LINGUIST List 14.2289

Mon Sep 1 2003

Sum: Words for "death"

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. D. Alan Shewmon, Words for "death"

Message 1: Words for "death"

Date: Sun, 31 Aug 2003 13:45:19 +0000
From: D. Alan Shewmon <>
Subject: Words for "death"


For a medical paper on brain death we were wondering whether there are
languages with

(1)	more than one word for the phenomenon we call ''death''
(2)	 no equivalent for the English word ''death''

Re: (1), we were not thinking of joking, euphemistic or substandard
substitutes for the ''serious'' word for death. (Linguist 14.1833)

We received many replies and will quote from those most related to
what we were seeking. Many thanks to everybody who replied - the
information was very helpful and is much appreciated. 

D. Alan Shewmon, MD
Department of Neurology
David Geffen School of Medicine
University of California, Los Angeles


A paper in LINGUISTIC TYPOLOGY 7-2 (2003) suggests that the event in
question can be conceptualized differently in different

Robert Botne: 
'To die' across languages: Toward a typology of achievement verbs.


This paper constitutes an essay in comparative lexical semantics and
typology, comparing DIE verbs in eighteen languages. Crosslinguistically,
DIE verbs, although referring to the same human event, differ in their
inherent temporal (i.e., aspectual) phase structure. Primary DIE
verbs, representative of Vendler's class of achievement verbs, provide
not only an instructive case study of a single lexical verb, but also
an excellent exemplar of the class type. It is proposed that the four
types of DIE verbs identified - acute achievement, inceptive,
resultative, and transitional - also constitute the potential range of
all achievement verbs.

[respondent: Robert Botne, Department of Linguistics, Indiana
University, Memorial Hall 322, 1021 E. 3rd Street, Bloomington, IN


In Irish there are two words for ''death'': ''b�s'' /ba:s/ and ''�ag''
/e:g/. ''�ag'' is more literary in flavour than ''b�s'', but by no
means obsolete. It also possesses a very closely cognate verb meaning
''to die'', quite commonly used in literary Irish; the single words
''�ag'' and ''b�saigh'' are imperatives, but ''b�s a fh�il'' is more
like ''to die''; it's standard practice with Irish to cite isolated
verbs in the imperative, but longer verb phrases (especially those
with a direct object) as infinitive (or ''verbal noun'', more
appropriately for Irish) phrases. The imperative form of ''b�s a
fh�il'', for the sake of completeness, would be ''faigh b�s'' /faj
ba:s/; I've not once seen or heard it used in the imperative, though!

[respondent: Tom Pullman,]


The following (non-euphemistic/joking/substandard) words are used in

1. Tod (most frequently used) 
2. Exitus (esp. used in medical context)
3. Ableben (very formal term) 
4. Sterben (also exists as verb ''sterben'')

[respondent: Svenja Hiltrop,]

Apart from the unmarked word for death, Tod, German also knows
Ableben. This, however, is rather associated with a formal
register. Still more formal is the nominalized Dahinscheiden. Anything
beyond that would be euphemistic.

[respondent: Veronika Koller, Department of English Business
Communication, Vienna University of Economics and Business
Administration, Augasse 9, A-1090 Vienna/Austria]


In French there are two ''serious'' words for death: mort (fem., la
mort), d�ces (m., le d�ces). But while for one person's death you can
say both ''la mort d'une personne'' and ''le d�ces d'une personne'',
for the death of the brain (or of any other organ) you can say only ''
la mort du cerveau'', and not ''le d�ces du cerveau. This synonymy is
general for the Romance languages, as in Romanian there are exactly
the same Latin words: ''moarte'' (fem.) and ''deces'' (m.), with the
same restrictions for the use of the latter: ''moartea unei
persoane'', ''decesul unei persoane'', ''moartea creierului'', but not
''decesul creierului''.

[respondent: Paula Gherasim, Linguistics, Ottawa, Canada,]

In Romanian there are two words for ''death'': ''moarte'' and
''deces''. The first one is the general term, the second one is used
more frequently in the medical jargon. The equivalent of ''brain
death'' is ''moarte cerebrala''.

[respondent: Radu Daniliuc,]


Three words for ''death'' in Italian:
morte = death (neutral)
decesso = death at the end of illness 
trapasso = passage from this life (on the earth) to a better one (in
paradise); means ''trans-passage'', but it is used only in the sense
of death.

[respondent: Francesca Fici, University of Florence,]


In Portuguese, there is more than one word for death: morte (referring
both to human and non-human death) and falecimento ( applicable only
to human death)

[respondent: Denise Weiss, Brasil]


Spanish has at least two words to refer to death: muerte and
fallecimiento (verbal forms morir and fallecer). However, just as with
any other synonyms, they are not exactly equivalent in usage, as the
latter is the ''kinder'' expression of the event, used for example, in
notification of the event to relatives. It is not, however,
euphemistic (as expressions like pass away, give up the ghost or kick
the bucket and a host of equivalents in English and Spanish are), but
may be used in clinical and non-clinical contexts.

[respondent: Fiona MacArthur, Filolog�as Inglesa y Alemana,
Universidad de Extremadura, Avda. de la Universidad, s/n 10071
C�ceres, Spain,]


Basque has two words for 'death': <herio> and the extended form
<heriotza> ~ <heriotze>. (We are looking at an instance of regional
variation in the second word; the suffix <-tza> ~ <-tze> is a common
suffix forming abstract nouns.) Now, Basque literature conventionally
makes a conspicuous distinction between these two. When death is
personified, the short word is always used, either with the normally
omnipresent Basque article, like any other noun, or without the
article, as in a proper name. Moreover, <herio> is commonly preferred
when death is perceived as an agent, as in cases like 'death took
him'. But the longer word is preferred when death is perceived as a
passive affair, equivalent to 'demise', as in 'after his death'. But
this appears to be more a literary distinction than a popular one, and
anyway there are exceptions in both directions.

[respondent: Larry Trask, COGS, University of Sussex, Brighton BN1
9QH, UK,]


In the Czech language, there is an equivalent to the English ''death''
- ''smrt''. There are actually few more words - ''umrti'' which is a
kind of already finished 'act' of dying (because it is derived from
the verb ''umrit'' = ''to die''), that is, it is conceived as
something concrete and individual (a death of a certain person),
whereas ''smrt'' is the phenomenon in abstracto. Another word for an
individual death is ''skonani'', which is slightly euphemistic like
''end'', ''passing away'' (but ''to pass away'' is rather ''zesnout'',
not ''skonat''). But in the substandard language, we sometimes (when
we are joking about death) say ''zubata''. The word is grammatically
feminine and is derived from ''zub'' = ''tooth''. It might be loosely
translated as ''the toothy'' or maybe ''toothie''. It refers to the
personalized image of death as it has appeared in the Czech (but of
course not only Czech) folklore, that is, a skeleton like the Greek
''Kharon'' (in contrast to ''thana! tos''), but with a scythe (like
the grim reaper). As it is actually a skeleton, its teeth are
conspicuous (it is the only thing you can see from behind the hood it
wears), so people call it ''the toothy/toothie'' here. The word is
usually used in the phrase ''Prisla si pro nej/ni zubata'' = ''The
Death came for him/her (to take him/her away).''

'umrti' looks more person-bound, person-oriented (as if, by saying
'umrti', you would like not to omit that it is a death OF someone),
and it is also a more formal word, whereas 'smrt' is the phenomenon of
dying _an sich_, and it is stylistically neutral (maybe this is also
the reason why i have unintentionally put the phrases with 'smrt'
before the phrases with 'umrti' :)). finally, according to a
czech-english dictionary the following translations (in various
contexts) are possible:

SMRT = exit, exitus, fade-out, death, fatality, fate, dissolution,
doom, end, ending, expiration, passing, rest, (jurid.:) decease 
UMRTI = death, bereavement, dying, (jurid.:) decease, demise death 
in the family
-SMRT v rodine
-UMRTI v rodine

cot death / crib death
-SMRT kojence ve spanku
-UMRTI kojence ve spanku

accidental death
-SMRT zavinena nehodou
-UMRTI zavinene nehodou

death of a patient
-SMRT pacienta
-UMRTI pacienta

The death came immediately.
-SMRT nastala okamzite. ((probably more frequent))
-UMRTI nastalo okamzite.

The death came at 5 hours.
-SMRT nastala v 5 hodin. ((probably more frequent))
-UMRTI nastalo v 5 hodin.

It was a tragical death (ending).
-byla to tragicka SMRT. ((more frequent))
-bylo to tragicke UMRTI.

living death
-SMRT za ziva
-((one would not say 'umrti za ziva', but can well say 'UMRENI za
ziva'; 'umreni' is a deverbative of 'umrit' = to die, that is, it
means something like 'dying', but is perfective, non-progressive;
imperfective, progressive 'dying' would be 'umirani'))

brain death
-klinicka SMRT
-((will not occur with the word 'klinicka' = clinical, but the phrase
might be described as 'umrti mozku' = death of the brain))

the fear of death
-strach ze SMRTI
-((will not probably occur))

capital punishment (literary 'punishment of death')
-trest SMRTI
-((will not definitely occur))

[respondent: Marian Sloboda, Prague]


mier (of Slavonic origin) '' the most frequently used, neutral
equivalent of English death. Used in a variety of contexts and in
everyday language. It is also used in legal and medical language,
e.g. mier m�zgu (death of the brain), mier kliniczna (clinical death)

zgon '' means death and it is more formal than mier since it is the
medical term for death. Zgon means in fact death of a person because
you may not say zgon m�zgu (zgon/death of the brain) but only mier
m�zgu (mier/death of the brain). Afterwards a doctor may declare zgon
(death) of a patient. This term is also used in legal contexts and in
the press/mass media.

As regards the press/TV, I think that zgon is used instead of mier in
contexts where you want to sound formal, professional, distanced,
serious, objective, etc. In most cases, zgon and mier could be used
interchangeably. There are certain frozen phrases, e.g. Akt zgonu ''
certificate of death (only zgon is used here), stwierdzi zgon '' to
declare that somebody is dead (literal: to declare death).

There are also two separate words for to die
umrze '' which is used only in reference to human beings
zdechn '' which is used in reference to animals; or as a derogatory
term in reference to human beings

[respondent: Lucja Biel, University of Gdask, Poland,]


Russian has at least two official (no jokes) words for death, the
first one is ''smert''' which is a common term for 'death'; the second
is ''letalnyj isxod'', lit. ''lethal outcome'' which focuses on the
death being a result of some injury or the like.

[respondent: Michael Daniel, Moscow,]

Nivkh, Sakhalin Peninsula

In Nivkh (older name: Gilyak; spoken on Sakhalin and mainland
opposite, near Amur mouth, by fewer than 1,000 people) the verb
corresponding most closely to English 'die' is mu-. What is
interesting about this verb is its polysemy: it also corresponds to
English 'to become'. There is thus no verb for 'die' in Nivkh which is
really 'equivalent' to the English. One could of course say that there
must have been such a verb, but that it was replaced by a euphemism;
but the fact of the polysemy of mu- remains.

(Nivkh is an isolate, so we cannot recover whether we have here to
deal with polysemy or coincidental homophony of two unconnected

It would be accurate to say that there is no verb in Nivkh which is
'equivalent' to EITHER 'become' OR 'die'. This is the eternal
homophony/polysemy problem, and Nivkh's isolate status leaves us
rather helpless in this case: we will prbably never know whether we
have here to deal with two distinct verbs which came to sound alike,
or whether it was alway one verb, with a bifurcation (or better:
spread) of meaning.

As for world-view: Lydia Black wrote a fine monograph on material and
transcendental aspects of Nivkh culture: 'The Nivkh (Gilyak) of
Sakhalin and the Lower Amur', Arctic Anthropology. 10: 1-110 (1973).

[respondent: Daniel Abondolo, Department of East European Languages
and Culture School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University
College, London, ALT member, SSEES, UCL, London, UK,]


Yiddish has (besides toyt) ptire, mes, shtarbn/geshtorbn, feln zikh,
oyshoykhn di neshome and avek in der eybikeyt. neshome (3 syllables)
is soul (MIH: neshama). Oyshoykhn is to breathe out one's final
breath. feln (zikh) [to go missing] is usually overlooked (or

[respondent: Joshua Fishman,]


In Hebrew, there are 2 words used for death: ''petira'' and ''mavet''
(as well as its derivative ''mita/misa''). As Baruch Podolsky
<> points out, there are several ''synonyms for
the verb 'to die' in Modern Hebrew. 'Niftar' sounds ''more delicate''
than 'met'. ... What is interesting is that 'niftar' in the meaning
''passed away'' is used only in past tense and as participle, never in
future or infinitive.'' Ora Schwarzwald <>
suggests looking at Rabin & Radai's thesaurus for the ''many Hebrew
words for death.''

[respondent and moderator of,
where the request was also posted and elicited some responses: Sarah
Bunin Benor, Stanford University, Department of Linguistics,]

Kifuliiru, Democratic Republic of Congo

We have many field workers in about 1100 languages throughout the
world, and one of them the other day had mentioned that there were
several words for ''die.'' These are from the Kifuliiru language in
Democratic Republic of Congo, courtesy of Roger VanOtterloo. He knows
there are more, but this is what he knew off the top of his head. Note
the infinitive prefix ku-. There is also a noun for ''death'', which
is different yet. kufwa - to die (generic term), kukinduka or
kuduuduka - to drop dead (not sure what the difference is in these),
ihaha - last gasp (just before dying)

[respondent: Michael Cahill, International Linguistics Coordinator,
SIL International, 7500 W. Camp Wisdom Rd., Dallas, TX 75236, USA,]


Turkish has two separate words for death, ''olum'' and ''ecel,'' the
latter of which, I believe, is an Arabic word that is incorporated
into the language. They are pretty much synonymous, but olum is the
more commonly used form in current Turkish. There is also a
conventionalized form of describing brain death in the language which
is ''bitkisel hayata girmek'' (translation: enter into a vegetable

[respondent: Seyda Ozcaliskan,]


In Hindi (official language of India) there are, for ''death'' 2 words
from the same origin: mrityu (Sanscrit) and maut (modern form of
mrityu), 1 word from a different base: dehant (meaning literally ''end
of the body'') and a large number of periphrastic expression.


Mrtue '' Hindi
Inteqal, Maut '' Urdu

Besides, there are several expressions in Hindi and Urdu equivalent to
sad demise, left for heaven, but I think you are not looking for these

[respondent: Shaheen Parveen, sp491, MEALAC, 609 Kent Hall,]


In Tamil there are three words for 'death'. They are 1) irappu 2)
chavu 3) maranam.


In the view of Tamils, life begins with conception; the conceived
embryo is called karu (pronounced like current+voodoo) which takes
form ie body ,called vuru (wooden+ruthless). Vuru+Vuyir (no English
word to correctly represent vuyir:nearest approximation is life) leads
to pirappu-coming into the world with life.Now, it follows that irappu
is departing from the world, shedding life.Pirappu is taking form with
life; irappu is losing form shedding life.Tamils had a scientific
thinking in such matters and even vowels are called vuyir letters and
consonants mei letters (Body letters).A mei letter can live by a vowel
ie vuyir letter only!Incidentally Irappu is a noun only.


The term chavu refers to the state of no life.It is opposed to the
state of life.There is a saying in Tamil Chettha pambai adippathu pola
which means Its like killing a dead snake.The actual implication of
the word chettha (which is a past participle of chavu ) is more than
just dead.It implies the absence of all attributes of active life.This
term is also used with reference to non-human living things like
animals,snakes, insects etc(The word maranam is never used for
non-human references).The opposite of chavu isvazhvu which roughly
means life in English.However this term vazhvu is used for both human
and non-human lives.


Maranam is the event of death.As mentioned earlier this term is used
only for human beings. This term is a noun but can be used as an
adjective by just trimming the last sound.For eg: marana seithi means
death news .Maranam adaindhan means he died.

[respondent: A.S.Sundar,]


There was a detailed reply from Ralf Vollmann
[], the essence of which can be found in his
book: Vollmann, Ralf 2003c: The puzzle of Tibetan Ergativity. A
theoretical and historiographical account. Wien: Arbeitskreis f�r
buddistische und tibetologische Studien (= Wiener Studien zur
Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde). 419p. (to appear)


In Japanese, there are related words for death, ''shi'' and
''shiboo.'' The ''shi'' part literally means ''death,'' and ''boo''
part can be translated as ''perish,'' but the word ''shiboo'' is often
used in medical and other formal contexts. When plants die, we can use
the verbs that are directly related to ''shi'' and ''shiboo'', namely,
''shinu'' and ''shiboo-suru,'' but there is a noun used specifically
for the death of plants, which is ''koshi,'' which has a rather
technical ring to it. All three words have the morpheme ''shi,'' so
it's not the case that Japanese have two/three completely different
words for ''death.''

[respondent: NAKAMURA Akira, Japanese Language Center for
International Students, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies,]

'shi' = 'death' in the general sense BUT

'shibou' = 'death' in the general sense also (although a little more

'shinigami' = 'Death' (as a religious concept = the Grim Reaper etc.)

'shoumetsu' = death (of an idea, a philosophy) etc.

[respondent: Mark Irwin, Yamagata University, Faculty of Literature &
Social Sciences, Yamagata-shi Kojirakawa-machi 1-4-12, Japan 990-8560,]


In Malay meninggal dunia - left this world. Mati -dead - normally used
for animals.

[respondent: Maya David,]

Arop-Lokep, Papua New Guinea

Arop-Lokep, an Austronesian language spoken on three islands off the
north coast of Papua New Guinea, has several words pertaining to death
which are all derived from the same root but express different aspects
of death through different morphological forms.

mata -'to die' eg. i-mata '3s-die'. If someone has died a completive
suffix is added, eg. i-mat-o '3s-die-compl' (similar to the Tok Pisin
'em i dai pinis' - '3s die finish'). 'mata' can be combined with other
verbs to express the means of dying, eg. i-rau-mata '3s-hit-die' (=
kill). The verb 'to sleep' is 'i-ken-mata' - 3s-recline-die, so 'mata'
on its own without the completive or another root seems to be a lack
of consciousness rather than death itself.

mate-nge - 'death' (nominalized form) - the act or process of dying

mate-ne, mate-k, mate-m- 'death' (inalienable noun form, i.e. 'his
death', 'my death', 'your death', etc - this is death itself, not
dying) - incidentally, matem 'your death' is what you say to a
mosquito when you slap it. The inalienable noun form can also have the
sense 'dead one' or 'corpse'.

[respondent: Mary Raymond,]

Kovai, Papua New Guinea

In the Kovai language of Papua New Guinea, the verb 'um' means 'die',
but the noun formed from it 'umong' means not only 'death' but also
mere 'sickness' (and not necessarily fatal either - you can recover
from 'umong'). There is no other obvious word for death or for
sickness. I think this may be quite common in Papua New Guinean

Traditionally the Kovai believe that the dead live on in another place
and that their spirits have influence in their lives (e.g. helping
them with hunting). As it says in an unpublished anthropological
description (Alan & Ritva Brown 1998): ''The spirits of the dead live
together in a place called Anreba (in West New Britain according to
some) where they live together, eating, sleeping and working. They do
not have children after they have died, but in all other ways appear
to continue just as they lived before death. They may leave Anreba at
any time and come and speak to family members in dreams, when they
talk to them about their current life.''

[respondent: Michael Johnstone, PhD student, University of Cambridge,

Tok Pisin

Tok Pisin (English-based creole of Papua New Guinea) has the word
die. This is mainly a verb but verbs and nouns are not strictly
separate in this language. He dies/is dead is 'em i dai'. This can
mean that he is unconscious or that he is dead. For the latter sense
you can add aspect 'em i dai pinis' but that can also mean something
like he is already dead, and is not available for in the future tense,
where the option 'dai olgeta' is a possibility (die altogether).

Connected items are 'kilim' from kill+transitive, which means hit or
physically abuse, or kill (this is well known from other languages);
also 'kirap' from get up, which can mean get up from sleep or start to
do something, as well as be alive as opposed to dead (for example, in
church they talk about Jesus i kirap gen; and of people who are up
unusually late at night you can remark 'ol i kirap yet' where it means
they are still up).

In sum, there seems to be a different line of demarcation between life
and death, where our line is closer to death and theirs closer to the
live side, so to speak. The senses are carried over to nominal uses of
the words (death rather than die) although I feel these are less

[respondent: Eva Lindstr�m, Linguistics, Stockholm University,]


I have come across one other mention of the same word for illness and
death, in a language which should have more information available. In
''Through Gates of Splendour'' (Elisabeth Elliot 1956, UK 1988
edition, p.36) there are the following lines:

'My sister-in-law is dying!' This, in Quichua, may mean anything from
a headache to a snake-bite. If one is in excellent health, he is
'living'. Otherwise, he is 'dying'. 'What is the matter with your
sister-in-law?' 'She is causing a child to be born. Will you come?'

To follow up this Quechua info, a good person to ask would be Paul
Heggarty (

[respondent: Michael Johnstone, PhD student, University of Cambridge,

Tukang Besi

In Tukang Besi theres only one word for 'dead, die' - mate. If,
however, you talk about killing someone, you can say hokomate or
pamate. Hokomate is kill, dead, finished. Pamate, on the other hand,
is what happens (traditionally) when a shaman 'kills' someone to
effect a cure, but then revives them. Sophisticated modern informants
say the same thing is what happens with people in surgery, where they
lose a heartbeat or go braindead: the doctors 'pamate' the person, and
then pa'ido 'bring back to life' ('ido: alive, living).

Source: Donohue, Mark. 1999. A Grammar of Tukang Besi. Berlin: Mouton
de Gruyter. Grammar Library series No. 20. (chapter 9, start)

[respondent: Mark Donohue,] 
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