Another early polysyllabic Sinitic word

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In various publications and Language Log posts over the years, I have collected scores of old polysyllabic words (e.g., those for reindeer, phoenix, coral, spider, earthworm, butterfly, dragonfly, balloon lute, meandering / winding, etc.), which proves that Sinitic has never been strictly monosyllabic, although that is a common misapprehension, even among many scholars.  The reason I call the one featured in this post "another early polysyllabic Sinitic word" is because I don't think I've ever pointed it out before.

The word in question is géjiè 蛤蚧 ("gecko").  It has a southern provenance, and is recorded in writing as early as the turn of the first millennium in Fāngyán 方言 (Topolects), 8, the dictionary of regionalisms by Yang Xiong (53 BC–18 AD); full title Yóuxuān shǐzhĕ juédài yǔ shì biéguó fāngyán (輶軒使者絕代語釋別國方言 (Local expressions of other countries in times immemorial explained by the Light-Carriage Messenger).  See Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 漢語大詞典 (Unabridged dictionary of Sinitic), 8.842a, where Yang is cited as using the orthographic variant解, and his attestation of this term and its writing are confirmed by the great commentator on ancient texts, Guo Pu (276-324 AD).

Here are the pronunciations of géjiè 蛤蚧 ("gecko") in a number of modern Sinitic topolects:


The English word "gecko" entered the language around the 18th c. and derives from Javanese or Malay ge'kok (probably of imitative origin).

Online Etymology Dictionary

1774, from Malay (Austronesian) gekoq, said to be imitative of its cry. Earlier forms in English were chacco (1711), jackoa (1727).

What does a gecko sound like?  This is important because it is generally agreed that this is how it got its name:

The most commonly heard sound of the Asian House Gecko is a series of soft chirping or 'chapping' calls [VHM:  N.B.!!), often transliterated as a series of 'chuck, chuck, chuck or 'tup, tup, tup' notes.


VHM:  Listen to the recording of the gecko's call.  Does it end with a "-k" or a "-p"?

My impression is that many polysyllabic terms in early Sinitic were borrowed from other language families, but this remains to be rigorously demonstrated in many cases, though — as has been shown for "coral", "grape", and "balloon guitar", all of which derive from Iranian languages —  there is no doubt about the foreign origin of a number of polysyllabic words that are still common in modern Sinitic languages.


Selected readings


  1. Michael Cannings said,

    September 21, 2021 @ 5:37 am

    I love these little beasts, and reading this post is when I learned that they are formally called géjiè. I've always called them bìhǔ 壁虎 (“wall tiger”), as most Taiwanese people do.

  2. Jayarava Attwood said,

    September 21, 2021 @ 6:00 am

    My favourite polysyllabic Sinitic word is a neologism coined by Kumārajīva (or more likely his Chinese collaborators), i.e. yǐ wú suǒ dé gù 以無所得故, used to translate the Sanskrit word anupalambhayogena or the phrase taccānupalambhayogena. Mistranslated in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra as aprāptitvāt.

  3. S Frankel said,

    September 21, 2021 @ 6:25 am

    One common sound of the tokay gecko (Latin: Gekko [sic] gecko) sounds like [ˈgɛk:ɔ] but that species has several different vocalizations include [tɔˈk:ɛ] , a characteristic of male speech, which can be glossed roughly as 'Hey, baby, want to spend some quality time together?'

    The word in Italian is peculiar. It's pronounced [d͡ʒɛk:ɔ], which must have derived from the spelling because the animals don't say anything like that themselves.

  4. Steve Jones said,

    September 21, 2021 @ 7:07 am

    Good! I may have mentioned this before, but whereas indigenous and ancient Chinese musical instruments usually consist of one single character, those imported from outside China (generally Central Asia) tend to have two characters!

  5. Scott P. said,

    September 21, 2021 @ 10:10 am

    1774, from Malay (Austronesian) gekoq, said to be imitative of its cry. Earlier forms in English were chacco (1711), jackoa (1727).

    I assume this means its pronunciation ought to be with a soft 'g'. It's interesting that most English-speakers also pronounce Genghis Khan's name with a hard 'g', despite most English words beginning with 'ge-', 'gi-' having a soft 'g', like general, gin, gentleman. (Of course, the Mongolian Chinggis is closest to the soft 'g'.) there a reason for preference for hard 'g' in some cases?

  6. David Marjanović said,

    September 21, 2021 @ 10:48 am

    VHM: Listen to the recording of the gecko's call. Does it end with a "-k" or a "-p"?

    To me it sounds like a series of dental clicks that don't end in any released plosive. I guess you could say the velar closure of a click suggests -k and definitely not -p…

    there a reason for preference for hard 'g' in some cases?

    Just the chaotic nature of English spelling misleading people.

  7. R. Fenwick said,

    September 21, 2021 @ 11:37 pm

    @David Marjanović: To me it sounds like a series of dental clicks that don't end in any released plosive.

    I imagine the "plosive" transcription is merely an attempt to approximate a shorter, crisper, or more raucous sound, very common in onomatopoeia cross-linguistically and in animal calls (or derived names) especially. As, indeed, is the case with the Indonesian word for the Asian house gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus), cicak – where the c– (IPA: [ʧ]) is a very nice non-click-phonology approximation of the chirping nature of the call that you mention sounds like dental clicks.

    Regarding the click-sounding acoustics, though, I do agree. My cats are very fond of chasing geckos (in Australia the Asian house gecko is a widespread invasive species so I tend to allow them this hunting foible); when trying to grab their attention I've experimented with obtaining a decent phonetic approximation of gecko calls, and the sound I've settled on is a laminal palato-alveolar click with strong off-affrication. This seems to be the one that the cats respond to best. I suppose one could transcribe the sound roughly as [ǂ̻ʃ↓] in IPA, if one were so inclined, but my kitties are not IPA-savvy so the need is unlikely for now. :)

  8. John Swindle said,

    September 22, 2021 @ 1:07 am

    I wonder whether this particular Chinese polysyllabic word, like the Malay, isn’t just an imitation of the little guys’ sound.

    @Jayarava Atwood: We’re a little bit off topic, but the Chinese 以无所得故 looks to me like “because there is nothing to be gained.” It’s a word? When you say the Sanskrit Heart Sutra mistranslates it, you mean from a Chinese original? (I’m not disputing Chinese origin, just asking.) What do the Sanskrit words and phrase that you cited mean?

  9. John Swindle said,

    September 22, 2021 @ 1:09 am

    @Jayarava Atwood, sorry! I misspelled your name. Small screen all thumbs.

  10. John Swindle said,

    September 22, 2021 @ 2:04 am

    And I did it again. May I blame autocorrect?

  11. Chris Button said,

    September 22, 2021 @ 9:04 am

    The choice of 蛤 is probably influenced by its meaning more than the final coda. After all the -p is going to be unreleased and it is the velar onset of the next syllable that will dictate the realization (compare "bad credit" and "bag credit" in English–I appreciate examples with -p aren't forthcoming since the labial closure is more salient than the coronal or velar one). I recall a discussion on LLog before along these lines in terms of transcriptions and how a final coda shouldn't always be taken literally. Didn't Pulleyblank write something similar somewhere about final consonants (albeit at the end of a word) in transcriptions sometimes not being reflected in the proposed sources?

    I'm curious about the Malay provenance though. Can anyone find an actual Austronesian source for "gekoq" rather than just repeating claims that it exists?

  12. Chris Button said,

    September 22, 2021 @ 6:23 pm

    @ S. Frankel

    Onomatopoeia must also be what lies behind the Burmese name တောက်တဲ့ /taʊʔ tḛ/ for the tokay gecko.

  13. ktschwarz said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 12:55 am

    Etymonline's entry is taken from the old OED, and simplified: if you look up the original, it says that "chacco" and "jackoa" come from writings about India and were borrowed from Indian languages, which could account for the slightly different pronunciation.

    But the OED entry hasn't been updated since 1898, and it's now easy to find antedatings before 1774. Wiktionary suggests that the word didn't come into English directly from Malay, but rather via Dutch, and this is supported by primary sources found on Hathitrust: the Dutch explorer Johan Nieuhof wrote about the "Gekko", which he had seen in Java and Brazil, in a memoir published in Dutch in 1682, and in English translation by 1704. A 1688 catalog of preserved specimens at the Academy of Leyden includes "An Indian Salamander called Gekko". Linnaeus, who had studied in the Netherlands, listed the "gecko" in his classification of animals.

    Chris Button said: Can anyone find an actual Austronesian source for "gekoq" rather than just repeating claims that it exists?

    Good question. Nieuhof actually wrote "This creature … by our people is called Gekko, from its constant cry," so possibly it was Dutch speakers who wrote down the onomatopoeia in that form, rather than borrowing it from Malay.

    The pronunciation of g in Dutch is actually the voiced velar fricative /ɣ/ and not the stop /g/, but I have no idea if that was true in Nieuhof's time.

  14. R. Fenwick said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 1:20 am

    @Chris Button: I'm curious about the Malay provenance though. Can anyone find an actual Austronesian source for "gekoq" rather than just repeating claims that it exists?

    Yes, I noticed that as well – that despite the oft-proffered Malay origin, the putative term *gekoq doesn't seem to be usual anywhere in the area. Malay has the form cicak, with cecak being the norm in at least Indonesian, Balinese, and Javanese (in all these forms, c is /ʧ/, and final k is /ʔ/) . The only Austronesian form attested with reasonably similar shape is Kwamera kekʷau "gecko", but that's Oceanic (Vanuatu) so seems extremely unlikely. And none of the South-East Asian forms have voicing in the onset.

    Having done a bit of digging, I believe I've got a decent hypothesis: the earliest citations I could find for the word in Google Books were Dutch, the earliest from Jan Swammerdam's Catalogus musei instructissimi (1679), which speaks of "Een soort van Hagedisschen [sic] Gekko genoemt" and "Een Indiaansche Salamander mede Gekko genoemt". As such, I imagine that Dutch—which lacks phonological affricates and also has the palatal affricate [cç] as an allophone of /k/ before /j/—could quite simply have replaced the affricate/palatal sounds with velars, and since Dutch also lacks phonological /g/ the issue of onset voicing is rendered essentially moot. This would also fit with the historical picture, as the Dutch were the ones most heavily involved in the region at that time.

  15. R. Fenwick said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 3:57 am

    Argh, just beaten to the punch by ktschwarz!

    Tangentially, another fun series of polysyllabic words in earlier Chinese that I don't believe have been discussed previously on LL (though please correct me if I'm wrong) is the series of technical astrological terms for the twelve years of the Jupiter cycle, each corresponding to one of the usual monoglyphic terms for the twelve Earthly Branches (單閼 = 卯, 执徐 = 辰, and so forth). Apparently not one of the twelve technical terms has an internally-motivated Sinitic etymology, though I'm certainly not across the relevant literature.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 6:05 am

    The question of the origins of the series of technical astrological terms for the twelve years of the Jupiter cycle raised by R. Fenwick in the previous comment is of extreme importance, inasmuch as the system and even some of the terms show parallels with Indian and Mesopotamian astronomical sources. This is a topic that I dabbled in forty-fifty years ago, and the great Chinese scholar, Guo Moruo, wrote some studies that got tantalizingly close to solving the puzzle. I have no doubt that, with the correct combination of astronomical computation, astrological lore, and philological expertise, the code will one day be cracked.

  17. David Marjanović said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 9:38 am

    The pronunciation of g in Dutch is actually the voiced velar fricative /ɣ/ and not the stop /g/, but I have no idea if that was true in Nieuhof's time.

    Oh, definitely; [ɣ] goes back at least to Proto-West-Germanic, and probably beyond.

    Today, however, [ɣ] is limited to southern Dutch; the more northern accents, spoken by most people in the Netherlands, have merged it into [χ]. That has been spreading lately, but I don't know how old it is.

  18. getjut said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 3:28 pm

    what about 曱甴?

  19. Victor Mair said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 6:07 pm

    For Cantonese 曱甴, see "Cockroach protesters" (8/23/19)

  20. Chaak said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 8:33 pm

    Wiktionary has a list of Tai-Kadai cognates of 蛤. Isn’t there a possibility that it entered Sinitic as a monosyllabic word, just that Yang Xiong did not come across this form?

    > Etymology 4
    Compare Proto-Tai *kɤpᴰ (“frog”), whence Thai กบ (gòp), Lao ກົບ (kop), Zhuang goep, Shan ၵူပ်း (kúup), Ahom (kup).

    (I say 蛤乸 gaap3 naa2 and 蛤 gaap3 gwaai2 in Hong Kong Cantonese and I’ve never heard gaai2 before.)

  21. Andrew Usher said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 9:09 pm

    So then, if 'gecko' did come from Dutch, the pronunciation is etymologically sound – one would expect the Dutch 'g' to be taken into English (or German) as /g/, both from spelling and those initial fricatives not existing in the phonetic inventory. Note that the Chinese word being discussed also has what we would render as /g/.

    On the other hand hard-g 'Genghis Khan' is just an abysmal illiteracy, as the history there is exceptionally well known.

    k_over_hbarc at

  22. John Swindle said,

    September 23, 2021 @ 10:53 pm

    Google Translate says 曱甴 is Chinese and is pronounced "Yuē zhá"—and translates it into English (and many other languages) as "Xun Ding".

  23. Terry Hunt said,

    September 24, 2021 @ 11:36 am

    For what it's worth (which is probably not much), in the 1960's in Hong Kong and Singapore we (both British expats and local acquaintances) always referred to the common wall lizards in and around our houses as "chit chats".

  24. chasiu said,

    September 24, 2021 @ 4:25 pm

    How about 蟋蟀?

  25. Victor Mair said,

    September 24, 2021 @ 5:10 pm


    Yes, that's a good one. You can find xīshuài 蟋蟀 ("cricket") already back in the Poetry Classic, perhaps as early as 600 BC.

    Note how many of these disyllabic words are for insects or other fauna.

  26. Michael Watts said,

    September 25, 2021 @ 1:41 am

    Listen to the recording of the gecko's call. Does it end with a "-k" or a "-p"?

    It seems pretty clear that it ends with neither of those; if I were to pick an English stop for the conclusion of the gecko's call, it would be the glottal stop.

  27. Andrew Usher said,

    September 25, 2021 @ 6:51 pm

    Perhaps, but we're talking about non-language sounds here. One isn't necessarily concerned about absolute phonetic fidelity, if it suggests the sound well enough (to someone familiar with it – it isn't possible to convey to someone that isn't). If the glottal stop isn't in your writing system, youre likely to substitute a voiceless plosive even if it's not quite as accurate.

    By the way, I listened to the sound file and thought that I could hear it either way.

  28. Philip Taylor said,

    September 28, 2021 @ 2:03 pm

    I'm with Andrew here. At first I heard /p/, then I heard /k/. On listening again and again, I can hear either or both. Can I also hear a /ʔ/ ? Perhaps. All are approximations, none is (probably) a 100%-accurate transcription.

  29. Chris Button said,

    September 30, 2021 @ 1:38 pm

    @ Philip Taylor

    Your post sounds like you are experiencing language evolution inside of you :). Your final unrelased -p, -t, -k codas with their concomitant glottal articulations are just surrendering to their collapsing into one unified -ʔ.

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