August 1, 2008

Etymologist 14: Mangoes and cashews in Thai and Mon

The last week or so I've been spending a lot of time with Harry Shorto's A Dictionary of Modern Spoken Mon (1962). With its companion volume, A Dictionary of the Mon Inscriptions (1971), it makes for some interesting reading.

Personally, I don't know a lot about Mon, but historically it has had a lot of influence on Thai, which mostly goes unrecognized. The Mon were in Southeast Asia more than two millennia before the arrival of the Tai (ancestors of the Thai, Lao, Shan, etc.) from an area of what is now southern China.

Yesterday I noticed a connection, but of a different kind. It's a semantic similarity between modern spoken Thai and modern spoken Mon.

In Mon, just as in Thai, the word for 'cashew' comes from the word for 'mango'. The Thai word for 'mango' is มะม่วง /mamûaŋ/ (from หมาก /màak/ + ม่วง /mûaŋ/); the Mon word is /krɜk/. Now, obviously there's no common origin between those two words.

The mango/cashew connection presumably derives from their similar shape. The cashew nut is native to Brazil, and was spread throughout the world by the Portuguese, who were among the earliest Europeans in Southeast Asia. The cashew took well to the tropical climes of South and Southeast Asia. Today, Vietnam is the largest producer of cashews in the world, with more than four times the annual output of Brazil; India produces more than double that of Brazil.

(Interesting side note: In areas of Thailand's south, the cashew is called กาหยู /kaayǔu/, which, like English 'cashew', comes from the Portuguese word acajú, and ultimately from the indigenous Tupi word acajuba.)

The standard Thai word for 'cashew' is มะม่วงหิมพานต์ /mamûaŋ hǐmmaphaan/ 'Himmaphan mango'. The Thai word หิมพานต์ /hǐmmaphaan/ is from Himavanta, the name of the forest in Hindu mythology which lies at the base of Mount Meru.

The Mon word for 'cashew' is /krɜk soiŋkhɜ̀/. The phonology obscures it a bit, but the second word is from Sanskrit /siṃhala/ (corresponding to Thai สิงหล /sǐŋhǒn/). It is the Mon word for Ceylon/Sinhala, which was partially ruled by the Portuguese in the 17th Century, before the Dutch moved in, and then the British, before modern independence under the name Sri Lanka.

So for Thais, a cashew is a 'Himavanta mango', while for Mon it's a 'Sinhala mango'. The Mon name presumably comes from the nut's place of origin from the Mon perspective. I'm not sure how the Thai word came to refer to a mythical forest in the Jataka tales. Does anyone else have any insight into that?

Regardless, it's an interesting semantic similarity. I wonder if there was any influence in one direction or the other.


  1. ីIn Khmer, cashew is "swaay chantii," swaay being the term for mango. chantii seems to me to be related to "moon" (based on its orthography in Khmer)...but the exact origin of chantii is a mystery; the Tandart Khmer dictionary (and no other) says it is "the name of a woman in the satras..."...?

  2. In my portion of the Andaman South, the word for cashew is "เม็ดกาหยี".

  3. Bui, I'd guess that กาหยี somehow comes from กาหยู.

    Frank, Fascinating stuff. Some further checking on SEAlang reveals that Burmese, Shan, and Lao all have a similar thing.

    Burmese is /θì hò θayeʔ/, "Sinhala mango" (but the common spoken form is just /θì hò/).

    Shan is /maak2 moŋ3 sʰi2 ho2/, also "Sinhala mango".

    Lao is ຫມາກມ່ວງຫິມະພານ /mȁ:k mūa:ŋ hȋ́ mā pʰá:n/, "Himavanta mango" (just like Thai).

    And to break the pattern:

    Vietnamese is đào lộn hột, which has nothing to do mangoes, but I'm not sure of the literal interpretation.

    Malay has gajus (no doubt ultimately from Tapi via Portuguese, similar to English 'cashew'). It's also most likely where กาหยู (and, as a variant of it, กาหยี) came into Thai.

    Indonesian has two words that I found: gajus, like Malay, and jambu monyet, which I believe means 'monkey rose-apple' (ชมพู่ลิง, if we render it into Thai).

    Anyone else have more to add? Are there other languages which call the cashew an '____ mango'?

  4. My mother, originally from Surat Thani Province, said the locals call it "Muang Led Lo" [muang = mamuang = or mango; Led = maled = seed; lo = in Bangkok dialect, probably "phlo" = to show, to stick out].

  5. I found a list on this page of names for cashew in different parts of Thailand:

    ยกร่อง (ใต้)
    กะแตแก (มาลายู,นราธิวาส)
    กายี (ตรัง)
    ตำหยาว, ท้ายล่อ, กาหยี, ม่วงล่อ, หัวครก, กะแตแหล กาจู กาหยู ส้มม่วงชูหน่าย (ใต้)
    นายอ (มาลายู-ยะลา)
    มะม่วงกาสอ (อุตรดิตถ์)
    มะม่วงกุลา, มะม่วงสังกา, มะม่วงสิงหน, มะม่วงหยอด (ภาคเหนือ)
    มะม่วงทูนหน่วย, ส้มม่วงทุนหน่วย(สุราฎร์ธานี)
    มะม่วงนยางหุย หิม (ระนอง)
    มะม่วงไม่รู้หาวมะม่วงมะโหใหม่ (เงิ้ยวแม่ฮ่องสอน)
    ยาโหยยามักม่วงหิมพานต์ (อุดรธานี-อีสาน)
    พานต์มะม่วงสิโห (เชียงงอ)

    And here's an interesting page that talks about the origin of southern words for cashew. But it isn't to be trusted.

    He states that กาหยู comes from กา 'crow' + หยู from อยู่ 'stay', so named because the cashew tree is a tree that crows like to hang out on. It's pure bunk and a classic false etymology--trying to make sense of a loanword by interpreting it in one's own language.