Do Any Languages Besides English Have Homophones?
Does any language besides English have homophones?Ben Waggoner:
There’s the old joke about the Spaniard who had invited an American to his home, but his English wasn’t very good, so he quickly looked up the English equivalents for the Spanish words that he wanted to say. . . and when his guest came through the door, the Spaniard smiled and said, “Between, and drink a chair!”
The joke is that the poor Spanish gent meant to say, “Come in, and have a seat!”—¡Entre, y tome una silla!—but he mixed up the homophones entre, meaning "between," and entre, the polite, third person singular imperative of entrar, which means "to enter.” (The other part of the joke is that tomar can mean either “to take” or “to drink”; that’s not so much a homophone as a word with a bit of a lexical spread.)
A bit of Wiktionary work to refresh my memory of Russian yielded мой, moj, which means either “my [masc.]” or “wash!” [2nd person sg. imperative of мыть]. From the same stem we get мыло, mylo, which means either “soap” or “it [neut.] washed” [neuter sg. past of мыть]. And then there’s мат, mat, which can mean either “checkmate” or “curse words; obscenities”—the first is borrowed from Persian (as is “checkmate”, from shah mat, “the king is dead”), while the second comes from the almost-but-not-quite-homophone мать, “mother.” The idiom for “to use profanity” (ругаться матом) etymologically means “to say obscene things about someone’s mother.”
Then there’s the most famous Russian homophone, мир, mir, meaning “peace” or “world.” They were distinguished in spelling before 1920, with the word for “world” spelled мір, but the Soviet spelling reforms made them indistinguishable, as in Мир миру, mir miru, “peace to the world!,” a common Soviet slogan. (Purely to pad this answer out, I might add that мир in the sense of “peace” may go back to the Indo-Iranian god of contracts and social order, Mithra. Or so some have argued. I’ve also seen it said that both мир and Mithra come from a PIE root meaning “to bind”, *mei-.)
Finally, I looked up a few homophones in Old Norse, with which I have a passing familiarity:
- afl: “strength” or “hearth of a forge”
- fastr: “firm; fixed” or “prey that a bear drags back to its den”
- mál: “language; speech” (also “a matter for discussion”) or “measurement; interval of time” OR “decorative metal inlay”
- nema: “except; unless” or “to take; to learn”
- reiða: “to carry” or “outfit; equipment”
- valr: “hawk” or “those killed in battle”
- veita: “to give; to offer” or “to dig a ditch; to make a watercourse”
This could be a plot point in Vikings. Imagine Ragnar shouting “Damn it, Floki, I told you that what we had to discuss was offering the battle-slain to Odin by taking them and carrying them firmly! Why the hell are you waiting for an interval to learn to dig a water-ditch for a hawk’s outfit in a bear’s den?”
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