Many languages seem to use the same word for "dream" (psychological phenomenon) and "dream" (hope for the future). Quick scanning on Wiktionary gives the list:

  • Germanic languages: Danish (drøm), Dutch (droom), English (dream), German (Traum), Luxembourgish (Dram), Norwegian (drøm), Swedish (dröm), West Frisian (dream)
  • Romance languages: Catalan (somni), French (rêve / songe), Galician (soño), Italian (sogno), Portuguese (sonho), Romanian (vis), Spanish (sueño)
  • Baltic/Slavic languages: Czech (sen), Latvian (sapnis), Slovak (sen)
  • Greek (όνειρο)
  • Hebrew (חלום)
  • Indonesian (mimpi / impian)
  • Japanaese (夢)
  • Korean (꿈)
  • Marathi (स्वप्न)
  • Tagalog (panaginip)
  • Turkish (düş)

In some languages, the words for the latter meaning of "dream" seem to have been derived from the words for the former:

  • Chinese (夢想 from 夢)
  • Finnish (unelma from uni)
  • Thai (คาดฝัน kʰâːt fǎn or คิดฝัน kʰít fǎn, from ฝัน făn)

Some languages use different terms:

  • Georgian (სიზმარი sizmari vs. ოცნება otsneba)
  • Lithuanian (sapnas vs. svajonė)
  • Malay (mimpi vs. impian)
  • Polish (sen vs. marzenie - however, it is possible to call the psychological phenomenon marzenie senne, which is a more technical term than sen)
  • Russian (сон son or дрёма ˈdrʲoma vs. мечта mɛtʃˈt̪a)
  • Telugu (కల kala vs. స్వప్నం svapnaM)
  • Ukrainian (сон son vs. мрія mríja)
  • Yiddish (חלום kholem vs. טרוים troym)

My questions are following:

  1. Have such usages of the word "dream" been developed independently, or are they mere calques from a single language?
  2. If they have been developed independently, is there any linguistic speculation about how the two meanings of "dream" relate?
  • 4
    To be sure, speculation about how the two meanings of "dream" relate is more of a philosophical question than a linguistic one. In linguistics it suffices to say that the evidence shows they are related. But, good question! Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 16:19
  • I don't know Malay at all, but what gives you the indication that "mimpi" isn't related to "impian"?
    – b a
    Commented Dec 28, 2012 at 22:51
  • Freud's theory of wish fulfillment?
    – user1704
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 22:45
  • 1
    Why do you consider mimpi and impian the same in Indonesian, but as "vs" in Malay?
    – user69715
    Commented May 3, 2014 at 5:04
  • 2
    @puzzlet wrong data for Telugu. Swapna is actually a Sanskrit word which is also used in Telugu in the same context as it is used in Marathi(स्वप्न). It's just that they are interchangeable in Telugu. Other than that they have equal meaning. Swapna has some grandhik tone. Commented May 30, 2016 at 21:27

4 Answers 4


This phenomenon is a specific case of how each language uniquely divides up the semantic space.

The real world of referents is not divided up neatly into semantic categories that we can directly turn into lexical categories. A classic example is the color space. In the real world, there are an infinite number of colors in the spectrum, and the human visual system can distinguish between 100,000 to 10,000,000 of them. Of course, no language has 10,000,000 color words - instead, each language divides the spectrum up into ranges and has color names corresponding to those ranges. We know that different languages divide up the color space differently, e.g. the range yellow vs. green vs. blue is notoriously different from language to language. See for example the color divisions of Piraha [PDF].

This is not limited to colors. Fingers and toes, states and locations of existence, kinship terms, literally every concept is slightly differently divided and named. This division extends down to the idiolect, in fact.

What is happening is simply that each language has a unique mapping of abstract semantic fields to concrete lexical fields.

In this particular instance, you are seeing that some languages (like Polish) happen to use two separate lexical fields for "vision while sleeping" (sen) and "aspiration for the future" (marzenie), and some (like English) happen to use one lexical field for both (dream). I say "happen to" because largely this is the end result of a complex combination of linguistic and cultural evolutionary happenstance.

Russian uses two different words голубой goluboj and синий sinij for colors around 475 nm, while English uses one word blue. Similarly, Russian uses two different words сон son 'vision while sleeping' and мечта m'ech'ta 'aspiration or reverie' for related concepts corresponding to the English lexical field of dream. The semantic field of "visions, aspirations, and reveries" is divided up uniquely.

  • 2
    This is a nice, professional answer, but it also makes me wish it were a bit more speculative. If there is a tendency in the data, one that can't be explained away by calques or a common ancestor in a parent language, we maybe can do more than say it's just random. My first thought was conceptual metaphors in the cognitive linguistics tradition, but this list doesn't seem to contain anything about dreams. There might also be an interesting historical semantics approach. Thoughts?
    – lapropriu
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 2:08
  • 1
    As a note, goluboj is light-blue while sinij is darker, except some idiomatic constructs, e.g. синее небо (blue sky). Commented Dec 28, 2012 at 13:53
  • @bytebuster I think "синий" is a more general term, with голубой being a light case of синий.
    – Anixx
    Commented Dec 14, 2013 at 10:44

I think there is a widespread conception that if a person wants something very much, he will think of it every time, and as such, will see it while sleeping. As such the word for seeing during the sleep also often used to designate a desire for future.

For example even though Russian has separate words for the both, still the word for sleep vision can be used figuratively for a desire. "Поступить туда на работу - это его сладкий сон" "Getting that job is his sweet dream". In this case the word for sleep vision is used to mean the desire. Note that to mean the desire one has to add the adjective "sweet" because otherwise the word also can mean an unpleasant sleep vision, for example "страшный сон" means nightmare. One can also say "Он видит эту должность во сне" "He sees this position when sleeping".

As such I would conclude that using the sleep visions metaphorically for desires remains highly productive and not necessary inherited from any proto-languages.

I want also to point out that English language has different words for visualized desires not connected with sleep, for example "reverie", "vision", "aspiration", "imagining", "desire", "infatuation", "idealization" etc.

The word for unpleasant sleep vision, "nightmare" can be also used in English and Russian to mean an outcome of which the person is very afraid of, even if not sleeping. "The loosing of this competition is his nightmare".


(I know this is an old question with an accepted answer, but I am posting this as I see that an important point is missing.)

As you know, this is an idiomatic usage. Idioms are usually native to a language so much that a literal translation to another language might not carry the same meaning, even sound absurd. However, funnily, idioms can diffuse across languages, even across families. Typically a dominant language lends its idioms to the subservient ones. Note that I am making a distinction between calque and idiom.

For instance, the common English idiom 'never look back', as in 'She never looked back after that first exhibition' means to continue to be successful after doing something with a good result. This idiom has made its way into Indian languages due to the high status English had during colonial times. I am not sure how many languages are affected, but I can vouch its usage in Kannada. This phrase by itself doesn't have any special meaning natively as far as I can tell. Outside of the literary usage, if you ask an average Kannada speaker 'what is your dream' using the literal word for dream(kanasu), you would get a perplexed look. You would have to use one of the several words for desire, or rephrase the question by explicitly mentioning 'dream in life' or 'dream of becoming in your life' etc, to extract the intended answer. I am sure a lot of idioms were borrowed from Sanskrit which was the original prestige language in India, but they were borrowed so long back that they have been naturalized.

The point I am getting at is, it would help to look at the sociolinguistics to determine the dynamics of languages to truly understand the usage of dream this way.


Calque is very common nowadays. Especially, in indian languages, every new word created has the influence of english. The meaning of the english word is taken as it is and used. For example, minnanjal(a tamil word means email): min+anjal=electronic+mail. Similarly, seythithaal: seithi + thaal= news + paper. For keyboard, the equivalent word is kilimane in kannada. kili+mane=key+place

I can surely say that 90 % of new words in indian languages are calque.

  • How's that sit with the Kilimanjaro (a certain mountain in ..?)?
    – vectory
    Commented May 18, 2019 at 7:15

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