Similar words across languages

An interesting thing happened when I started exploring Japanese and Korean.  I started hearing similar pronunciations to Chinese, specifically the Min Nan dialect of Chinese. Now this was rather surprising to me because although Chinese, Japanese, and Korean share what are known as Han characters (kanji in Japanese and hanja in Korean), I thought the pronunciations would be completely different.  Apparently that is not always the case. For example, in Chinese the words for “time” are 時間 (shi jian).  In Min Nan, the words are pronounced “si kan.” It turns out the words in Korean are 시간 (si gan). In Japanese, the kanji is identical and are pronounced じかん (sigan). Pretty cool!

Besides similar words, there are also loanwords.  These are words from one language that gets used in another language.  I always thought the Taiwanese word for bag was “kabang.”  But, it turns out the word originates from Japanese 鞄 (かばん; kaban). Many Japanese words are Taiwanese Mandarin and Taiwanese Min Nan because Taiwan was a colony of Japan from the 1890s to 1940s. It turns out the word for bag in Korean is 가방 (ga bang), which sounds very similar to the Japanese word.

I’ve stumbled upon this paper (pdf) by Karen Steffen Chung that discusses Japanese loanwords in Taiwanese Mandarin.  One loanword that I was not aware of is the word for lunchbox, 便當 (bian dang), comes from the Japanese 弁当 (べんとう; bento).  The proper Chinese word would be 飯盒 (fan he), meaning rice box, but no one really says that.

In The World in Words 29 (mp3), French words that were co-opted in English was explored.  However, these French words have different meanings in English.  I think the best one that was discussed was “oh la la,” which in French is used when faced with something impossible. In English, however, it is used in response to something positive or surprisingly good.  I also like RSVP, répondez s’il vous plait, which should not be followed by “please” because “s’il vous plait” already means please.

I’m sure there’s plenty of other examples out there across multiple languages. To me, this is the type of thing that makes learning and discovering languages really exciting!


4 thoughts on “Similar words across languages

  1. Very interesting article! I’m also fascinated by the ways that languages share words with each other, especially languages that seem completely unrelated.

    The word for tea in Portuguese is “chá” (pronounced “shah”), and I understand that it comes from the Chinese, because the Portuguese explorers had a lot of interactions with Chinese. I’ve also heard that the word “xixi” (in Portuguese, pronounced “she-she”), for pee-pee (the word you’d use with babies & small kids) comes from Chinese.

    Another interesting example (and this one I’m not completely positive about!) is the Portuguese word “obrigado” (thank you), which supposedly was adopted by the Japanese, who say “origató”.

    • Wow. Those languages are definitely unrelated, yet still have similar words. It’s so cool how languages influence each other. I’m assuming the mix of Portuguese and Chinese are from trade in the ancient times. Now with globalization and the internet, we can easily pick up other words.

  2. Pingback: Dramas, dramas, dramas | Thinking About Languages

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