Why do some words in different languages have the same multiple meanings?

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Take the English word “right”. It can mean “true, correct”, but it can also be used in something like “human rights”.

Now take the Arabic word حق. Again, it can mean “true, correct” and the “rights” in “human rights”.

It makes sense for a word to have the same single meaning across different languages. But what is the likeliness that two languages have a word that share the same multiple meanings?

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10 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

Your exact example (right / right) also works in some Romance languages. I know French is that way for sure, and I believe it’s the same for Spanish.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Reasonably high, particularly if those languages might have a common root. But this is a kind of sampling bias; we notice coincidences that stand out. Most words in English and Arabic will not line up this way, but there are **a lot of words** in both languages, so the odds that it might happen at least a handful of times is pretty high, especially from two languages geographically close to each other like English and Arabic (remember that the numbers we use in English are even Arabic numerals). It would be more surprising if you found two words that had similar homonyms in very far separated languages, like Ethiopian and Navajo.

Anonymous 0 Comments

You need to keep in mind that languages (almost) never exist in isolation. There is always an exchange of words and ideas from one place to another, and this way, also concepts, like shared meanings can be transferred.

In the case of “right” there may be a simpler explanation, though: the “right” side is also the side that is “correct” to use in many situations – simply due to the fact that the vast majority of humans are right-handed.

I know that in Finnish – a language related neither to English, nor to Arabic – right in both meanings is also the same word (“oikea”). But then again, Finnish was also long in close exchange to other Germanic languages (Swedish mostly), so it may well have inherited the concept from there…

Anonymous 0 Comments

For this particular word and argument it’s that these usages are all interrelated.

In this example the original root of “right” meaning good, fair, or just. A “right” is just a good, fair, or just thing, so your example true/current/human rights are just sort of reusing the same word over and over again.

Interestingly in English it’s this sense of “correctness” that makes the direction ‘right’ the same word as ‘right’, because “right” (the direction) is seen as being a good and holy thing – for example Jesus sitting “at the right hand of the father”. Similarly ‘left’ and left-handedness was seen as being wrong, or evil – and we use that to this day as well, the Latin word for “left” is “sinister”.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Those meanings are related, so it’s not hard to believe that multiple languages would use the same word for both.

If you win in court, you’re right (correct). You also have a right (legal claim).

Your right hand is the correct (typical) hand to use for most tasks.

Right whales were the correct (optimal) whales for whalers to target.

Any language that makes these connections might have related words for some of those concepts.

Anonymous 0 Comments

I noticed on the packaging on some new drumsticks, the translation was “baguette”.

I chuckled because it’s silly that a drumstick and a bread stick are the same word!

And I went back to eating my chicken leg and working on that Neil Peart solo, completely unaware of the irony.

Anonymous 0 Comments

I haven’t been able to figure out the history of the latter meaning of haqq, but whether or not it’s true in this case, it’s true in general that ideas often move from one language to another not only by borrowing words but also by borrowing concepts and using existing words. That’s called a calque. An example in Arabic (which I don’t speak; I just happen to know the history of this word) is مشرق mashriq in the (archaic) geographic/civilizational sense of “the East, the Orient.” This was borrowed from French and later made its way from Arabic to other languages, including Urdu (with which I am more familiar).

Anonymous 0 Comments

Oftentimes, when words in different languages share meanings that wouldn’t have to be related, there is a conceptual connection based in the real world. This conceptual connection is often a result of each word’s etymology. (Etymology is the record of how the words have changed their meanings over time.)

A famous example is that in most human languages, a word meaning “soil” or “land” is used to refer to the third planet from the sun as a whole. English: Earth/earth; Finnish: Maa/maa; Turkish: Yer/yer; Arabic: al-ʔarḍ/ʔarḍ (الْأَرْض/أَرْض) (al- just means “the”); Mandarin: dìqiú/dì (地球/地) (qiú, 球 is just an extra word part meaning “globe” or “orb”).

We could’ve named Earth “the Ocean” or “the Droplet” or “the Cloudrock” or “Planet-Three”, without giving it a name connected to soil, but lots of people and lots of languages didn’t; because lots of cultures consider soil, land, to be an important and distinctive essence of what makes this world our home.

For the concept of “right” and “human rights”, the conceptual connection is that human rights (human legal protections) are codifications of the right (correct) way to treat someone. We legally protect a person’s right to be treated right. For example: English: rights/right; Finnish: oikeus/oikein; Turkish: hak/hak; Arabic: ḥaqq/ḥaqq (حَقّ/حَقّ).

Now in this case, if you look into the words, Mandarin uses a slightly different connection. Its word for a right in the sense of a human right is [quánlì](https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E6%AC%8A%E5%88%A9) (權利). The first term, [quán](https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E6%AC%8A) (權), means “power”, and the second term, [lì](https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E5%88%A9) (利), means a benefit; so in Chinese, rights are “power-benefits”.

Anonymous 0 Comments

If the languages are closely related, then it’s extremely high, otherwise it’s extremely low. Direita/Derecha (Portuguese/Spanish) both mean “right” (as in right side, or human rights) and “straight”, but not “right” (as in not wrong).

Anonymous 0 Comments

Language speakers interact with one another, translate concepts and all that. That’s why in Arabic and European languages fresh water is called sweet water (with English being an odd exception), because when people interact they tend to exchange ideas and metaphors. But sometimes it might just be coincidence, they are all human speakers so it’s not hard to imagine if one group comes with a term that another won’t come up with the same. Maybe both cultures came with the idea that something true is also something just, while the Arabs didn’t decide to tie correctness with the direct of your right hand.

So the answer is, because those languages are drawing from a common cultural and historical vocabulary basis, but it can just be pure coincidence. Sometimes one influences the other so a group adopts a native word as synonym for a concept when a foreign group also does the same. Without a word per word etymological study, it’s hard to explain the phenomenon.

As for why some stick and some don’t, it’s a more speculative thing.