal жребец hříbě źrebak жеребёнок фоал žriebä

The Russian word for horse, лошадь, is a borrowing from a Turkic language, probably Tatar [source].

The other Slavic words for horse come from the Proto-Slavic konjь (horse), of unceratin origin [source].

Other European languages

  Latvian Lithuanian Albanian Greek
horse zirgs arklys kalë άλογο
ίππος
stallion ērze erelis hamshor επιβήτορα
mare ķēve kumelė merak φοράδα
foal kumeļi kumeliukas pjellë πουλάρι

Sources: Reverso, Linguee, bab.la, Google Translate

Newborough beach

6 thoughts on “Horses, chariots and cars

  1. Poetic and Bavarian German also have Ross as the general term for “horse”, lacking the English metathesis. The word is neuter, perhaps explaining why Pferd is neuter despite being derived from a Latin masculine.

  2. The Russian word for horse, лошадь, is a borrowing from Turkish [source].

    As your source correctly says, it’s not from Turkish, but from another Turkic language or several – Tatar is one of the most likely candidates.

  3. Yeah, Ross, a cognate of English horse, is standard in “Bavarian” German, i.e. in Austria, Bavaria and Italian South Tyrol.

    As Proto-Indo-European culture seems to have been a horse (and chariot) culture it is surprising that Indo-European languages have so many different terms for this beast.

  4. Surely, Charlie, the fact that the horse was central to PIE culture is the very reason why their language, and the languages that descended from it, had/have so many different words for the animal; akin to the notorious “how many Inuit words for snow?” story.

    Or perhaps you meant to say “.. it is NOT surprising ..”.

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