Cognate Coincidences

Chinese has no cognates with English (one of the reasons it’s difficult to learn). So, when I come across words like these, I know one of the words has been imported from one language to another (yes yes, I know, that means there are some cognates NOW–but precious few):

1. sofa = shāfā 沙发 (English -> Chinese)

2. typhoon = táifēng 台风 (Chinese -> English)

But some things I can’t explain at all. Are these just amazing qiǎohé-s? I’d love to know.

Fee = fèi

The English word is from the Middle English and Old French term “fief” and the payment fiefs gave to their landlords. If you tell me it’s just a one-in-a-million coincidence that the Chinese word sounds so similar, I’ll accept that…once.

Totem = túténg 图腾

The English word comes from a North American Indian language family called Algonquian. Does that mean that the ancient Chinese people in southern Guangxi who made totems didn’t have a word for it and waited for the term to get imported across the Pacific? Or is this just an amazing coincidence again? I’d be willing to accept that, but not the next one.

Swallow (bird) = yàn
To Swallow = yàn

The two English words have different histories. The word for the bird comes from the Old English “swealwe” akin to the German “schwalbe.” The verb comes from the Old Engilsh “swelgan” which goes back to the Indo-European base “swel-” meaning “to devour” (from which we also get the English word “swill”). Ok, that’s just a coincidence. If we had “yingzi” pictographic characters, the bird and the verb would be two different characters, but the same pronunciation.

But what are the chances that the Chinese name for the bird and the verb are also two different characters but the exact same pronunciation? The others I MIGHT be willing to accept as coincidences, but not this. This is too weird. I’m loosing sleep over this, people. Help! Help!


  1. These are good — when I finally learned the character for fèi I remember thinking it was doubly coincidental that the top part looks a lot like a dollar sign.

    How about a false cognate from Latvian for obscure?

    其他的, qítāde [mandarin] = other [english] = citādi [latvian]

    Now in Latvian c = [ts]. The ā is a lengthened version of the ‘a’ which is the same sound as Mandarin. So the final pronunciation is pretty darned close.

    I know it doesn’t matter, but I’ve been trying for years to find an excuse to make the connection. Guess I never will, so here you go — polluting your English-Mandarin false cognates post with a bit of Latvian!

  2. btw and not to be picky, but I’m not clear on your typhoon and sofa examples. Aren’t those just borrowings? My limited understanding is that cognates are descended from a common word, which makes them distinct from borrowings and makes it possible to have cognates in the same language…

    But maybe you’re saying they’re descended from something else?

  3. At the risk of overloading the comment server, I just happened across the following question in a Language Log comment:

    “Is the similarity of CAN1TING1 to “canteen” a coincidence?”

    This is no doubt a false cognate/borrowing, but I don’t blame anyone for asking. I had that thought cross my mind as well, once upon a time. The funny thing is: go take a look at the thread. It generated another 4700 comments, including some blustering, groundless assertions worthy of a chat board, about whether canteen & cāntīng could be related.

    Let that be a warning to you, Albert, about the dangers of bringing up cognates!

  4. syz (I know, appellation unnecessary since it’s just you and me),

    1) Latvian example = very cool! I’m willing to accept a coincidence here and there.

    2) I’m using “cognate” in the loosest (and perhaps wrongest) sense to mean “a word that sounds the same in two languages and is therefore easy for a learner of a second language to learn.” Your right, technically cognates have a common ancestor (but maybe the word itself can count as an ancestor, no?). I just couldn’t bring myself to call it a borrowing since the Hanzi characters don’t quite get the sounds right (unlike the “McDonald’s” and “Toyota” you hear jump out at you on Spanish TV; now those are true borrowings).

    3) Thanks! That’s the other one I couldn’t remember when I wrote this. I think that really is just a coincidence. I love the “translation error” sign.

  5. Many people might be puzzled by those coincidences, including me. 费,yes, $ and 弗,Ah, my watch was slow. What I mean is that I’ve noticed these before, some of which is similar to what you are talking about and some I don’t know what it is. But now I’ll list them all as an example or a clue.
    Show —— xiù
    Cool —— kù
    The two are borrowings definitely. They were imported from English by people speak Cantonese, then joined in mandarin.

    yōumò 幽默(transliteration) —— humor(English) —— humor(Latvian) /…

    Shock —— xiūkè 休克
    The Chinese expression might come after the western medicine was introduced to China . I’m not sure. Who knows?

    4. A + B
    No problem —— méi wèntí 问题
    Shopkeeper —— diànzhǔ店主
    Sunset —— rìluò日落

    5. same different meanings
    low down —— dī luò
    Lowdown —— adj. dījíde低级的: mean, contemptible

    pressure —— yālì压力
    As N. , both have the two meanings the force of the air ; stress
    V. pressure —— yāpò压迫;shījiā yālì施加压力 To force to do

    Talk /tɔ-/ ——tán lùn谈论
    Think /ɵɪŋ-/ ——sī kǎo思考

    About the last three points , -they’re just fetched from my brain.

  6. It does not seen so sinister. Aside from borrowings the probability of something like the word for swallow (if it is coincidence) is higher than most people would imagine. Evolution equips us with a low threshold because things that seem to be too much to be a mere coincidence are worth investigating.

    Armed with the raw facts the probability of this type of thing could be worked out, Mandarin not having a huge amount of sounds raises the chance (maybe there is even more chance when comparing chinese to English).

    This is very boring of course, so any chance the Chinese exported the word for totem to America?

  7. I think Cantonese has even a few more. For instance (okay I’m going to slaughter the pinyin) di(4)ce (4) for taxi. But here’s an interesting one. One time I told my friend that my daughter was just being “fussy”. She asked me what it meant and I explained. She replied that that’s what fussy means in Cantonese, as well. I’ll think of a few more over time. I speculate that there are more cognates than are commonly acknowledged, however. Mama? Well, that’s pretty basic. But what about words like fever and fashao, car and che, chew and ju(3), fling and fang (), te (Latin) and ta, amo (latin) and ai, go and zuo . . .

    My ear hears a lot more similarity after a few years than it did when I first arrived in China. I don’t know if that’s because my brain is plastic and is finding similarities where there are none, or if it’s simply because I’m less shocked by the unfamiliar and able to hear more things that seem to have a common root after all.

  8. Another interesting funny coincidence :

    In French, mother and sea are quasi-homonym, “mère” and “mer”. In Italian and Spanish : “madre”/”mare”. (of course from the latin mare/mater).

    In Mandarin, even if the pronunciation is not the same, the hanzi for mother, (also origin/female…) is a part of , sea… Well, of course, it is well-known NOW that life came from the oceans 😉

  9. Before you assess some of these words for similarity to foreign words, you might want to remember that the current Mandarin pronunciation is not a very good guide to the way they originally sounded – loss of final consonants, tone change etc. (Note that Cantonese is somewhat closer to e.g. Tang Chinese for these reasons). On this note, the Classical Chinese word for “fief” is actually “feng1” as in “fengjian”. Fei4 is not used in that sense in Zhou or later texts.
    Also, similarity in sound doesn’t establish any sort of linguistic relationship. Sorry to throw cold water on what are fun ideas, but linguistically what you have are coincidences in sound, not significant relationships, especially in such small numbers. One swallow to be blunt, doesn’t make a summer (or a meal).
    On modern borrowings, it’s quite likely that the source is Japanese. Japan had to borrow quite a number of Western words, especially from the Meiji period on, and so if you look at a good deal of modern scientific and technical vocabulary, you will normally find a Japanese borrowing which has been acquired by Chinese and given its Mandarin pronunciation.
    “Po4” by the way has a general meaning of damaged/broken (and thus bad, of bad quality), from which the dictionary extrapolates “poor”. Pohuai le – it’s smashed/broken, for example.
    Finally, cognate (from Latin cognatus – kinsman/relation) in linguistic terms refers to a pair or more words that share a semantic base/root, and so often overlap significantly in sound. However, you don’t get cognates between different linguistic families (not the same thing as different languages), because they don’t share a semantic basis. Instead, you get borrowings or calques.

  10. 餐厅 is a canteen.

    I actually prefer learning Chinese to a language like French because of the lack of cognates. Going from French -> English is fantastic but going the other way is difficult precisely because I don’t know what’s a cognate and what I’m just making up.

  11. I always thought typhoon and tycoon came to English from Cantonese.
    Someone once told me ketchup was also from Cantonese.

    Words like taxi, salad or sofa would have gone from English to Chinese (again probably Cantonese?) instead.

    Nothing more fun than word origins!

  12. Is (chá) not a cognate to the English “tea”? I feel like I’ve heard that it is… Or is a common etymology for two words not necessarily enough to qualify them as cognates?

  13. Just discovered this great blog, and had to post.

    This is a very interesting topic, as it has some kind of mystical appeal. However, every time someone wonders whether something is just a coincidence or not, I have a strong urge to work out the math behind it, and find out exactly what the odds are. So I have done a bit of number crunching. Here goes:

    According to this table: Chinese words have a possibility of 402 different sounds. That’s not including the intonations, since I’m assuming that “fee” (in english), for instance, would be deemed similar to “fei” whether it’s the 1st tone or the 4th. This means that any definition would have to enter one of these 402 sounds.

    Assuming that every english word has a corresponding chinese word, it means that given a random English word, and a random Chinese sound, there are 1 in 402 chances that the meaning of a chinese word matching that sound corresponds to the same definition in English.

    Therefore, for every English word, there is a 1/402 chance that its Chinese equivalent has the same sound. (assuming every Chinese sound can correspond to an English one. )

    If we then assume (conservative estimate) that there are 3500 single-syllable words in English ( and every word having a 1 in 402 chance of finding its correspondent in Chinese, then the odds would be that 3500 X 1/402 = 8.7 English words would sound similar in chinese.

    The odds would be even more favourable if you decide that sounds like zh/z, ch/c, sh/s, an/en, ang/eng ai/ei, etc. are similar enough to be considered identical, and if you assume there are more one-syllable English words.

  14. Jc,

    I must say that I love how much thought you’ve put into this. But what would the Chinese equivalent be for “truck,” for example?

  15. Lisa:
    “Someone once told me ketchup was also from Cantonese.”

    Actually from kecap in Malay (modern spelling; same in Indonesian). I’ve heard that came from a Chinese language, thought it was Hokkien but can’t recall. It turns out there are various theories but kecap seems the most likely to me (Malaysia was an English colony and the pronunciation is almost identical).

    I’ve heard it said that “folk etymology,” where we notice a similarity between words in different languages and assume they are related, is always wrong. By this thinking, if pide (flat bread from Turkey and thereabouts) sounds like pizza then it’s definitely coincidence and we shouldn’t assume a connection. To which I reply: if that’s the rule, then obvious connections like the Indonesian words globalisasi, nasional, gosip and target also purely coincidental. (If you say yes, let me give you few hundred more examples. It’s much more logical that these words came from Dutch and English.)

    I may be misrepresenting the theory, but a couple of commenters did seem to be taking this line of argument.

  16. I noticed a lot of the “same different meanings” in Spanish – have/poder (I have a cat, I have eaten), going to/voy a (I’m going to the market; I’m going to study) and more that I’ve forgotten. It’s easier to imagine a link between Spanish and English, but it still surprised me.

    The most interesting one is lawyer/avocado. The words are formally different (lawyer = abogado, avocado = aguacate), but sometimes avocados are called abogados – I noticed this in the markets in Guatemala. I read that when the Spaniards arrived they heard the local word and it sounded to them like their word for lawyer – later it earned a separate name.

    Now, the curious thing is that the same thing happens in Indonesian, where avocados are “apokat” but occasionally are called “advokat” (which actually means lawyer).

    My guess is that the fruit initially spread with the “lawyer” connection, so when the name was translated, it was translated to the target language’s word for lawyer. Later the avocado was given its own name, in each language.

    Somehow English missed out on this bit of fun.

  17. Albert: Good point. Haven’t thought of that. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    Ex: Stone = Shi2 Tou.

  18. One of the things I’ve always been curious about was the similarity of words for mother and father across languages. Of course, these are probably the first similarities that any new language learner will see. One interesting point that a friend made to me, regarding this similarity, was that small children cannot create all the same sounds when they are little (lack of teeth, etc). Since words to call Mom or Dad are the most important thing for children, those words use some of the most common syllables spoken by babies (ba/pa and ma). This is without any research or verification but it was an interesting point. What do you think?

  19. To follow up on the swallow example: means “bow” (as in the weapon) and 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.”

  20. Cecillia said:
    PO4 means ‘poor’ according to Oxford University Press ie. “of poor quality: 破嗓子 a poor voice”
    God, 我晕!The guy who found this is very smart!!!!!
    What a coicidence!!!!

    Nice to have Cecillia’s admiration. I have another, not quite as good as the first one, but not bad; it is the character/word PI – one of its meanings is ‘peel’

  21. I find interesting also some seemingly grammatical ‘cognates’ Use of possessive ‘de’ in Mandarin and in French /other romance languages – la voiture de ma mère – wo mama de che 我妈妈的车

  22. Remember Hong Kong was a British colony for 100 years and the British had a long presence in China even before that, affecting Cantonese especially. That’s where most of the modern borrowings come from, not Japanese.

  23. In Chinese, means ‘sour’ as in food, and ‘sore’ as in ‘my muscles are sore.’ The English translations are coincidentally similar to each other, so I had a student who thought that they were the same (‘sour’) in English.

    Also, 沙發 is sha1fa1 in Mandarin, but actually sounds much closer to sofa in Shanghainese, the dialect it was first introduced into. It then made its way into Mandarin.

  24. In most language learning, the cognates help a lot, but with Chinese/English there are so few that they become harder to learn (excluding loanwords & internationals like & 唉,it doesn’t seem to happen more often that the coincidence rate of about 1 in 1500).

    Whenever I tried to read as “yàn” I would always think: I must have gotten that confused with the other “swallow”.

    Being aware of the cognates seems to help me in Chinese/English *not* to make anything easier to remember; doing this only helps to avoid the cognate pitfall of assuming that I had confused things.

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