MUSING - Chance Similarities

One kind of linguistic coincidence that I’ve been recently interested in is a phenomenon sometimes referred to as ‘chance similarity’ (e.g. Campbell and Mixco 2007) or ‘false cognates’ (Wikipedia). This is when words from different languages with similar meanings also sound similar, which might sometimes lead to the false assumption that the words are etymologically related.

If you’re a linguist, chances are you might have heard of one famous and striking example of this—English dog and Mbabaram dog—etymologically unrelated but phonetically almost the same. The story of how this coincidence etymology was introduced into the modern western linguistics world is pretty entertaining and can be found here (quoted from Dixon’s Searching for Aboriginal languages: Memoirs of a field worker, the open-access first edition of which can be found here).

I’m intending to start a collection of these—below are a few to start off.

English dog and Mbabaram dog

If you’ve heard of false cognates before, this might be the one you know, so it’s probably a good place to start.

  • The English word dog comes from the Old English word dogga/docga of unknown origin [Etymonline, Wiktionary].

  • The Mbabaram word dog comes from an older word gudaga, evidence of which can be found the related languages of Yidin (where ‘dog’ is still gudaga) and Dyirbal (where ‘dog’ is guda) [Dixon 1983].

English much and Spanish mucho ‘many, much’

  • English much comes from Middle English muchel ‘large, tall; many, in a large amount; great, formidable’, from Old English micel ‘great in amount or extent’, from Proto-Germanic *mekilaz, from PIE root *meg- ‘great’. [Etymonline]

  • Spanish mucho ‘many, a lot, very much’ comes from Latin multus ‘much, many,’, from Proto-Indo-European *ml-to-, from root *mel- ‘strong, great, numerous’. [RAE Spanish Dictionary, Etymonline]

Mexican Spanish mole (a Mexican sauce or stew) and Spanish moler ‘to grind’

  • The word for mole comes from the Nahuatl molli ‘sauce’, which is also the source of the -mole suffix in guacamole (ahuacatl ‘avocado’ + molli ‘sauce’ = ahuacamolli ‘guacamole’). The word molli is thought to derive from a root word *mo:l that relates to things becoming liquid/soft. [Nawatl Scholar blog, University of Oregon’s Nahuatl Dictionary]

  • The Spanish verb moler ‘to grind’ comes from Latin molĕre ‘to grind’ and is unrelated to mole (the food) and the -mole suffix in guacamole [RAE Spanish Dictionary]

Written on September 28, 2019