LINGUIST List 14.2289

Mon Sep 1 2003

Sum: Words for "death"

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  • 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 email:


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

    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 47405;]


    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 German:

    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 roots.)

    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 unknown).

    [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 life).

    [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 expressions.

    [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 'bookish')

    '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 languages.

    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, UK,]

    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 common.

    [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, UK,]

    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,]