Cross-Lingual Homophones and Homographs

I started this approach first with my children to help them remember certain words, especially in Arabic or Russian. Then I realized that there are plenty of “cross-lingual homophones” that can so use didactically. Let us peruse some:

Mille in French, Spanish and Italian spells like Mile in English but really means thousand. In Arabic it means Alf ((الف which really sound like a youngster working for Santa Claus, Elf. Lots of cross-lingual hoops for a 3-4 letter word but it is now
indelible in the kids’ brains.

Baggage in French is the same in English and Russian; but suitcase is valise in French and Chemedan (цемедан) in Russian; except the latest word sounds exactly like Chemeedan شمعدان)) in Arabic, the latter meaning Candelabra! That of course means Candelabre in French. Still no baggage connection.

From the latin Tempus we have Temps in French and Tiempo in spanish and italian. It means both time and weather. In Arabic it is two different words respectively Wakt (وقت) and Tax (طقص). The latter word is self-explanatory in English and has nothing to do with the weather. Staying on this topic, weather means Pagoda (пагода) in Russian which is quite similar to Pagode in French, which means Buddhist edifice and in Brazilian, a style of music. What is the connection?

The Latin Citrus gave Citron in French and Limone (лимон) which sounds like Lemon in English and Laimoon (ليمون) in Arabic, except the latter means orange in Arabic and not Lemon. The latter is Hamod (حامود) in Arabic.

To feel in English sounds like Feel (فيل) in Arabic, which means elephant. Now Fil in French means Thread and Fille means Girl. Definitely no connection between the girl and the elephant, except for the cross-lingual memorization value.

Pêcheur and pécheur sont homophones and almost homographs, they mean respectively fisherman and sinner in English. There is definitely a connection between Jesus and his disciples fishermen by trade and fishermen of souls so the French language seems to illustrate this fact unlike all others.

Sin in English is homophonic with Sin (سن) tooth in Arabic. Unless one makes a lose connection with the Hamourabi code of punishment “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, the similarity between sin and sin is purely phonetic. Now Sin (сын) in Russian means Son which is purely homophonic unless you want to consider a deeper connection like Cain killing Abel as a sin committed by the son of Adam and Eve, or any other such examples.

Brother in Russian is Brat (брат) which is a homophone of brat in English. Truly one’s brother can be a brat. This is better illustrated in Arabic where brother is Akh (اخ) and sister is Akht (اخت), the first signifying pain and the latter sounding like a spit.

Finally Edamame in Japanese somehow made its way into the word Edame (اضامي) in Arabic, except the former is a form of green bean, while the latter is a dried chick pea. This homophonia is only partial I reckon but it is with Japanese nonetheless.
Two expressions in Arabic are deep in meaning and intreaguing because of the quasi-homophony: في المساعدة السعلدة (Fi al musaadat al saadat) which means “There is happiness in helping) and في الامان امن (Fi al iman amen) which means “There is safety in believing”. I have used these two meaning-loaded sentences repeatedly with my children for linguistic/didactic purposes, and cannot help but wonder: Did the Arabs heed their real meaning or was it just happenstance. Certainly the former would be very timely in today’s world.

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Author: fadi bejjani

physician, researcher, health care administrator and international project developer

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