September 10, 2013

རྔ་བོང་། རྔ་མོང་།

Adam W. raises the question regarding the etymology of rnga and rnga mo. Let us begin to speculate. The common spelling of the Tibetan word for “camel,” as far as I know, is rnga mong. This seems to be confirmed by the Tshig mdzod chen mo. But curiously, although the spelling does occur in Jäschke 1881, it does not occur there as a main entry. The main entry is rnga bong (which is, however, not recorded in the Tshig mdzod chen mo). Jäschke seems to take rnga bong as the generic term (for both male and female camels) and rnga gseb “male camel,” rmga mo “female camel,” and rnge’u “the young of a camel.” Indeed rnga bong may be the primary spelling and rnga mong secondary. It seems that one can easily mishear rnga bong as rnga mong. Thus mong can be traced back to bong and we should not be looking for an etymology of mong. The question now is what do rnga and bong mean? We could reasonably assume that bong means “ass” or “donkey.” Note also the etymology of ri bong “hill/mountain donkey/ass” (i.e. rabbit or hare). What about rnga? Let us consider all its known meanings. As a noun, rnga means a “drum” or a “tail” (or yak’s tail) as in rnga ma. As a verb (in rnga ba), it means “to mow/reap” (e.g. grass or paddy). Can rnga bong etymologically mean “donkey[-like animal that looks like a] kettle-drum”? Or, is it a loan-word?


  1. Dear D & A,

    Nice seeing you guys here. I don't have any answer to this crucial question, but I do think you can find out a few interesting things by doing as I did and looking in the STEDT database, see here. For one thing, the two main spellings, rnga-mo[ng] & rnga-bong, just seem to reflect the fact that the word is pronounced in these two different ways in different languages/dialects. Also interesting that it apparently is not a borrowing from Chinese, and that Burmese and languages closer to Burmese don't seem to have a remotely similar word. I don't think it's Turkish. Is it Mongolian? Where did I put my Mongolian Berlitz? I can't seem to find it anywhere.

    I wonder if you've ever come across usages of poetic words for camel, like 'wheeley chin' ('khor-lo'i mgrin can) or 'wind lover' (rlung dga')?

    If you look in the OTDO, you find that the spelling rnga-mo is indeed the Old Tibetan form that is attested there. Does it mean the female camel, or just camel?

    In India, they had a tendency to confuse their word for camel with their words for either 'cow' or 'lip' (and/or Tibetan translators reading their Indic texts got confused which was which), but I doubt that has anything to do with the price of camels in Ulaan Baaaatar.


  2. Dear Dorji and Dan,

    Thank you very much. You made my day! You say your etymologies are speculative and yet I find your speculations wonderful. (and as I already said, by all means, write a book.)

    I started wondering about this etymology when I across this sentence from the 13th chapter of the གསལ་བའི་མེ་ལོང་། (The king sends mgar to China) །འཕྲལ་གྱི་ཡོ་བྱད་གོས་དང་རྒྱན་ལ་སོགས་པ། །རྔ་མོ་དང༌། དྲེལ་ལ་སོགས་པ་ལ་བཀལ་བའི་ཁལ་མང་པོ་བརྫངས་སོ།
    Apart from the drum- camel connection (which Dorji just clarified.) I was wondering as to why would they use female camels in particular, and if that is really what it says what it says here. A friend of mine who's into Central Asian studies suggested that it makes perfect sense to travel with female camels as their temper tends to be better, or at least more stable, than that of male camels. I don’t know if that's the case but maybe it helps the examination of the OTD occurrences.
    By the way, Hebrew has two very distinct words for female and male camels and a third word for the young, which declines regularly to mark the gender. Oh Hebrew…