Tag Archives: cognates

Strange attractors

Today I saw a program being advertised by indicating that it was unterhaltsam – “entertaining,” “enjoyable,” “amusing” or “diverting,” according to dict.cc online. It wasn’t this new word that struck me, however, but rather the thought that seltsam – “strange” – and selten – “rare(ly)” or “seldom” (notice the spelling similarity selt/d-m) – must be related. Naturally, something that rarely happens is very likely to seem strange. And luckily for me, this sort of something is also likely to seem entertaining, enjoyable, amusing and diverting, once noticed.

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Angling for Ghoti

In English we have some pretty odd spelling-to-sound correspondences, one of which is “GH” (see more here: http://www.howtospell.co.uk/gh-words). Just how far the sound can stray from spelling is illustrated with the neologism “ghoti” – pronounced like “fish” because GH can represent /f/ as in “tough,” O can represent /ɪ/ as in “women” and TI is frequently pronounced /ʃ/ as in “action” (more on ghoti and its friend ghoughpteighbteau – pronounced “potato” – here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghoti).

Intriguingly, many of these GH-words are cognates with German where the GH corresponds to CH:

das Recht – “right”
das Lachen – “laugh”
durch – “through”
tochter – “daughter”
acht – “eight”

As German has much more regular spelling-to-sound correspondences, there are two main options for the pronunciation of CH, namely /ç/ as in durch /dʊrç/ and /x/ as in acht [axt] (this latter spelling-sound pattern appears for some speakers of English in the Scots Gaelic word “loch”). The third possibility is to pronounce CH as /ks/ as in Achse /aksə/ which corresponds generally to the spelling X in English – die Achse is “axel” or “axis.” (Note that when there is a morphological boundary between S and CH, for example in am reichstenreich-sten “richest,” the /ks/ pronunciation is not used.)

There are some loan words in German where the pronunciation of CH does not follow one of these three patterns. For example, there are numerous streets in Hamburg that are called Etwas+Chausee /ʃɔˈse:/. Following the “ghoti” example, perhaps this could be spelled *Tiausee?!

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A dread of fruit?!

On Friday we were talking once again about the cultivation of asparagus. This time it was my Hungarian acquaintance who confused two similar sounding words (recall my Pferd and Feld confusion): befruchtet and gefürchtet. The confusion arose as we were asking if he used der Dung on his fields. Der Dung is a cognate between English and German but not between German and Hungarian where it is trágya or ganéj (the former, at least according to dict.cc, seems to have more of the “fertilizer” meaning). Since we were talking about fields, explaining der Dung by saying it was used to make sure the fields were fertilized, befruchtet, made some sort of sense. However, on hearing the word befruchtet, he immediately thought we were talking about something negative, probably through furchtbar – “awful, dreadful, terrible” – which some would say der Dung is!

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Through a glass, starkly

One of the phrases from today’s Phrasen des Tages was um es ganz offen zu sagen – “to put it bluntly.” On double checking this meaning on dict.cc, I discovered that there is another quite similar phrase Um ganz offen zu sein… – “To be perfectly candid…” And to be perfectly candid, these phrases struck me funny, as much of the time it feels as though one cannot avoid being rather blunt when speaking German. For example, if you want to say something “smells,” you can use the word riechen. Now, this just happens to sound quite a bit like a much stronger word in English “reeks” and indeed dict.cc offers “reek” as one of the possible meanings of riechen.

to smell 1241
to scent  204
to reek      90
to nose       8

Then there is weinen “to weep” which happens to sound quite a bit like “to whine” in English, although this doesn’t happen to be one of its possible meanings at least as far as I can tell.

to weep  626
to cry      364
to bawl     21

The word stark is another example.

strong     1186
vigorous   365
severe       295
powerful  208

With it being a cognate for the English word “stark” it brings along with it some of those strong associations (pun fully intended).

German, like the Devil said to the Hunter who offered him a puff from his gun after calling it a pipe, it’s starker Tobak – “strong stuff!”

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Friend or enemy?

One real advantage in learning German rather than Vietnamese, for example, is that the two languages share common roots and have many words in common.  This advantage can also be problematic. You can develop a sense that you know more than you do each time that you ask how to say something in German and are given either the English word or a cognate – Question/Frage: Wie sagt man “balcony” auf deutsch? Answer/AntwortBalkon. You can also be lulled into a false sense of security, a feeling that if a German word looks like English, you can treat it as the same word…which brings us to false friends – die Übersetzungsfalle or der Fauxami.

Just for fun, I broke down the first translation of “false friend.” With so many compound words in German, one can often come up with a reasonable stab at a word’s meaning from this sort of exercise and it certainly helps widen your understanding of the smaller words that make up the compound.

über – across
setzen – to put, to place, to set
Übersetzung – translation
Falle – trap
So, roughly, we have a trap in putting the meaning in one language across into a second language, or a translation trap.

The second translation is a loan word or Fremdwortder Fauxami is a direct import of the French faux ami.

Interestingly, der Feind, the translation of the word “enemy” is nearly a true friend or cognate as one’s enemy could certainly be thought of as a “fiend” especially if you engage in Freund-Feind-Denken or the feeling that “if you aren’t with us, you’re against us!” 

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