Reindeer lore

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Yuletide is upon us, so it's time for some more reindeer talk.  The guest post below comes from Juha Janhunen, to whom I put the following questions:

Do any of the following ride reindeer?  Sami, Lapp, Evenks (or other Siberian people)

How long ago did the Sami, Lapp, Evenks (or other Siberian people) domesticate reindeer?

There's no price of admission to read this post, but a suggested donation, in the spirit of the season and in the tradition of this blog, is that you tell us how to say "reindeer" in your language and perhaps in a few other languages with which you are familiar.

There is a lot of literature on the domestication of reindeer. One of the authorities is (was) Sevian I. Veinshtein from Russia. One of his books is also available in English. The general opinion is that

(1) The reindeer was first domesticated in the Baikal-Sayan region as a pack animal some 2000-2500 years ago upon the model of horse breeding. The region is mountainous and forested, and the herds owned by individuals and families were very small. The Sayan reindeer is big in size. Among the candidates who may have domesticated the reindeer are the speakers of Proto-Samoyedic, a language spoken some 2000 years ago in the region. Proto-Samoyedic has a word for domesticated reindeer (*cëx). The same type of reindeer breeding is still practised by the local ethnic groups, which now speak forms of Taiga Sayan Turkic (Tuha, Dukha, Tofa, Soyot). Veinshtein did a lot of field work among these groups (he was a Russian Jew whose parents were exiled to the region).

(2)  Reindeer breeding was soon adopted also in the Middle Amur basin, where it was practised by the speakers of Proto-Ewenic (Northern Tungusic). From both the Sayan region (along the Yenisei), the Baikal region (along the Lena), and from the Amur (along its tributaries) reindeer breeding spread into the central parts of Siberia. We do not know when, but possibly quite early, reindeer was also ridden. Riding reindeer is today practised by the Ewenki and, to some extent, by the Ewen (Lamut).

(3) The next step was the expansion of reindeer breeding to the open tundra zone in Arctic Siberia, where the practise was adopted by the local populations, which gradually came to speak languages spreading from the south: Samoyedic, Tungusic and Turkic (Yakut-Dolgan), or also Kamchukotic (Koryak, Chukchee). In the tundra zone, the herds grew to very large proportions, with a single family owning up to some thousand reindeer. This was, however, a very recent development, which happened not earlier than during the last 500 years or so.

(4) It is unclear what connection the Saami reindeer culture has with its Siberian parallels. The tundra Saami (Northern Saami) also have large herds since a couple of centuries, and this is also reflected by the size of the their human population. The Saami do not ride the reindeer, but they do milk it, which is not common in Siberia.

[Thanks to Kristin Pearson, who gave a marvelous presentation on the Scytho-Siberian practice of ornamenting horses with antlers in my seminar yesterday afternoon.]

[Update 12/28/16; from Nimrod Chiat:

I've looked into the issue of 'reindeer' in Hebrew. Modern Hebrew lexicography is a bit strange, but I've checked both the go-to HE-HE dictionary (Even Shoshan), which says the translation is אַיַּל הַצָּפוֹן (ayyal ha'tsafon), and an excellent online dictionary (Rav Milim), which is based on the work of the work of one of our best (arguably the best) computational linguists (Prof. Yaacov Choueka), which says it is merely אַיַּל (ayyal), which is too general in my opinion (could refer to deer, moose etc.). We don't have any serious etymological dictionaries for Modern Hebrew yet, but ayyal is a biblical word (e.g. Deuteronomy 14:5 —, which is thought to have been ultimately derived (according to Even Shoshan) from the Akkadian ayalu, referring in general to any organism of the genus Cervidae known to the ancient Mesopotamians. Ha'tsafon simply means 'of the north,' and is also a biblical word (Genesis 28:14 — Even Shoshan suggests the ultimate derivation as being the Ugaritic 'sfn'.]


  1. Johan P said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 9:53 am

    There's good evidence, including written historical sources, of reindeer herding existing in Scandinavia since at least the early middle ages. Archaeological evidence points to a start sometime in the first few centuries AD, with a conjectured major expansion around 700 AD.

    Well, at least that's what Swedish Wikipedia (and apparently its sources) claims. ^_^

  2. Stan Carey said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 9:56 am

    Reindeer in Irish is réinfhia (fia = deer, among other things). Audio here. German has Rentier, French renne.

  3. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 10:12 am

    For those who might want to delve deeper into the culture of the Siberian reindeer herders, Piers Vitebsky's "The Reindeer People" is a great read.

  4. Robert Coren said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 10:14 am

    I don't know the word for reindeer in any language but English, so I'll go off on a little tangent: I always do a double-take when I see a name like "Veinshtein", which has clearly been transliterated into Russian and back again, and wonder why they don't use the original German spelling. (The last place I worked had a lot of Russian émigrés, one of whom spelled his name "Vainshtain".)

  5. Ondřej Vágner said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 10:34 am

    In Czech, a reindeer is sob, pronounced somewhat like /sop/.

  6. Jim M. said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 10:56 am

    Indonesian: rusa kutub, "polar deer."

  7. Simon Fodden said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 11:19 am

    Also "caribou" in North America and Greenland, larger and apparently never domesticated, but the same species as reindeer, Rangifer tarandus.

  8. Gav said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 11:26 am

    Cymraeg – carw Llychlyn, "deer of Scandinavia".

  9. W. Lin said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 11:30 am

    "Reindeer" in Japanese is 馴鹿/トナカイ (/tonakai/). Apparently it's an Ainu loanword, which maks sense. What other animal names in Japanese are derived from Ainu, I wonder… (Disclaimer: I am not even close to fluent in Japanese. I am low intermediate at best, and likely not even that.)

    I unfortunately don't know the word for "reindeer" in Cantonese (my heritage language, which I have quite limited ability in), but I asked several friends on what the words for "reindeer" are in their languages.

    Thai: เรนเดียร์ ‎My Thai friend doesn't know IPA so they can't provide me with an exact pronouncation, but he says it's a direct loan from English . Wikitionary says it's romanized as .

    Russian: северный олень /'sʲevɪrnɨj ə'lʲenʲ/ This friend does know IPA.

    Swedish: hjort [jʊrt]

    I know someone who says that they're a native speaker of a highly divergent form of Scots, but they're yet to reply. He's said that his language has many Norse loans, so it would be interesting to see if the word for "reindeer" is similar to the Swedish.

  10. cameron said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 11:40 am

    I don't know the Japanese word for reindeer, but I can point to an interesting Japanese-English translation of the word.

    In Shonen Knife's song "Space Christmas" ( ) the lyrics refer to Santa Claus "riding on a bison sleigh". So whatever word is used in Japanese to refer to Santa Claus's exotic polar sumpter beasts is a word that, when looked up in a dictionary, can be rendered back into English as "bison".

  11. Matt McIrvin said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 11:40 am

    @Simon Fodden: That was a bit surprising to me when I learned it, because people in the US have been conditioned by Christmas imagery to think of a reindeer as something like a white-tailed deer, a cuter and more gracile animal that is more familiar to us. But a reindeer is really more like a slightly smaller caribou.

    ("A Visit from St. Nicholas" describes Santa's reindeer as tiny, but in the poem, he and his sleigh also seem to be somehow miniature–a detail often elided in illustrations, since it doesn't jibe with the later evolution of Santa Claus imagery–so presumably the reindeer are miniature reindeer too.)

  12. Fred said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 11:42 am

    Skolt Saami: puäʒʒ
    North Saami: boazu
    Lule Saami: boatsoj
    Pite Saami: båtsoj
    South Saami: bovtse
    Erzya Mordvin: пелевеёнксонь сярдо /pelʲevejoŋksonʲ sʲardo/
    Meadow Mari: пӱчӧ /pyt͡ɕø/
    Udmurt: пужей /puʒɛj/
    Komi-Zyrian: кӧр /kɘr/
    Komi-Permyak: кӧр/kɘr/
    Hungarian: rénszarvas
    Tundra Nenets: ты /ti/
    Nganasan: таа /taː/

  13. Fred said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 11:43 am

    Sa(am)i, Sámi = Lapp (obsolete)

  14. Thorin said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 11:46 am

    German : das Ren(tier)
    Arabic: al-rannah (pronounced ar-rannah as /r/ is a sun letter)

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 11:49 am

    Apparently his name was more commonly transliterated as Vainshtein. (The Cyrillic, per the Russian wikipedia article about him, is Ва́йнштейн.) I take these sort of spellings as a cue to pronounce the surname more Yiddishly than the very Anglicized/Americanized pronunciation usually cued (in the U.S. at least) by the spelling "Weinstein." Here's a nice tribute to him from a website apparently dedicated to giving the Anglophone world its Tuva-related news.

  16. richardelguru said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 12:06 pm

    Bit off topic, but as everyone now knows, the Santa/reindeer connection has been finally proven to be false: Santa's Eight Flying Whatsits
    And as for "A Visit from St. Nicholas" Clarke Moore is Less or A Visit from Inclement Verse.

  17. Alexandru Pănoiu said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 12:09 pm

    Romanian: ren (from French renne).
    Italian: renna (from the same French word).

  18. Ralph Hickok said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 1:11 pm

    Does any language have more than one word for reindeer? I think it's very important to know.

  19. Cervantes said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 1:15 pm

    This one's for you, VHM.

  20. Thorin said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 1:24 pm

    @Ralph Fred's list of words for reindeer in different varieties of Sami seems interesting. But I don't know the extent to which those varieties are similar enough to be considered one language.

  21. Thorin said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 1:25 pm

    I'm sorry – Saami*

  22. Tim May said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 1:25 pm

    W. Lin: What other animal names in Japanese are derived from Ainu, I wonder…

    The only one I know is rakko, "sea otter".


    I'm pretty sure Santa's bison sleigh is an idiosyncratic choice on the part of Shonen Knife (who have at least one other song mentioning bison), rather than any kind of translation error.

  23. Brian Ogilvie said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 1:26 pm

    Medieval and Renaissance Latin has rangifer or raingus, according to Conrad Gessner in 1551. Gessner also noted that in German, the animal was called rein, reyner, rainger, and renschieron, and that raingus came from the Lapp (Saami) term.

  24. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 1:34 pm

    That Jewish surname is derived from German Weinstein, lit. "wine-stone." Its only correct YIVO Yiddish transliteration is Vaynshteyn. The cause for the various misspellings of that name is the cursed Leo-Rosten mishmash of Yiddish, German, and English and the ignorance and failure of most Jews and goyim to differentiate between ay (as in "Hi!") and ey (as in "Hey!"). This results in the indiscriminate mishmash spellings ai, ay, ei, ey.

  25. Fred said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 1:40 pm

    @ Ralph: Many Uralic languages differentiates between domesticated and wild reindeer, and a number of the ones spoken in Russia, especially if they don't (anymore) have a connection to reindeer herding, have both an own word and the Russian loan олень, but I suppose that that's not what you meant. Some varieties of Saami have also borrowed the Norwegian or Swedish word (rein/ren).

    @Thorin: the Saami words go back to Proto-Saamic *poaʒōj, which is turn related to the Finnish word for reindeer (poro) and to the Mari and Udmurt words. It may be an old loan from Indo-European.

  26. Belial Issimo said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 1:59 pm

    The Wikipedia page for reindeer has, as do all Wikipedia pages, links to the corresponding entries on other-language Wikipedias and hovering over a language will show the page title. Some of the pages are in the taxonomic name (Rangifer tarandus) but most have the vernacular term and it's a fun quick reference.

  27. Gerald Delahunty said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 2:16 pm

    Irish réinfhia /reniə/

  28. Jakub Wilk said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 2:19 pm

    Polish: renifer

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 2:37 pm

    Although leaving aside the fact that the US-born descendants of the Yiddish-speaking immigrants of a century ago generally spell their surnames according to their Hochdeutsch cognates rather than transliterating them out of Hebrew-scripted Yiddish (whether according to YIVO principles or different ones), here the surname is being transliterated out of Cyrillic-scripted Russian, where its spelling presumably reflects the not-necessarily-YIVO-approved conventions of several generations ago for how to render the surnames of Yiddish speakers into Russian orthography.

  30. Sergey said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 2:37 pm

    The Russian version is already represented, although I can add that "severnyi olen" (Nothern deer) is used more as a species name and hardly ever in the general speech, where they're generally referred to as simply "olen" ("deer"). I.e. you'd say simply "deer sled" – "olenya upriazhka", not "reindeer sled", with the exact kind of the deer assumed from the context.

    About Veinshtein: the double transliteration is probably the cause, and it preserves the pronounciation better for the English speakers. The German and especially Polish names that get read by the English rules end up sounding pretty strange. My favorite example of this is "Wysocky" who in one of the TV shows was read as "Why-sock-ee", with the resulting character's nickname "Sock".

  31. Victor Mair said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 3:41 pm

    From Peter Golden:

    His name Sev’ian (Севьян) is most probably not Turkic. Ever since reading his book Кочевники центра Азии, I have wondered about his name and have not found a source. His father’s name was Izrail and he was a Soviet-era scholar of philosophy who was executed during one of Stalin’s purges in 1938 on the ridiculous charge that he was a spy for the Germans. This caused his son some difficulty in getting an education (understatement). He persevered and was ultimately admitted to Moscow State Univ. His early work on the Ismâ'îlis earned him a prize (1947). He then, it appears, switched to Siberian Studies, becoming in time an expert on the Tuvinians. During the course of early fieldwork in 1948 he became familiar with the plight of the Kets and upon his return to Moscow wrote letters on their behalf, including to Malenkov. This served to get him thrown out of Moscow State Univ. for “slandering" Soviet national policy. His views on the perilous situation of the Kets were subsequently accepted by no less than the Central Committee of the ComParty, he was reinstated and his recommendations to help save the Kets, an endangered people, were heeded by the government. By 1949 he was leading an expedition to the Kets. Clearly, he was a man of character and courage (he died in 2008). According to the accounts about Vainshtein in Tuva online ( he remained active in social causes. He wrote on reindeer-herding and other topics.

    I was impressed by Vainshtein’s courage and forthrightness, character traits that, according to what I read, he maintained throughout his life. In the Soviet era that was no small accomplishment. He was clearly much loved and respected by his students.

  32. BZ said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 3:51 pm

    To elaborate somewhat, among the general Russian public there isn't a type of deer that is commonly known as a reindeer any more than the different breeds of dogs are commonly thought of as something other than "dog" except by enthusiasts. I've never heard of reindeer as distinct from other deer until arriving in the US. Even then, for awhile I wasn't sure that reindeer weren't just a flying subspecies of deer used by Santa.

    After all, Ded Moroz doesn't fly on a sleigh. The lore is a lot more limited about these things. He lives in "the woods" and delivers presents. He has a young female relative, Snegurochka, of a not-precisely-defined relation (often granddaughter). Sometimes he is described as unable to exist in environments above room temperature for long without melting. His degree of magicalness also varies from virtually none to godlike.

    My first sighting of a deer was in the US, so it's not really surprising. I still wouldn't be able to tell them apart if presented.

  33. mcpm said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 3:52 pm

    Reindeer in Hungarian is rénszarvas, with szarvas meaning deer. Not terribly exciting…

  34. boynamedsue said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 3:53 pm

    As someone else stated earlier, reindeer is "renna" in Italian, which provides an interesting contrast with Spanish "reno". Why is the word masculine in Spanish and feminine in italian?

    Both Spanish and Italian etymology dictionaries give the source of the word as French "renne", from Nordic hrein. This is almost certainly true in the case of Italian, but it would be unusual for a feminine French word to be borrowed as a masculine Spanish one.

    In Basque it is "Elur-Orein" (don't get excited, Elur means snow and Orein means deer), so that perhaps implies the Basques had independent contact with reindeer rather than borrowing the word through intermediaries. We know the Basques were all over the North Atlantic in the 15th-19th centuries, so that is plausible enough. Maybe Spanish borrowed the word independently from either a Scandinavian language or English, around the same time as French did.

  35. Axel said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 5:14 pm

    @W. Lin
    Reindeer in Swedish is "ren".

    Japanese "tonakai" is a borrowing of Ainu "tonakkay". However, when I took a sshort course in the Ainu language the lecturer said the Ainu had borrowed it from the Nivkh on Sakhalin.

    The most commonly used Ainu animal loan word in Japanese is probably "sake" or "shake" meaning salmon.

  36. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 5:27 pm

    To cameron's point upthread, I am intrigued by the notion of using a corpus of Shonen Knife lyrics as a window into Japanese-to-English translation puzzles, but it turns out the band has recorded multiple Christmas-themed songs over the course of their career and this more recent one refers instead to a "reindeer sleigh" (around 2:12, and assuming I'm hearing correctly as the lyrics do not seem to be transcribed anywhere on the internet). Perhaps they got negative feedback on their earlier bison-themed lyrics and adjusted?

  37. Victor Mair said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 5:49 pm

    More from Juha Janhunen:

    Just some personal memories: I met Sevian Izrailevich for the first time in 1985, when he came to a conference in Helsinki. Although he was already a well-known scholar at that time and I was totally unknown and much younger, he immediately showed sincere interest in and support towards my work on Siberian languages and peoples. Later I corresponded with him and visited him in his Moscow home. Then somebody told me that he was dead, which I first believed, but then found out to be misinformation, after which I made another trip to Moscow especially in order to visit him again. I visited him together with the late V. A. Korenyako from the Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow. On that visit Professor Vainshtein showed me the TV film they had made about his fieldwork in Tuva. The film is very well made, and he would have liked it to be shown on the Finnish state TV also, which, unfortunately, was not possible. He was a good artist who painted landscapes, and a collector of ethnic art. I do not know where his collection of Tuvinian bronzes and shamanic objects is now, but I hope it is preserved by his family.

  38. Jean-Michel said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 5:54 pm

    @W. Lin: According to multiple dictionaries the Cantonese word is 馴鹿 seon4luk6 "tame deer," cognate to the Mandarin xùnlù. There's also a Sino-Japanese cognate junroku, but this is much rarer than the Ainu-derived tonakai.

  39. Jean-Michel said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 5:58 pm

    Addendum to the above: it looks like the Vietnamese and Korean words (tuần lộc and 순록 sunrok, respectively) are also cognate to the Chinese.

  40. Victor Mair said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 7:53 pm

    From Daniel Waugh:

    Vitebsky's work is indeed excellent and well worth reading.

    Regarding the Russianization of German (Yiddish in some cases?) names (re the comment by Coren), of course once a person has been brought up there and worked there (out of any Germanic or other context), then I think we simply go ahead and use the Russianized version of the name and transcribe or transliterate it according to the system we are (consistently?) using. That said, bibliographic citations are often all over the map in how they deal with the names. (One of the issues here is phonetic "sh" rendered by a single Cyrillic letter "ш" in place of the German "st"; another is the rendering for "ai" or the various sounds for "a") So we can have Veinshtein, Vainshtain, Bernshtam, etc. What do we do with Friedrich Wilhelm Radloff (aka Vasilii Vasil'evich Radlov), Vasiliii Vladmirovich Bartol'd (aka Wilhelm Barthold)? One of my favorite Russian scholars (recently6 deceased) was Sigurd Ottovich Shmidt, whose father Otto was a well-known explorer of the arctic and for some years under Stalin edited the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. And then of course, there is our old friend Lev Davidovich Bronshtein (Wikipedia: Bronstein), where it is easier to call him Leon Trotsky… I will readily admit, having spent time struggling with such matters in doing translations, that the Russian "system" of transliterations / transcriptions for foreign names (e.g., from Chinese) can be baffling, even though we are told that they are supposed to be quite consistent using phonetic transcription of foreign names. Maybe our problem here is on our end: If "correctly" transcribing (in the LC system, which, of course is not "accurate")one of our favorite composers, we would be alphabetizing him under "C" for Chaikovskii, not "T" for Tchaikovsky, which probably is filtered (is it not?) through German.

    They have always had a problem with my surname, which, phonetically transcribed is "Uo" (= Уо), but has been rendered as "Vo", "Vaug" etc. etc. I am sure in the old KGB files I exist in many different places as a result. As you know, Russian publications normally provide just initials and surnames of authors on title pages. So I am "D. K. Uo", which represents D[aniel] C[larke] Waugh. In fact if properly Russian, I would be Daniil (or probably Daniel' [where the e is the "e oborot" or э]? Donal'dovich Uo, using my patronymic. But I have never been able to wrap my tongue around the un-Russian sounding "Donal'dovich" even though I had a dear (now deceased) colleague who insisted on using it when addressing me.

  41. chris said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 8:33 pm

    If reindeer have been domesticated for thousands of years, is the "rein" in English "reindeer" etymologically related to the animal harnessing kind of rein? Presumably Santa puts reins on his reindeer.

    Although the number of other languages whose words start with something like "ren" suggests another theory: that there was a loanword that sounded like "ren" that lots of languages combined with their own words for "deer".

  42. Matt Anderson said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 9:14 pm

    I asked two native Mandarin speakers, one from Taiwan and one from the PRC, and both (independently) said that the Mandarin for reindeer was mílù 麋鹿, which I know as the word for Père David's deer—I'm not sure that I can visually tell the difference between these two animals, but I'm pretty sure they're entirely different kinds of deer. On the other hand, as Jean-Michel says, dictionaries and wikipedia both say reindeer is xùnlù (or seon4luk6) 馴鹿. Is this second word in spoken use?

  43. Victor Mair said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 10:06 pm

    The Chinese Wikipedia entry equivalent to "reindeer" is xùnlù 驯鹿 (lit., "tame deer"; Rangifer tarandus), also called jiǎolù 角鹿 (lit., "horned deer").

  44. ryan said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 11:12 pm

    It took this thread, and the post from Cervantes, to have me wondering whether the name has anything to do with the animal – Cervus. I see a Wiktionary entry that offers it as a possibility, but nothing definitive. The other option being a derivation from servantes, perhaps a servant of the Lord. Were c and s interchangeable in early modern Spanish?

  45. DCA said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 2:16 am

    And here is another book on living with reindeer herders (Chukchi) in 1919-1920:

    Harald U. Sverdrup, Among the Tundra People

  46. rosie said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 3:37 am

    The spelling Tchaikovsky is not the result of filtering through German: such a filter would produce Tschaikowsky. Perhaps a half-hearted adoption of a French spelling? That would account for the un-English Tch-, though the spelling adopted by French Wikipedia is Tchaïkovski.

  47. Jenny Chu said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 3:44 am

    Surprised no one has mentioned (Church) Latin yet:

  48. Anthea Fleming said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 4:47 am

    Just to complicate things – I would expect that in any reindeer-using culture there would be many different words for reindeer of different sexes, ages, and degree of training. One has only to think of the vocabulary for horses in English (and I'm not thinking of breeds or colours either), or for cattle.

  49. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 5:18 am

    Swedish: hjort [jʊrt]

    As Axel said, the Swedish for reindeer is ren, pronounced [re:n]. Hjort means "deer" – in popular usage generally excluding moose and reindeer – and is pronounced [jʊʈ] in the standard, where /r/+dental generally coalesce as a retroflex. The h is regularly silent before j.

    (I guess that it's regularly silent before any consonant, but historical clusters like hv- have lost it in spelling as well as pronunciation, so only hj remains as a common case.)

  50. Marina Muilwijk said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 5:21 am

    In Dutch it's rendier. This looks like a combination of "ren" (run) and "dier" (animal), but it comes from the German Reentier, which in turn is formed of the older form Reen ("horned animal") plus Tier ("animal").
    [source: Etymologisch woordenboek van het Nederlands).

    Dier is related to the English deer. The current Dutch word for deer is hert, which probably also goes back to something meaning "horned animal".

  51. Ralph Hickok said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 5:47 am

    @Anthea Fleming:
    That's why I asked (with tongue partly in cheek) whether any language has more than one word for reindeer.

  52. RP said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 6:13 am

    The OED etymology for "reindeer" indicates that:
    – the word "reindeer" entered English relatively late (first attested 1400s);
    – it is a borrowing from Scandinavian (the usual Swedish word was once "rendjur");
    – the German form is also a borrowing from Scandinavian;
    – the Sw "djur", Danish "dyr", Icelandic "dýri" has been remodelled after "deer" in English (and after "Tier" in German) – which is fair enough because these are cognates.

    Note, "deer" originally meant "animal", although by the 1400s "deer" normally meant "deer". But the Swedish and German words used in this compound mean "animal", not specifically a deer… despite which, a reindeer is indeed a type of deer.

  53. Max Wheeler said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 6:27 am

    Manx Gaelic: feeaih Loghlinagh 'Scandinavian deer'.

  54. Johan P said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 6:41 am

    @Ralph Hickock

    Sure – English, for one, which has "caribou" as a word for the non-domesticated variety.

    Saami, apparently, has over a thousand. Very troperific. Take that, Inuits!

  55. Jongseong Park said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 6:47 am

    @Jean-Michel: Korean 순록 (馴鹿 in hanja) would be romanized sullok in both Revised Romanization and McCune–Reischauer on account of the consonant assimilation that results in /z̥ʰun-loɡ → z̥ʰulloɡ/ [z̥ʰullok]. In the more morphophonemic Yale romanization, it is swunlok.

    The Pyojun Gugeo Daesajeon (The Great Dictionary of Standard Korean) also lists 토나카이 tonakai/t'onak'ai/thonakhai [tʰonakʰai] as a synonym, though I've never heard the term (romanizations given in the order RR, MR, Yale). As W. Lin says above, Japanese 馴鹿/トナカイ tonakai is ultimately an Ainu loanword (Ainu tonakkay ~ tunakkay ~ tunakay).

    The immediate guess would be that Korean got 토나카이 tonakai/t'onak'ai/thonakhai through Japanese, although the dictionary entry gives the original only in the Roman alphabet as 'tonakai' and doesn't identify the original language. Besides, traditional loanwords from Japanese as well as the official transcription rules for Japanese map Japanese initial t to ㄷ d/t/t in Korean, so the expected form would be 도나카이 donakai/tonak'ai/tonakhai (official) or 도나까이 donakkai/tonakkai/tonakkai if it was an older loanword from Japanese. It is only more recently under the influence of romaji that unofficial transcriptions of Japanese often map initial t to ㅌ t/t'/th.

    My best guess is that the form 토나카이 tonakai/t'onak'ai/thonakhai did indeed come indirectly from Japanese 馴鹿/トナカイ tonakai through the romaji transcription 'tonakai', perhaps even without awareness that this was a Japanese word. As I have never heard the term before, I have no idea when and through what circles this entered the language. It could very well be a term that is not used in the wild but was put in the dictionary for some unknown reason.

    카리부 karibu/k'aribu/kharipwu 'caribou' is the name used for North American reindeer.

  56. Vilinthril said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 7:26 am

    To spread out a bit: In various sign languages, the sign for “reindeer” seems to universally iconic (in some way mimicking the antlers). Only the three Baltic sign languages and Ukrainian Sign Language are a bit different.

  57. Vilinthril said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 7:26 am


  58. Jongseong Park said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 8:50 am

    A Korean wiki page claims that 토나카이 tonakai/t'onak'ai/thonakhai, which I hadn't heard before (see my previous comment), was in wider use in the past:

    옛날에는 토나카이라는 명칭도 널리 쓰였었는데, 원래는 아이누어. 일본에서는 지금도 많이 쓴다.
    "In the past, the name 토나카이 was widely used, which is originally Ainu. It is still used a lot in Japan."

    Now I think it indeed entered Korean from Japanese, but was (correctly) guessed to be a loanword itself in Japanese (seeing as it is written in katakana), so it was treated as a generic (Western) loanword and not a Japanese one.

  59. GH said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 8:59 am


    No, as mentioned the "rein-" in "reindeer" is a loan from Norse hreinn (or rather from later Medieval Scandinavian; the first attestation in the OED is from 1440). Most sources say this is from a Proto-Germanic word *hrainaz, from PIE *kroinos ("horned animal"), from the root *ḱer- ("horn, head"). In its entry for "rein, n.2", the OED is slightly less confident, saying of the Scandinavian word:

    of uncertain origin, perhaps ultimately < the same Indo-European base as ancient Greek κριός ram (see CRIO- comb. form); if so, the animal may have been given its name on account of its antlers or ‘horns’ (with this semantic motivation, compare HART n., and also German Rind : see ROTHER n.).

    The OED also seems to believe that the English "reindeer" and German "Rentier" are calques from Scandinavian (e.g. Icelandic hreindýr, Old Swedish rendjur). If so, the link with "deer" in English is a happy coincidence, since the Scandinavian word (like German "Tier") just means "animal".

    "Reins" in the sense of straps to guide a horse or other animal is from Old French or Anglo Norman, ultimately from Latin retinēre ("to retain").

  60. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 10:17 am

    Hebrew has the prosaic 'ayal ha-beyti (Ben Yehuda) or 'ayal ha-biyti (Google Translate, 'domestic hart, house hart', or 'eyyal ha-tsaphon 'hart of the north' (Wikipedia). All of those words are accented on the last syllable. No, I don't know how this "hart" differs from "deer", and maybe I should have just said "deer". Someone who actually knows Hebrew may be along soon.

    What malign and mysterious force causes some on-line Hebrew-English dictionaries to write Hebrew in the ordinary way, without vowels? Likewise for the titles of articles in the Hebrew Wikipedia. Who do they think the vowel points are for?

  61. Petar said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 10:30 am

    I'm actually somewhat confused by "irvas", the Serbian word for reindeer – it's obviously a loanword from Finnish "hirvas" (according to Wiktionary an ultimately Balto-Slavic loanword itself) but I have no idea which language acted as the intermediary, because Russian doesn't have a cognate form. Maybe it did in the past or in some specific lect that we were exposed to, but I'm not aware of any. And it may have just been borrowed directly from Finnish in the 19th or early 20th century.

    Croatian "sob" is pretty obviously from the aforementioned Czech word, but I have no idea where that could have come from.

  62. Robert Coren said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 11:10 am

    A point that seems to be somewhat overlooked about certain "Jewish" names is that they are not originally "Yiddish" in any useful sense; they are German names that were, in effect, assigned to Jewish families by the Austro-Hungarian government in the 17th(?) century.

    Another sidelight on transliteration of Russian names: Back in the late 60s/early 70s I was a regular reader of I. F. Stone's Weekly, and I remember that he had a long piece once about the persecution by the Soviet government of a pair of brothers surnamed Medvedev. One of them had a given name that Stone chose to transliterate as Jaurès, contrary to the practice of other English-language papers, who went with standard Cyrillic->Latin transliteration to produce Zhorez. Stone's point was that Medvedev's parents had named him in honor of Jean Jaurès, and it seemed sensible to him to use the correct spelling of the original name.

  63. Robert Coren said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 11:12 am

    With respect to German Ren(tier), it's a nice coincidence that the German word for animal is so close to the English deer.

  64. RP said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 11:36 am

    That's not a coincidence. "Deer" originally meant "animal"; its meaning became specialised over time.

  65. Florence Artur said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 12:11 pm

    @boynamedsue Actually the French word renne is masculine.

  66. Rodger C said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 12:25 pm

    "For rats and mice, and such small deer, / Have been Tom's food for seven long year."

  67. Rodger C said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 12:26 pm

    *But mice and rats

  68. Andy said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 1:02 pm

    @Petar: Is it actually certain that Croatian 'sob' is a borrowing from Czech and not vice versa? I've been trying to find an etymology for this and getting nowhere. My Czech etymological dictionary (Machek) says it is first attested in Early Modern Czech. Apparently before then the word was 'renař', according to the Czech Wikipedia article on reindeer (no source given). (Machek also mentions a guess at the etymology made by André Vaillant in the Bulletin de la Société de linguistique de Paris (51.2.158), but I can't get it online.)

    Another unreferenced statement in the Czech Wikipedia article says that a connection with Mongolian is sometimes assumed: Цаа буга is the term used in the Mongolian version of the article. The second word means 'deer', but I have no idea about the first. Any Mongolian specialists out there? Is a borrowing even feasible?

  69. Andy said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 1:45 pm

    @boynamedsue: As just mentioned, French 'renne' is masculine, but in the past it could also be feminine, with the masculine becoming standard in the latter part of the 18th century, so perhaps the masculine in the Spanish is not too strange -especially as the treatment of loan words in a language can often be subject to some uncertainty. Catalan 'ren' is also masculine (though Portuguese 'rena' is feminine!)

  70. prase said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 2:50 pm

    I am surprised that nobody has yet mentioned poronkusema, the alleged Finnish unit of distance equal to the longest stretch a reindeer (poro in Finnish) can traverse without stopping to urinate. Although there is an article about this on Finnish Wikipedia, I still suspect that this is some sort of hoax. Is there any Finn around that could confirm (or falsify) that poronkusema is a genuine thing?

    Another thing I would like to know about Finnish reindeer is whether the two words for reindeer, poro and peura, have common etymology or not.

  71. Ellen K. said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 2:55 pm

    @Prase. It's mentioned in the previous LL post that's linked in the very first sentence of the this post.

  72. prase said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 3:12 pm

    @Andy: My Czech etymological dictionary (Rejzek) says the origin of sob is unclear. But borrowing from Czech to Croatian seems more likely than vice versa because:

    1. this was the more frequent direction in general
    2. Czechs live closer to reindeer territories than Croatians
    3. there is another Croatian word for the same thing, irvas, while Czech has only sob

    There is an unrelated animal called sobol in many Slavic languages (it's "sable" in English), so perhaps sob may be a corruption of sobol, as both are animals living somewhere far north. This wouldn't be unusual in Czech, which has velbloud for a camel, a word of the same origin as "elephant", and slon for an elephant, a word which, at least according to one of the contesting hypotheses, evolved from some north Caucasian or Turkic word for a lion.

  73. prase said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 3:14 pm

    @Ellen K. Thanks, now I see this is where I learned about this thing in the first place.

  74. Cervantes said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 5:10 pm

    Robert Coren:

    Stone's point was that Medvedev's parents had named him in honor of Jean Jaurès, and it seemed sensible to him to use the correct spelling of the original name.

    Actually, Michael Lerner called him out on this once, pointing out that:

    Medvedev has always himself spelled his name when using the Latin alphabet as Zhores. Not only that, but he told me personally that his name had absolutely nothing to do with Jean Jaurès.

    Izzy's reply? "I guess I was wrong."

  75. GH said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 6:57 pm

    I find it odd that Cantonese, Mandarin and Hebrew should all describe reindeer as "domestic/tame deer," because although herding of partly domesticated reindeer is a thing, I've always thought of them as primarily a wild species.

  76. Thor said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 8:51 pm

    Modern Icelandic uses Hreindýr for Rangifer tarandus.

  77. DG said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 12:48 am

    Ukrainian: Північний олень (Northern deer), same as Russian, unsurprisingly.
    Belarusian: Паўночны алень, same thing.

  78. Michael Cargal said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 1:11 am

    Thai กวางเรนเดียร์ or gwaang-reen-diia

    Gwaang = deer or animal

  79. ryan said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 2:25 am


    I'm assuming irvas and hirvas are both cognate with Latin cervus. I don't know the rules of Slavic derivation, but could irvas simply be the natural evolution into Serbian of a proto-IE word for deer?

  80. Fred said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 4:11 am

    @ prase: Finnish poro and peura are definitely not cognates: poro and its cognates are found in Finnic, Saamic, Mari and Udmurt, whilst peura (and its cognates, including e.g. Estonian põder) is a borrowing from Baltic.

    Finnish poronkusema is a genuine thing. Reindeer cannot urinate whilst moving; they need to stop to do so. As they feed off moss mostly, their urine is relatively clean, but if too much protein collects in their urine deadly urinary toxiticy (Finnish: umpikusi) can result, and therefore 'piss stops' after about 7.5 km, are definitely necessary. In case of urinary toxiticy reindeer herders would massage the reindeer's stomach in order to get the urine going, and were even known to suck out the urine to alleviate the problem.

  81. Fred said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 4:13 am

    toxicity, not toxiticy…

  82. anhweol said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 7:33 am

    Given that the Manx and Irish seem like fairly transparent neologisms/borrowings, it's interesting that Scots Gaelic Wikipedia gives two words, _fast_ and _bràc_ whose origin is less clear – anyone know the etymology?
    I must admit that I always find that German Rentier reminds me of Marxist theory rather than northern beasts…

  83. Cervantes said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 8:00 am


    I'm assuming irvas and hirvas are both cognate with Latin cervus.

    Good assumption. As Cal Watkins (much missed) pointed out, the IE root ker, referring to horns and heads, persists in such English words as "cerebellum," "cornet," "hornet," "keratin," "migraine," "rhinoceros," "unicorn," and, yes, "reindeer."

    (Your prior speculations aren't bad, either!)

  84. prase said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 8:57 am

    I'm assuming irvas and hirvas are both cognate with Latin cervus. I don't know the rules of Slavic derivation, but could irvas simply be the natural evolution into Serbian of a proto-IE word for deer?

    Common IE origin is implausible (e.g. the -us ending would be definitely lost entirely in Slavic otherwise). Wiktionary says that cervus comes from PIE *ḱr̥wós, from root *ḱerh₂, whose descendant in Slavic is srna "roe deer".

    A little search in Wiktionary suggests that the way to Serbian was PIE *ḱr̥wós to Balto-Slavic *širwas, then borrowing into Proto-Finnic and later Finnish hirvas "stag" and then borrowing to Serbian and Croatian. Another cognate in Finnish is hirvi "elk".

  85. anhweol said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 9:13 am

    Old English hran (long a); Ohthere's voyage:

    He hæfde þa gyt, ða he þone cyningc sohte, tamra deora unbebohtra syx hund. Þa deor hi hatað hranas; þara wæron syx stælhranas. Ða beoð swyðe dyre mid Finnum, for ðæm hy foð þa wildan hranas mid. He had, at the time he sought the king, six hundred unsold tame animals. Those animals they call 'rein;' six of them [Ohthere's] were decoys: those are very precious among the Fins, for they catch the wild reindeer with them. (Translation partly from Bosworth & Toller.

    Whether this really counts as a genuine OE word in real use is debatable as the text seems to introduce it as an exotic foreign term, though making the vowel sound substitution (long a for Norse ei) which would have happened in an inherited Germanic word. IF it had come into widespread use and survived one would expect a modern English form such as *rone (or *ronedeer).

  86. Phil Jennings said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 10:33 am

    Reindeer were introduced to the Kerguelen archipelago in the south Indian Ocean by Norwegian whalers, presumably with forethought since whaling ships don't commonly keep reindeer on board. The reindeer swam to the main island on their own initiative, and the French brought in additional Swedish reindeer, somehow not content with the situation. I'm not aware of any difference between Norwegian and Swedish reindeer. Kerguelen is afflicted with rats, cats and rabbits, and minds are bent towards eradication. The eradicationists may also take after the reindeer, but my latest information puts the population at three-to-five thousand. I assume they're all feral, though descended from tame ancestors. The French meteorologists who live on Kerguelen may be able to provide more current information.

  87. Robert Coren said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 10:40 am

    @RP re Tier/deer: Yes, I wondered if that might be the case.

    @Cervantes re Zhores/Jaurès Medvedev: OK, I didn't know about that. One wonders, then, where his given name came from; surely it's not a common Russian name.

  88. stephen said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 7:40 pm

    There used to be a constellation of Rangifer the Reindeer, also caled Tarandus.

  89. Cervantes said,

    December 11, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

    Robert Coren:

    One wonders, then, where his given name came from; surely it's not a common Russian name.

    I don't really know where the name came from, but the abovementioned exchange between Izzy (Stone) and Michael (Lerner) may contain hints. Here's Stone again (this may be the passage you recall reading):

    I think it downright silly to use this transcription into the Latin alphabet of a transcription into the Cyrillic alphabet of the French name Jaurès, and will in the future refer to “Zhores” as Jaurès. He was named for the great French Socialist, as his twin brother was for the Indian Communist leader, M. N. Roy. I notice that the British press refers to the former as Jaurès Medvedev. That is really and understandably his name.

    And here's Michael in reply:

    Medvedev has always himself spelled his name when using the Latin alphabet as Zhores. Not only that, but he told me personally that his name had absolutely nothing to do with Jean Jaurès. In fact, as you may know, in the middle Twenties it was a commonplace occurrence in the Soviet Union to provide children with fanciful made-up names. Zhores was originally called Pec (Rays is a phonetic transliteration, or Reys, following the system I used in translating Medvedev’s Lysenko book). His brother’s name (although in this case it is only my conjecture) has probably nothing to do with the Indian communist, but rather is based on the Russian word for “dig.”

    Zhores told me that his changed name derives from a family joke of some kind and is actually an acronym. However, he did not choose to give me any details.

    Izzy's one-line reply to this I quoted above.


  90. boynamedsue said,

    December 11, 2016 @ 5:09 pm

    @Florence Artur, Andy

    That's interesting! I assumed "renne" had to be feminine as it follows the pattern of nouns ending -nne being feminine, often from Latin '-na' and cognate with Italian '-nna' in single syllable words and '-na' in multiple syllable words.

    Perhaps the feminine form formerly predominated, when it was borrowed by Portuguese and Italian, then later was overtaken by the masculine which was borrowed into Catalan and Spanish. It's unsurprising that those two both chose the same gender, most modern borrowings and neologisms are very similar in the languages of Spain once we get past 1650.

  91. Bruce Humes said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 7:15 pm

    While translating Chi Zijian's novel, "Last Quarter of the Moon" (额尔古纳河右岸,迟子建著) from the Chinese, I did a lot of reading about the culture of the China-based Evenki (鄂温克族), who originated in Siberia and have raised reindeer for many centuries and, until the 90s, did so in the Greater Khingan Mountains (parts of Heilongjiang and Inner Mongolia). It is a tragic novel that documents the twilight of this Tungusic-speaking people over the course of the 20th century. For several interesting multilingual links about their lifestyle and history, see:

    A few notes on comments above:

    The Evenki term for reindeer in the novel as represented in Chinese characters: 奥荣 (pinyin=ao'rong). Linguists I worked with gave these spellings for it: orooŋ, oroong. Interesting, this sound is similar to sounds noted above (Sergey: "olen" is "deer” in Russian, and W. Lin: Reindeer in Swedish is "ren”.).

    @Ralph Hickok

    "Does any language have more than one word for reindeer? I think it's very important to know."
    — The Evenki have several words for reindeer. As I recall, usually based on age. Unfortunately, I cannot find my notes on those terms. With help from other multilingual contacts, I found that the Russian-Evenki dictionaries are perhaps the most useful for such research, more so than anything I saw from Japanese or Chinese scholars. About 1/2 of all Evenki — there are about 60,000 — live in Russia north of the Heilongjiang/Amur.

    @Matt Anderson

    "dictionaries and wikipedia both say reindeer is xùnlù (or seon4luk6) 馴鹿. Is this second word in spoken use?"
    — Certainly. 驯鹿 is standard PRC Mandarin for reindeer.

    By the way, Chi Zijian's novel, narrated in the first person by an Evenki woman in her 90s, has been translated into English, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Spanish, and is now being translated into Swedish by Anna Chen.

  92. dporter said,

    December 13, 2016 @ 1:07 am

    Manchu distinguishes between wild reindeer (iren) and domesticated reindeer (oron), the latter of which is clearly cognate with the Evenki word mentioned by Bruce Humes.
    The word "oron" in Manchu, interestingly, most commonly (at least in the documents I read) is used to refer to a vacant government post (usually translated as 缺 in bilingual Manchu/Chinese documents). It also means (per Jerry Norman's Manchu/English dictionary) position/place, constellation/one of the 12 celestial palaces, the earthly or physical soul (Chinese 魄), and can serve as a negative intensifier. A Chinese-Manchu dictionary also gives the translations semen (精液), and track/trace/vestige (痕迹,形迹,踪迹,遗迹). Unfortunately, I know too little about Manchu etymology to know which of these meaning are connected more than coincidentally (beyond the obvious guesses – position/place, and vacant government post seem clearly to be linked, for instance, and based on the Chinese word for constellation 星座 – the seat of a star – I guess that it is connected as well), and how they came to share a single word. In any case, the Manchu phrase meaning "baseless talk" (or more literally, "speech absolutely lacking [anything behind it]"), "oron akū gisun" can also be quite grammatically understood to mean "speech lacking reindeer."

  93. jacob l hoover said,

    December 13, 2016 @ 9:11 am

    reindeer = põhjapõder
    literally "north elk/moose"

  94. Kate Bunting said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 6:33 am

    Rosie – I have seen the Germanic transliteration Tschaikowsky used in old (19c) British scores.
    Chekhov's name used to be spelled with a T in English at one time. As a retired library cataloguer, I can state that for a long time we were required to use the form Chaikovski'i in headings for the composer. I've just checked the catalogue of my old workplace and see they have now reverted to Tchaikovsky!

  95. Robert Coren said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 10:28 am

    Back in 1968-9, I worked for a while at the desk of the Radcliffe Music Library (possibly called something else now, with the transformations at Harvard), and one of the most frequent queries I got was from students unable to find anything by Tchaikovsky, since they were unprepared for the library's strict use of standard modern transliteration rules, which resulted in all the composer's works being alphabetized under "C".

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