quokka, quagga

Most native speakers of Spanish and English have never heard of quokka or the similar but unrelated quagga, each of which has the same form in both languages (though Spanish also respells quagga as cuaga, according to its normal rules of orthography). The two words designate animals, but the animals and the languages their names come from evolved on different continents.

The quokka is an Australian marsupial whose name, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, comes from gwaga, a word in southwest Australia’s Nyungar language, a member of the Pama-Nyungan family.

The quagga was a subspecies of zebra that became extinct in the 1800s. Its name ultimately came from the Khoikhoi word !ua-xa, which the American Heritage Dictionary speculates might have originated as an imitation of the African animal’s braying.

Click the following links

to read about the quokka in Spanish;

to read about the quokka in English;

to read about the quagga in Spanish;

to read about the quagga in English.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Playamart - Zeebra Designs
    Mar 19, 2016 @ 13:22:17

    sigh.. i’m missing so much by being offline so much, but i treasure my time in the cloud forest. one day i will have lots of time to catch up and look forward to it.

    today i am short of time, but wanted to share that my house guest this past week works in the chimbo area often.. she told me that the highway is the highest one in the country – 4,000 meters… she smiled when i asked about humbolt’s botanist friend — she has done extensive research on humbolt, including private correspondence, and yes, there are places named for the botanist as well!

    need to go, but i’m glad to see this.. zebra quaggas – imagine that! z


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 19, 2016 @ 13:33:48

      Good to hear from you, Lisa. It seems Humboldt and his French botanist friend are much better known in Ecuador than in the United States. Humboldt’s brother was an intellectual figure as well. After hearing a fair amount about him in the biography of Humboldt, I also came across a reference to the brother in a book about language.

      I used to bring up quaggas in my math classes, of all places. I needed a word that I was pretty sure none of my students would know.


  2. shoreacres
    Mar 19, 2016 @ 21:55:32

    I’d certainly never heard either word, and couldn’t conceive of what you were up to. The tale of the quokka’s would-be rescuer wearing his one, furry earring really was funny. Behaviorally, the creature reminded me a bit of a raccoon: cute as the dickens, but devious, and willing to inflict pain. I did think the Spanish article had better photos.

    I’m not so sure about attempts to bring back the quagga, but that was interesting, too. Now that I’m familiar with both words, I wonder how long it will be before I spot one of them elsewhere.

    I didn’t know a thing about Humboldt until I wrote about the agaves at Goliad. Eventually, it occurred to me that the Humboldt current might have been named after him, as well as the redwoods. I’ve begun Aaron Sachs’s The Humboldt Current, and am really enjoying it.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 19, 2016 @ 23:03:07

      And just the other day I finished Andrea Wulf’s biography of Humboldt. In addition to being in his own right the most famous naturalist in Europe in the 1800s, he influenced Darwin, Thoreau, and Muir, among others.

      I’ve known about the quagga for decades, but not until last month did I run across a reference to the quokka, and the similarity of the two etymologically unrelated words for the two animals was enough to get me digging deeper. As you implied, now that you’re aware of the two words, it shouldn’t be long before you run across one or both of them.


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If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.
©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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