The Corner

Re: Language Affiliations

Andrew: This whole business is addled with superstitions, conjectures,

urban legends, and ethnic/patriotic assertiveness. Language A and language

B have lots of similar-sounding words. Why? Because they diverged from a

common ancestor-language centuries ago? Or because A borrowed a lot of

words from B? Or vice versa? Or just sheer coincidence? This is the stuff

of comparative linguistics. It’s a science, though, with very strict

evidentiary standards; and practically none of the superstitions, urban

legends etc. that you will hear about language meet those standards. (Some

of the coincidences are amazing. The word “swallow” has two utterly

different meanings in English: a verb–to draw something into the

esophagus, and a noun–kind of bird. Chinese has words for both these

things, and the two Chinese words are pronounced identically–even the

tone is the same.)

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