Parallel Homophony

While looking up some obscure thing from Zhuangzi 庄子 this week, I fired up Pleco on my iPod and stumbled across something I liked, though I may be the only one.

燕 yàn means swallow, as in the bird.
嚥 yàn, also written 咽, means swallow, as in what I’m doing with a cold bottle of maibock as I write this.

That’s freaking amazing! Or maybe just slightly amazing. Two homophones in English are also homophonous in Mandarin, internal to each language. How often does that happen? Maybe often and I’ve just never noticed. So I thought I’d post it here and see if anyone had other examples of this sort of thing.

It reminds me of another interesting but obviously different thing that happens sometimes, which is two words that sound the same in two languages, mean the same thing, but have no etymological connection. For example the word “and” in Arabic is written وَ while Korean has a word meaning “and” written 와. Both are pronounced “wa”. There’s some better example between Japanese and English that I’ve encountered before but I can’t recall what it was. Suggestions of that sort are also welcome.

33 responses to “Parallel Homophony”

  1. I feel that there is at least one other Chinese example, but I can’t think of any right now.

    But in Japanese, I’ve often wondered if there is any relationship between desu and Latin es(t). I’ve never read anything that connected them etymologically (but I haven’t read that much about them).

    Another interesting non-perfect pair is auxiliary, which comes from Latin, and aisilara, which means “vice-” in Manchu.

  2. Nicki says:

    I haven’t got much, but de is possessive in both French and Mandarin?

  3. Steven says:

    I’m pretty sure the word “bad” means the same thing in Farsi and English.

  4. Hans says:

    This is as far as I know (I haven’t been doing any research, as I didn’t find it worth the time) just an example how useless is Chinese writing system when they need to borrow a word. Rather than trying to create some obscure combination of characters to write down the bird’s English name, they instead borrow a homophone of the translation of the word swallow into Chinese.

    By the way, wasn’t 燕 originally a kingdom or a place name?

  5. Steven says:

    @Randy: as far as I know, there is absolutely no evidence linking Indo-European with Japanese, so the two copulas have no relationship. Isn’t ‘desu’ just one of the many variant, polite forms of the Japanese copula anyway?

  6. Karan Misra says:

    @Hans 燕 yàn is the swallow bird and the character is a pictograph of a swallow. 燕 yān is the kingdom/province name which borrows the similar-sounding character.

    @Kellen I noticed the 燕/swallow thing about a year after I started learning Chinese and it’s a fun little thing which always amuses my Chinese-speaking friends when I tell them about it. Recently, I’ve also came across another (less interesting) one which is 抵赖 which sounds like and means “deny” (assuming you have the 模糊 n-l affliction, which, let’s face it, is a part and parcel of much of the Chinese-speaking populace.) I also know a few “opposite” homophonies, which might make words easier to get wrong in the other language. For example, the Hindi word for “and” is “और” which is pronounced almost identically to the English word “or”. Also, when I was learning Cantonese, I invariably ended up saying that I had something instead of saying that I wanted something, because the Mandarin 要 sounds similar to the Cantonese 有.

  7. Karan Misra says:

    @Nicki “de” is also an interesting little thing, because it can either be a true or a false friend. The former because it means almost the same thing, and the latter because the word order is switched in the two languages. In our Chinese class, some people ended up using “的” switched up (朋友的中国 instead of 中国的朋友), and I later found out that these were the students with strong French backgrounds.

  8. @Hans: 燕 was originally the bird, among other meanings, after which the state is named. Im not sure I understand what you mean about borrowing. At any rate, English has borrowed a kabillion words, plus or minus. I don’t think we can take that as being a weakness of the writing system. But then maybe I’m just missing something in your comment.

    @Karan: 抵赖 is pretty good.

    Slightly more removed, since it’s in terms of tone though not meaning, I always liked that 那儿 and 哪儿 as “there” and “where” matched up with English intonation.

  9. 慈逢流 says:

    not much to say, but it’s a common phenomenon, common enough so modern etymology distinguishes itself from pre-scientific etymology exactly by trying hard to explicitly rule out all those correspondence-by-chance cases. there are a few factors here at work that make chance correspondences more likely:

    1) a purely statistical one: did you know you only need 23 people to get a chance above 50% that two people share a birthday? that’s counterintuitive as there are 365 days in a year, so we’re prone to say you need around 180 or so people for a chance exceeding 1:2.

    2) the sounds in the languages of the world are manifold, but ultimately limited (this statement is condensed to the degree it almost becomes wrong. i’m aware of that). they appear much more limited when you start to write down things. for example i am much better at reading a dutch newspaper (and reading it out in a way so most of my dutch gets understood) than to grasp even simple dutch things when spoken. likewise, historically many chance correspondences that lead to the wildest speculations about links between the remotest languages were made on the grounds of some written notice, more or less well understood in their true phonetic values. when i read dutch, i take advantage of the reductionary effect of orthography and can often make the link between two related languages. applied to a distant language, the same effect tends to lead to false results.

    3) many linguists have argued that the commonalities of languages are overwhelming. some say man shares a capability (and a drive) for language, and that individual languages are mere ‘dialects’ or ‘realizations’ of that underlying language. i’ve come to the conclusion that whatever you can find in one language, you will be able to find in any other language, sometimes in a very diminutive form, sometimes in disguise. of course, that’s more of a slogan than even a hypothesis, but then it’s just meant to serve as a rule of thumb.

    example: tones. you have them in chinese, where are they in english or german? well, both these languages have at least a few words where tone is commonly used to distingusih meaning; words like ‘mmh’, ‘yes’, ‘no’ are examples. sure it’s not the *same* but i didn’t promise it wouldn’t come in disguise. fact is, germans, italians and french people all know how to intonate these short utterances so listeners can sort out pretty precise nuances. it’s not the same as lexicl tone, but familiar and similar enough to use this as a starting point when learning chinese.

    another example: gender. english and chinese have no gender, right? russian has, german has, french has, suahili dunno, but english and chinese don’t, right? wrong. there are traces of gender applied to common nouns in english when you refer to a boat in the feminine, and there are more examples. it is marginal, but not obscure. and, chinese has measure words. i mean, gender is nothing more than the formation of noun classes, expressed in grammar, and in chinese you have pretty fixed classes that tell you whether to use 本 or 張 or whatever. and in suahili, you have sixteen classes. the phenomena look quite distinct on the surface, but they share at least one commonality: they can, in the odd case of homophony, serve to sort out meanings.

    as an interesting aside, as beautifully shown by Lakoff for japanese measure words, there can be intricate systems of beliefs and perceived analogies behind noun classes, which is why bottles of beer, sucessful hits in baseball, and film reels are, in japanese, all counted with the 一本, 二本 (ippon, nihon) series.

    relevant to the present discussion is something i have alwas been wondering about: are the japanese measure words a pure import from china, or have they developed independently? to be sure, the overwhelming majority of modern japanese measure words are derived from chinese (and english), so 箱 hako ‘box’ and 束 taba ‘bunch’ are really exceptions. on the other hand, one normally thinks that grammatical features are less easily swapped between languages than vocabulary, and those measure words have really made their way into the heart of the language. so maybe ancient japanese had something very similar (german ‘does not have’ measure words, but then 一張紙 translates ever-so directly to ‘ein bogen papier’, btw).

    4) and last: people grow up in different cultures and make different experiences. but they also share experiences. i always find that chinese has quite a few 成語 that are pretty understandable for a westener like me. some look like doublets, and you may wonder whether they originated independently of each other.

    shared experiences may be one of the reasons that english swallow/swallow has a chinese counterpart in 燕/咽(燕). maybe it is the feeding behavior of this bird that suggested to people in both areas of the world. at this moment i cannot find any data that would corroborate the view that swallow the bird is connected by anything but homophony to swallowing. in german, Schwalbe does seemingly have no such verb nearby (to swallow being ‘schlucken’). anecdotally, there is a word ‘Schluckspecht’, ‘swallowing wood pecker’, for an alcoholic, or a binge-drinker; one might claim that the feeding behaviors of swallows and woodpeckers are similar (or that they both rear their young in crevices/holes/burrows by which they can frequently be seen to get ‘swallowed’ (this is going to far, really).

  10. Max says:

    I’m terribly sorry to tell you that you’re not the first to have noticed that: :)

  11. @慈逢流: for the English, it looks like mere coincidence in terms of swallow, being apparently from swealwe for the bird and swelġan for the verb. But I see where you’re going.

    @Max: Don’t be sorry. I never assumed I was. People have been learning Chinese for, oh, decades perhaps. :)

    Thought of another. pei, meaning to reimburse someone for something lost, i.e., to pay. It obviously only works in some contexts.

    But then that is still an example of the second thing which I mentioned. I’d love to see more examples of the first.

  12. Max says:

    Kellen, here’s a comment from the link I posted:

    To follow up on the swallow example: 弓 means “bow” (as in the weapon) and 躬 means “to bow”, as in “bow to the king.” Both are pronounced gong1. Unfortunately, apparently to really say “to bow” you should say “鞠躬.”

  13. Karan Misra says:

    @Max Although they are spelled the same, you’d pronounce the bow of “bow and arrow” to rhyme with foe and the bow of “to take a bow” to rhyme with “cow”, but perhaps they both have some commonality in that both a “bow” and “taking a bow” involves bending, which is why the words might be the same. You do have to say “鞠躬”, but “躬” is the noun which means “a bow”, so it works out better than you think. :-)

  14. Bow works for what 慈逢流 was saying. For both of the English words the etymology is relating to being bent, and I think for Mandarin the same could work, though I’m not sure about 躬. At least in the Kangxi a definition is given as 弓身 which I read as bowing (read /boʊ/) the body.

  15. Carl says:

    This is an area rich in phony etymology. One that I particularly like is false link between Japanese arigatô and Portuguese obligado. Knowing that it is a coincidence is of no help in dismissing it from my mind!

  16. 慈逢流 says:

    hey i had completely forgotten that aritao/obligado thing. actually here it is historically *possible* that the japanese did borrow that word from portuguese, as they did with pan for bread. as for 躬 i’ve always assumed it to be a specialization of 弓, just because it’s so natural.

  17. 慈逢流 says:

    that was arigato, not aritao. hmph spelling can be difficult.

    hey, got one more. just for fun: 易sy!

    and one more that popped up not long after my arrival in taiwan: _好_無聊 … _how_ boring. of course, different, but you qickly get the idea (thx for this one, debby)

  18. Gus says:

    “charge” (like a cell phone or battery) = 充 (“chōng”)
    “charge” (like a general would yell on a battlefield) = 冲 (“chōng”)

    “lead“ (like the chemical element) = 铅 (“qiān”)
    “lead” (like by the hand) = 牵 (“qiān”)

    Okay, so the second one is actually homographic on the English side and homophonic on the Chinese side, but I think it should still count….

  19. I’m iffy on lead, but charge is perfect. Thanks Gus.

  20. Aaron says:

    I’m only aware of one English-Japanese coincidence like this: “pine” in English can mean 1. a kind of tree and 2. to “longingly wait.” “Matsu” in Japanese can also mean 1. the same kind of tree (松) or 2. “to wait” (待つ). This is (ab)used heavily in translations of classical Japanese literature.

    @Randy Any link between “desu” and Latin would have to be a coincidence, as “desu” is a quite modern construction. Premodern Japanese copulas were entirely different.

    @慈逢流 Since a lot of counters in Japanese are “native” Japanese words (as opposed to Chinese loanwords) I suspect that counters were a part of the language since before the big influx of Chinese loanwords that came from adapting hanzi. But I don’t know this for a fact.

    Also, “arigatō” is almost certainly not borrowed from Portuguese, as the etymology is quite clear: arigatō is a euphony of arigataku, the adverb form of arigatashi (有り難し), which means “rare” or “hard (難) to come by (有).”

  21. Tom says:

    The Irish for “he is” is tá sé, which tones aside is pretty much the same as 他是.

  22. 慈逢流 says:

    @Aaron: ” “arigatō” is almost certainly not borrowed from Portuguese, as the etymology is quite clear”… mmh, i do not really believe it *is* borrowed from any other language, only that it is not impossible because of the attested early contact that did result in some lexical items. but i must say i do not buy your argument on logical grounds, and because there are counterexamples: in german, ‘hammock’ is ‘Hängematte’, that’s a ‘hanging mat’. for many natives this is a valid and sufficient explanation, but in fact the word comes from an indigenous language of haiti (the same source as for the english word). so just because you can perfectly show how a given word can be plausibly assembled from meaningful parts in a language doesn’t mean it is not borrowed.

    another example from chinese: a certain store for the needs of perinatal mothers calls itself Les Enfants in french and 麗嬰房 in chinese. your argument taken seriously, it would point out that two stores were founded independently in france and taiwan (because the name is perfectly derivable within either language) before they got merged like daimler and chrysler, retaining a double name. that explanation is highly unlikely.

  23. Aaron says:

    @慈逢流 That’s great, but multiple Japanese dictionaries list “arigatō” as originating as I described it, including Daijirin, Daijisen, and Kōjien. So this is not my own folk etymology here.

  24. chubb says:


  25. Chris H says:

    example: tones. you have them in chinese, where are they in english or german? well, both these languages have at least a few words where tone is commonly used to distingusih meaning; words like ‘mmh’, ‘yes’, ‘no’ are examples. sure it’s not the *same* but i didn’t promise it wouldn’t come in disguise. fact is, germans, italians and french people all know how to intonate these short utterances so listeners can sort out pretty precise nuances. it’s not the same as lexicl tone, but familiar and similar enough to use this as a starting point when learning chinese

    I would go a lot further with that, tones do exist in western languages, we call it intonation and even words have stress, something I found- much to my surprise- to be very difficult to make Chinese learners of english do correctly, especially for words which are not that common.
    Take the word perpendicular for example. There are five different places to put the stress, but if you get it wrong the word becomes unintelligible. Something that happens a lot. Tones in western languages do not have the same importance as in Chinese, but you should try reading a text out loud in a flat voice (without intonation, come to think of it the Chinese often call westerners speech of Chinese flat…) that is, some of the meaning will be lost, even more so in a dialogue.
    e.g. Are YOU going to have that apple? vs Are you going to have THAT apple?
    On the other hand I have also found that this kind of western intonation sometimes impedes with the tones in Chinese.

  26. Chris H: The apple sentence you give is actually a case of emphasis not intonation. I’d say intonation conveys mood, which is covered in Mandarin with sentence-final particles like 啦,咯,吧. The emphasis thing, on the other hand, does exist in Mandarin and is used as frequently as in English.

    I’ve also found some English learners have trouble understanding robot characters in television and film who speak in a monotone. Clearly someone’s paying attention to intonation, whether they can replicate it accurately or not.

  27. chubb says:

    On the other hand I have also found that this kind of western intonation sometimes impedes with the tones in Chinese.

    I’ve definitely noticed this among westerners learning Chinese, including myself. There’s the falling tone that we use to emphasise a particular word (E.g. tourist laowai to salesman “wo yao!”/”I dòn’t want anything!”), and there’s the rising tone we use to indicate a question (e.g. me once to a railway ticket office lady “wo kéyi mai piáo ma?”/”Can í buy tíckets here?”

    Interestingly enough I’ve heard some Chinese people describe westerners’ Mandarin accents as Henan-like, and others say we seem Shandong-like. That might not be coincidence, since Zhengzhou dialect certainly has a lot of falling tones, while Shandong seems to be famous for its second tones, e.g. “huoché”, “shandóng”.

  28. chubb says:

    Back on the topic at hand, one of my favourite characters, 掰, just about sort-of qualifies!

  29. Chris H says:

    To Kellen,

    Eh yes, the way I understand emphasis is as a part of the overall intonation pattern. Maybe I should have put that clearer in my reaction.
    Yes these things are expressed by particles in Chinese as you mention. I didn’t say they didn’t exist in Chinese, intonation does exist in all languages.
    What i meant as a more general was that emphasis, intonation and stress generate tonal variation in western languages as well. Why else would we have sentence patterns like: “I didn’t like his tone”…

  30. Chris H,
    I don’t argue against that. But I think we can’t say it’s the same thing as tone as seen in Mandarin. I can’t think of anything in English like 买/卖 where the tonality completely changes the meaning in a perfect clear way. There’s no word that means phone if the intonation is rising but peanut if it’s falling, for example. In that sense, we don’t have tone. You could say Mandarin has intonation, though I’m not sure I include emphasis in the scheme of intonation, and I’d probably say that whatever you could show me as intonation (not tone) in Mandarin is actually emphasis.

    As in 拜拜? More a borrowing than anything else, isn’t it?

  31. chubb says:

    拜拜 is borrowed, but surely not 掰开来的掰. The relationship of 掰 to the English “bye” is that 掰 can refer to a relationship breaking apart, e.g. angry wofe to alcoholic husband: “你要是再不戒酒咱俩就掰吧!” (line from a chinesepod dialogue).

    Somewhat tenuous, but I think it’s there…well any excuse to bring up this fantastic character! By the way, on that score what’s the term for this sort of character, where all of its 3 component parts seem to refer to its meaning?ᴴ

  32. Walter says:

    (Sorry if I had made a similar comment… my computer restarted itself shortly after I clicked on “Submit” and I wasn’t sure if my first comment managed to get through.)

    It seems I’m commenting three-months late, but this is an interesting topic.

    Recently while learning Swedish I learnt that one of the words for “you” is “ni”. In Mandarin Chinese, 你(you) is also pronounced ni. But I also learnt that the “ni” form is now quite rarely used in Swedish, with the “du” form being favoured. Still, “ni” struck me immediately when I learnt of it. :)

  33. Herr_Mannelig says:

    About the Irish, “tá s锑s similarities to “他是” are interesting. While there is certainly phonetic differences besides tone, it is also interesting in that “tá” is the verb in Irish and it is only in meaning that the relationship is semantically meaningful despite being superficially similar. The root of that verb is “bí” which is pronounced like the English “be” and means the same thing.

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