Sounds like

One of the challenging things with using a dictionary to help you understand another language is that you sometimes simply don’t get what you expected. For instance, when I was writing the post about unheimlich, I noticed that “sinister” was given as a meaning and figured that “sinisterly” (the adverbial form) was also one of its meanings. When I did a search for “sinisterly” on the results were quite a surprise. It was happy to offer me the word “sinister” (and its German translation sinister), but the adverbs it returned were “sisterly,” “masterly,” “easterly,” “westerly,” “bitterly,” “painterly,” and “gingerly.” Presumably, membership in this set is based on all of them sharing “-(st)erly” and “sisterly” came first because it has even more sounds in common with “sinisterly.”

It is true that in both English and German there are many words where a relationship in terms of sound also indicates a relationship based on meaning. However, this clearly isn’t the case for the pseudo-ending “-(st)erly.” That is “sini,” “si,” “ma,” “ea,” “we” and “ging” are not English roots, and while both “bit” and “pain” are, they are not the roots from which the words in which they appear above were formed (rather these are “bitter” and “paint”).

Interestingly, given that all of the words are adverbs ending in “‘ly,” if one examines the German translations, the similarities are much less sharp. Schwesterlichöstlich and westlich (“sisterly,” “easterly” and “westerly”) share –lich, but meisterhaft (masterly),  malermäßig (painterly) and behutsam (“gingerly” – in the sense of “gently”) all end in different suffixes –haft, –ig and –sam, and bitter (“bitterly”) has no suffix at all.

If you do the exercise in the reverse direction, using the final portion of unheimlich, specifically mlich, you get another interesting set of words which don’t happen share meanings beyond being adjectives/adverbs just as their –lich endings would predict: förmlich (“officially” or “formally”),  dümmlich (“simple-minded”), räumlich (“spatially” or “three-dimensionally”), ziemlich (“rather,” “almost” or “nearly”) and abkömmlich (“available”).

All of this was a great reminder that although there is no sinister plot designed to make learning another language harder, overlap between sound or word form and meaning can’t be taken as a given.

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2 thoughts on “Sounds like

  1. Mike says:

    Thinking of Raum – space, room, chamber or räumlich – spacious, roomy — one might rightly associate the German sound with the English meaning, but then one would overlook the more appropriate Zimmer for the English room with a view / Zimmer mit Blick. And altogether forget Kammer for chamber. You’re right this can get confusing.

    • kwhirsh says:

      Yup. room and Raum, chamber and Kammer, hall and Saal all share something in terms of sound and I suppose you might try to link chamber and Zimmer as /tʃ/ and /ts/ are quite similar in phonetic terms and they have an /m/ and that final /ɜ/ in common. The phrase Zimmer mit Blick might also mislead you into the thinking that “view” is the most common meaning for Blick!

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