A friend of mine told me that German philologists (whom he did not name) in the 18th century were the first ones to argue that in any natural language no two words can mean exactly the same. Is this true and if so who were these philologists?

  • Possibly answered by linguistics.stackexchange.com/a/2063/126?
    – prash
    Aug 7, 2017 at 11:57
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    This is proverbial wisdom that has been apparent to anyone who's thought seriously about language since forever. There's always some context that provides a use for one and not the other; in situations where there is none, one of the words either becomes extinct or changes its meaning. Evolutionarily, languages have lots of uses for close synonyms (diversity is good), but no use for exact synonyms; why learn two words when one will always do?
    – jlawler
    Aug 7, 2017 at 15:07
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    It's probably a consequence of the fact that no one word means the same thing.
    – user6726
    Aug 7, 2017 at 15:14
  • I've puzzled for a long time over courage and bravery. They do feel different and sometimes one seems to come more easily than the other, but I have not found a consistent context where they are not interchangeable. Aug 7, 2017 at 17:56
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    @jlawler There are situations in which perfect synonyms are very useful, most notably in poetry, when different words of identical meaning are used to accomodate for poetic metre or rhyming (or, in some cases, alliteration). I can tell you off the top of my head that both Old English and classical Arabic had perfect synonyms for exactly this purpose. I can't think of any modern languages that do this, though I highly doubt there aren't any. Jul 29, 2023 at 18:27