I am happy to report that this word is not yet another of those execrable nicknames the British press come up with for well-known figures (e.g. Macca for Paul McCartney and Gazza for Paul Gascoigne, a footballer). No, it’s a word you can play in Scrabble. Alas, it’s a word for an animal that doesn’t exist anymore.
A quagga is – was – a sort of zebra, but with stripes only on the front half; the back half was a solid colour (as though in a quagmire?). The shape of the word itself is only vaguely reminiscent of this for me – the vertical lines in the front-end qu followed by the rounder, non-stripey agga. These beasties were common enough in South Africa for eons, but the farmers didn’t like sharing grassland with them, so they were hunted as pests – and also for meat and hides.
But these beasties were thought to be just a slightly different-looking version of the zebra. So no one really thought about their possibly becoming extinct. A law was finally passed banning hunting for them – about three years after the last one died, in a zoo in 1883, and likely more than a decade after the last one was hunted in the wild. Cue Joni Mitchell: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” And the quagga becomes quiet.
The name quagga comes from Khoekhoe – that’s the language, though Khoekhoe does look like it’s related to to quagga, with the paired velars and the unrounding vowels, doesn’t it? The Khoekhoe word was ||koaah, which starts with a velar-coarticulated lateral click – coincidentally the kind of sound many people of European origin use to get a horse to start moving – and, after moving through a diphthong that opens from rounded, ends with a velar or other dorsal fricative. It is apparently imitative of the sound the animal makes. I mean made. It came to be brought into Afrikaans, which added a vowel at the end and converted the opening /||k/ into just a /k/. The letter g – or a double g – in this, as in most, cases in Afrikaans is a voiceless velar fricative, as in ach and loch and so on. In English, we change it further, making the gg just a /g/, as we will. So the click and the fricative are gone, and most of us wouldn’t even have known they were there. The wild bray is become something more like a half-submerged duck’s call.
But the animal named by ||koaah and, originally, quagga wasn’t the quagga in specific; it was the zebra generally. Indeed, the plains zebra, one of several species of zebra in existence, is Equus quagga (boy, do I love the look of that term! such a beautiful pattern on the page!). The quagga is – was – a subspecies, †Equus quagga quagga (oh, please stop, I’m having a word-nerd-gasm – everyone please say “equus quagga quagga” five times, and the world will turn backwards). Notice the obelisk at the beginning of the Latin name, that orthographic tombstone: it says “There ain’t no more.”
But some people beg to differ. Just as there are still Khoekhoe and Afrikaans speakers maintaining the phonological originals of this word, there may be the genes of the quagga roaming around the grasslands of South Africa. Some people think the quagga’s genes – or anyway genes that would express its phenotype – may be available, unexpressed, recessive, in related subspecies of the plains zebra. A selective breeding program is underway to turn back the spin of time and bring back the Equus quagga quagga. See The Quagga Project’s website.
And why? Why bother bringing back what is really just another type of zebra? What’s the business case?
What business case? Why does there need to be a financial justification? Money is a means, not an end; it is just a medium of storage and transfer of value; we use it to get ourselves things that we value. Do you like the incessant, infinite variety of life? Do you delight in seeing a word such as quagga? Why would you not delight in seeing such a beast as a quagga, then? Another, and different, beautiful pattern on the grassland, eking out its hardscrabble existence, more than just a hard Scrabble word.
You know, sometimes we just don’t feel like having yet another too-late-realized loss to sing about.