Ancient Word of the Day: Gibbon / Kebong

Lar gibbon thumbs up

The word gibbon entered European languages through French in the 18th century. The French adopted it from the Malay word, kebon. However etymological research shows this Malay word originally came from a group of languages called Northern Aslian, spoken by indigenous communities in peninsular Malaysia. In Northern Aslian, it was probably pronounced kebong.

The word #Gibbon entered French and other European languages from the Malay word, ‘kebon’, an ancient word from indigenous languages probably pronounced kebong

Gibbons are a type of ape with long and agile limbs suitable for gracefully swinging through the trees of Southeast Asia’s forests. Like other gibbons they form gregarious and close-knit family groups. They face a major existential threat from palm oil deforestation and illegal animal trafficking that occurs as a result of this deforestation.

Gibbon is a relatively rare term in Southeast Asia itself. It even fell out of use in Malay after the 18th century. More common in the region’s languages is the word wak-wak. Like orangutan, this word appears in the Old Javanese language as early as the 9th century and seems to derive from the crow-like sound gibbons make.

Recent fascinating research shows that the word wak-wak may originate from the ancient Middle Eastern legend of the Wakwak Tree: a fantastical tree from a far eastern land whose fruits produced human heads and bodies which cried out “wak wak”. Folk memories of the gibbon’s piercing cry may have been transmitted across the Indian Ocean many centuries before the animal was identified by European science.

All gibbon species are endangered by palm oil deforestation. Join the #Boycott4Wildlife and fight back with your wallet…

Published by Content Catnip

Content Catnip is a quirky internet wunderkammer written by an Intergalactic Space Māori named Content Catnip. Join me as I meander through the quirky and curious aspects of history, indigenous spirituality, the natural world, animals, art, storytelling, books, philosophy, travel, Māori culture and loads more.

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