Unau.

I ran across this word in my New Great Russian-English Dictionary, where I happened to notice (near the bottom of p. 2912) this entry:

уна́у m indecl zool unau, two-towed sloth (Choloepus didactylus).

First, of course, I was amused by the “two-towed”; then I wondered about the word. The OED entry is from 1921:

Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈjuːnɔː/ , U.S. /ˈjʊˌnaʊ/
Etymology: Brazilian of the Island of Maranhão.

Zool.

The South American two-toed sloth, Cholopus didactylus.
Adopted by Buffon from C. d’Abbeville Mission des Pères Capucins, etc. (1614) 252. Of the two kinds there mentioned by the names of Unaü and Unaü ouassou the former is Buffon’s Ai, the latter his Unau.
1774 O. Goldsmith Hist. Earth IV. 343 Of the sloth there are two different kinds,..the one, which in its native country is called the unan [sic], having only two claws upon each foot.
1834 H. McMurtrie tr. G. de Cuvier Animal Kingdom (abridged ed.) 93 Only one species [of Bradypus] is known, the Unau.., less uniform in its organisation than the Aï.
1872 G. M. Humphry Observ. Myology 21 A recess and dimple in the astragalus of Unau and of Aï.

The etymology is blatantly unsatisfactory; fortunately the AHD includes the word: “[Portuguese, from Tupí uná, lazy.]” And it also gives the pronunciation “oo’nou” (OO-now), which I shall adopt as my own, since I prefer to keep initial u- untainted by an unnecessary y- if I can.

The word doesn’t seem to have been used much in recent decades, but Google Books did turn up The Furry Animal Alphabet Book by Jerry Pallotta (1991),which devotes a whole page to it: “U is for Unau. The Unau is a two-toed sloth. Sloths are one of the slowest animals in the world….”

Comments

  1. I think I’ve seen unau in crossword puzzles, though much less often than ai.

    I agree with your pronunciation. I’d never even considered a /j/ for some reason, and the vowel in /jʊ/ seems bizarre.

  2. I think dome details of the etymology are off. The dictionaries I can find online of Lingua Geral / Nheengatu, the better-documented descendant of the extinct old Tupí, give something like /ateʔɨ/ as the root meaning ‘lazy’, and the same in Guarani. Also, it would be unusual (but possible) for Tupí to use the same metaphor for the critter as the European languages, and it would be odd for Portuguese to borrow a word for ‘lazy’. It would be very natural, though, for Portuguese to borrow the word for the animal. Per Portuguese WP, the Tupí source of Portuguese unau is something like /ɨnaʔɨ/ (of who knows what further etymology).

  3. marie-lucie says:

    In French his animal is known as le paresseux ‘the lazy one’, obviously a translation from a local language.

  4. Ken Miner says:

    Sloths are one of the slowest animals in the world. They are so slow and so inactive that green mold often grows on their fur.

    Some others (I am quite serious) are human and work in the US criminal justice system. Michael Lambrix has been on death row for 31 years. Sloths normally don’t even live that long.

  5. Sloths are very particular about the number of their toes. The Ai or Three-toed Sloth is smaller than the Unau or the Two-toed Sloth. —- Will Cuppy, How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes.

  6. I wonder if the Old Tupí etymon of Portuguese unau (perhaps *una’i?) can be broken down as a compound of una, “black, brown, dark” (since the unaus (Choloepus) are typically darker than the ais (Bradypus)), and a’i, “ai” (from the piercing, high-pitched mating call of female ais?). Constant Tastevin suggests such an analysis on page 139 of his article “Note sur quelques mots français empruntés à la langue Tupi du Brésil, au Galibi de la Guyanne, et à l’Aruac des Antilles” (Bulletins et mémoires de la Société d’anthropologie de Paris, 1919, vol.10, no. 1). From the modern Tupí-Guaraní languages, he cites the Wayãpi forms unau and unawa. If any Language Hat readers can confirm Tastevin’s etymology, or refute it, or otherwise help provide a better etymology, I would love to hear them chime in.

  7. That’s interesting. I think Tastevin’s <ahə> is probably /aʔɨ/. Portuguese WP gives <una’u> or <ɨna’ɨ>, based on Navarro’s recent dictionary of Old Tupí (which I haven’t seen). So is the <u> simply a Portuguese misinterpretation of /ɨ/, or is there a real alternation? Is there a known process of vowel assimilation to go from *unaʔɨ to ɨnaʔɨ or unaʔu?

    Having said that, Tupí has noun-adjective order, so that etymology doesn’t appear to work.

  8. David Marjanović says:

    Ai (Bradypus, four species) and unau (Choloepus, two species), as it turns out, are as distantly related as any two sloth clades can be: Bradypus is the sister-group to all other sloths, while Choloepus is a megalonychid – its closest ancestors were climbing (as opposed to hanging) animals, and they’re all nested right in the middle of the ground sloths!

    Sloths are one of

    Interesting grammar. What does everyone think of it?

    paresseux

    Same in German, possibly calqued from French: Faultier “lazy-animal”. (Apparently, to be lazy is to be foul/rotten.)

  9. French: Faultier

    A momentary misreading led me to try pronouncing it /foltye/ in my head.

  10. What does everyone think of it?

    Unproblematic. Switching from sloths to dogs — we talk a lot more about dogs — I find 800 khgits for dogs are one of the vs. only 240 kghits for dogs are among the. Dogs in the context is the name of a group, so it can be the referent of one. The agreement with are is syntactic only, not semantic.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    LH: French: Faultier – A momentary misreading led me to try pronouncing it /foltye/ in my head.

    Me too! The word looks too much like the French name Gau(l)tier (itself of Germanic origin, same as Walter).

  12. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @marie-lucie:

    In French this animal is known as le paresseux ‘the lazy one’, obviously a translation from a local language.

    Spanish has perezoso, but the earliest attestations I can find (Clavijero, Francisco Javier. 1991 [1780]. Historia Antigua de México. México DF: Porrúa) all reference the work of Buffon, so it’s probably a calque.

    It would be interesting to know if Linnaeus choice of Bradypus for the three-toed sloth genus was similarly influenced by vernacular names.

  13. Portuguese preguiça, since at least 1663: “Serâ agradauel ouuir as condiçoens de outro animal particular sómẽte desta terra, chamaõlhe os Indios aíg, os Portugueses preguiça do Brasil.” (Simão de Vasconcellos, Chronica da Companhia de Jesu de Estado do Brasil)

  14. David Marjanović says:

    895 kghits for dogs are some of the. Including the answer to the question of “why ugly dogs are some of the most beautiful dogs”.

    It would be interesting to know if Linnaeus choice of Bradypus for the three-toed sloth genus was similarly influenced by vernacular names.

    Oh, certainly. Linnaeus generally felt himself under no obligation to choose flattering names.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    le paresseux (suite)

    Buffon was not the first author to use this term for the animal. The TLFI cites a section De l’animal dit paresseux in L’histoire du Nouveau Monde, a 1640 work. (The word apparently meant ‘slow-moving, slow to act’ before it meant ‘lazy’). This seems to be the first recorded mention of the animal in French, but the TLFI also quotes a Latin work from 1605, Exoticorum libri which includes the phrase illud animal, cui Ignavi nomen indidi which seems to mean “that animal to which I gave the name Ignavus” (the latter translated by the TLFI as ‘sans activité, indolent, paresseux’). It is not clear to me whether the author (named L’Esclure) claims that the word was his own description or his choice of a Latin equivalent for a local term, whether native or European.

    It may seem strange that there should have been a French term for this animal before a Portuguese one, but there was at least one (short-lived) French settlement in Brazil in the relevant time period, at the mouth of the Amazon, which was described in great detail by a former member, whose book was widely read in France. Portuguese and/or Spanish authors may have mentioned the animal in works written in Latin.

  16. So, how do you pronounce ‘sloth’? is it slow-th or slah-th? I like slow-th because its meaning is obvious– the mortal sin of ‘insufficient enthusiasm’.

  17. Dictionaries attest both /oʊ/ and /ɒ/~/ɔː/, though I can only recall hearing the latter.

    That reminds me of the surname Jobs, which is traditionally said with /oʊ/ (cf. the biblical Job), but was pronounced like “jobs” by its most famous bearer.

  18. So, how do you pronounce ‘sloth’? is it slow-th or slah-th?

    I use the latter for the animal and the former for the quality of being slow.

  19. Sloth can be pronounced either with the CLOTH vowel (= LOT or THOUGHT, depending on accent) or the GOAT vowel. I use the latter myself, but either is fine. AHD5 implies that some people use THOUGHT in this word even if they typically merge CLOTH = LOT. (This is academic for those who outright merge THOUGHT and LOT, like our esteemed host.)

    In writing, I would use sloth for the animal and the sin of accidia, but slowth (or more likely slowness) for the quality of being slow. Obviously the latter forms are GOAT.

  20. (This is academic for those who outright merge THOUGHT and LOT, like our esteemed host.)

    Nope, they’re distinct for me.

  21. Huh. I was under the impression that qua Californian you had the cot-caught (LOT-THOUGHT, respectively) merger. Westerners and (non-Maritime) Canadians generally do.

  22. I’m not a Californian, although I went to college there (at Occidental). My accent is a mishmosh of general American with bits of my paternal Ozarks, California, the Northeast, and who knows what all mixed in .

  23. >>Some others (I am quite serious) are human and work in the US criminal justice system.

    I guess nobody here saw Flash the Sloth in the trailer to the latest Disney movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bY73vFGhSVk

  24. As far as I know the Maritimes are just as merged as the rest of Canada, although the quality of the merged vowel can vary.

  25. “Huh. I was under the impression that qua Californian you had the cot-caught (LOT-THOUGHT, respectively) merger. ”

    I’m Californian and we *do not* have the cot/caught merger. Fifty years ago when California was being inundated with Midwesterners moving into newly built suburbs the cot/caught merger is almost a shibboleth because it marked you as being Other. And that may be where the confusion arose. If you just survey “Californians” without any further identification, you are likely to get a lot of second generation Midwesterners and Easterners mixed in. There is even an island of Mid-South speech, specifically Oklahoma, in the southern Central Valley.

  26. Hat: Ah. A collision in my hash tables, no doubt.

    Lazar: Quite. I knew the Maritimes were unlike the rest of Canada in this respect, but I’d forgotten exactly how. So merged accents are found in Scotland, parts of Ireland, Eastern New England (but without PALM-LOT merger, unlike the rest of North America), Western Pennsylvania, Western U.S (and sporadically elsewhere, especially among the young), and all Canada. Exactly what phone is the product of the merger, however, depends on locality.

  27. @Jim: I’m confused; it’s well known that most people in California have the merger (Bert Vaux’s 2003 survey found 76% with it, 24% without), as in the West more broadly – and that most people in the Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic don’t have the merger. The emerging Southern California accent (often unfairly referred to as Valley Girl, but either way a creature of young native-born Californians) is definitely merged: its signature characteristic, the California vowel shift, is predicated on the cot-caught merger.

    I’m wondering, are you from the Bay Area? Because that area is known to be a cot-caught distinguishing island within California.

  28. “@Jim: I’m confused; it’s well known that most people in California have the merger (Bert Vaux’s 2003 survey found 76% with it, 24% without), ”

    Who did they survey? Was there any effort to ascertain the variety of English they were looking at or was it just geographical? California has undergone huge immigration across the eastern border since WWII.

    ” The emerging Southern California accent (often unfairly referred to as Valley Girl, but either way a creature of young native-born Californians) is definitely merged:”

    My point exactly. Look at the settlement history of Southern California. The place was effectively unpopulated before the 20s and only began to fill in during and after WWII. That increase was almost entirely Midwestern (until it became Mexican.) And when I say Midwestern, let me be specific – the northern Midwest, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, etc. Sections of each of them are in the area for the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, and yes, that does involve cot-caught merger.

  29. Was there any effort to ascertain the variety of English they were looking at or was it just geographical?

    It was simply a survey of people living in each state. You seem to be dismissive of the Californian credentials of most of the people currently living there, but regardless, almost everyone born in California in the past few decades has the merger. Migrants from the Northeast, Midwest or South would serve to lower the frequency of the merger, not raise it.

    And when I say Midwestern, let me be specific – the northern Midwest, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, etc. Sections of each of them are in the area for the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, and yes, that does involve cot-caught merger.

    The NCVS isn’t associated with the cot-caught merger; typically the NCVS yields [a] for LOT and [ɑ]~[ɒ] for THOUGHT, with the latter phoneme migrating into the space vacated by the former. There are some transitional areas that have both the merger and the NCVS, but for the most part it’s the non-NCVS parts of the Midwest that have the merger, and the NCVS parts of it that lack it. Vaux found the following percentages of merged speakers for the Midwest:

    Ohio: 45%
    Indiana: 35%
    Illinois: 16%

    Michigan: 12%
    Wisconsin: 19%
    Minnesota: 50%
    Iowa: 46%

    North Dakota: 80%
    South Dakota: 45%
    Nebraska: 63%
    Kansas: 74%

    Note the extremely low figures for Michigan and Wisconsin, the two states that fall most fully in NCVS territory; Minnesota and Iowa are roughly half-and-half. The merger is in the process of spreading through the Plains and Midlands, so the merged figures in most of these states would have been substantially lower during the mid 20th century. For example, Johnny Carson, who grew up in southwestern Iowa and northeastern Nebraska, didn’t have the merger, though the people growing up in those areas today probably do.

    So in short, I’m skeptical of what you’ve said because you’re speaking of a merger which is most strongly characteristic of the West (including California, in any current descriptive sense), and imputing its presence to areas which are at best only partially merged today, and were even less merged during the timeframe that you have in mind. It’s totally contrary to what I know about the American dialectal landscape.

  30. You seem to be dismissive of the Californian credentials of most of the people currently living there

    Yeah, you seem to be saying “Well, real Californians don’t have the merger,” which becomes less and less convincing the fewer such Californians there are. I mean, there are probably people saying that real New Yorkers still talk like Jimmy Cagney.

  31. Some still do, if they are white and native-born and (usually) male and 65+. But of course NYC is 36% foreign-born, and who knows how many internal migrants it has (you can start with me and my wife, though, if you want to count them). The accent profile of the city as a whole is a complete melange and is constantly shifting.

  32. My point exactly.

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