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Monday, June 4, 2007

Fun with Cognates

When people find out that I speak (almost) ten languages, they invariably ask if I ever get confused. My answer is that it is far more challenging to speak two closely related languages well, meaning keeping them completely separate, than to learn and segregate languages with little relation to one another. For example, I can count on one hand people I’ve met who speak both Spanish and Portuguese well, without significant mixing.

Nevertheless, there are words that by coincidence mean totally different things in other languages, and a few are worth mentioning, if only for entertainment value.

In Hindi (my latest love)

  • Or means and
  • Ya means or
  • Ha means yes
  • Wo means that (or he/she when not nearby), while the same word in German means where.

In Hebrew (we’re on a role with ‘H’ languages today)

  • Hoo means he
  • Hee means she
  • Mee means who
  • Anak means giant, while the same word in Indonesian means small child.

However, the most intruiging word I can think of is turkey, i.e. the poultry North Americans eat at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In English, Turkey is the name of that country that the EU is arguing over whether or not it is European. (Skye Frontier opines that it is).
In Hebrew, the word for that fowl is Hodu, which also means India. Guess what. In Portuguese, the bird is known as Peru. I can’t even speculate as to why.

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