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In some languages, there's a very prevalent distinction between different meanings of the English word "same" as in "These two items are the same". For example

  1. German: dasselbe / das gleiche
  2. Greek: το αυτόν / το ίδιον
  3. Chinese: 同一個 / 一樣的 (not entirely sure how much this is observed)

The first word would mean that the two items are identical and actually the same item. The second word applies when they are the same in the sense of merely indistinguishable.

Not every language seems to make this distinction explicitly, so my question is:

How did these distinctions come about and is it possible to identify a historical / cultural necessity of their existence which is present in some languages and others not?

  • 1
    ... and are the concepts transported by those words the same or just indistinguishable across languages? ;). Joking aside, i think identity,( i.e.**the** identity of things, not things being identical) is a fuzzy concept, as are many in language. Is your question about single words, or expressions? In any case, google ' Language Log "no word for x" ' to get pointers on refining the question. – bukwyrm Jul 12 '18 at 16:23
  • I would argue that a necessity for this distinction arises (rarely) in every culture, hence there is always a way to describe it. The difference is how common the distinction is and whether there is a short or monolectical way to phrase it.For example, in the course of a criminal investigation involving shooting there will always be interest in whether two killings occurred with the same type of bullet (mit den gleichen Kugeln), or with the very same (mit den selben Kugeln) bullets. As situations are rare, the distinction is too in 3 of 4 languages I speak. In Greek it is practically dead – Ludi Jul 12 '18 at 20:57
  • My father used to rail against what he called the "misuse" of the English word "identical" to mean "exactly similar". As Jknappen says in an answer (about German) "There is something artificial and prescriptionist in this distinction that is not followed in spontaneous speech production by native speakers. – Colin Fine Jul 15 '18 at 12:07
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The distinction is not as clear cut as it seems, in fact native speakers of German are notorious for not getting the distinction dasselbe / das gleiche right. This happens both for spoken language and written language, and language critics (from Karl Kraus to Wolf Schneider) have a point there.

There is something artificial and prescriptionist in this distinction that is not followed in spontaneous speech production by native speakers.

  • As a Modern Greek language blog I follow says, "nice distinctions burn nicely". The distinction does not necessarily originate artificially; but it's the kind of distinction that would readily go away in time. – Nick Nicholas Jul 16 '18 at 1:34
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Speculation on what drives decay of this lexical distinction

I will offer some observations and delete when something more substantial is posted. I am a native speaker of Greek and German and an intermediate learner of Chinese.

If sticklers (correctly) remark that

Sie fahren das gleiche Auto.

means „the same model“, instead of the same physical car, opponents will say that the definitive article speaks against this and that plural exists to facilitate that meaning:

Sie fahren gleiche Autos.

In Greek, where (sadly) το αυτόν is practically dead, we will say

το ίδιο αυτοκίνητο

while actually meaning the very same. For the true meaning of ίδιος we will resort to singular or plural, both without article.

οδηγούν ίδιο αυτοκίνητο/ίδια αυτοκίνητα

This might indicate that plural and article tended to make the lexical distinction unnecessary. Although my Ancient Greek is rusty, I am very sure the distinction was pretty much alive then. I SPECULATE it might be associated with the fact that the definite article could often be omitted compared to modern Greek.

Contrary to my impression, my mandarin speaking friends assure me the distinction is observed by most people. It might have to do with the absence of the above grammatical features. You can not afford confusing

喜歡同一個人/romantically like the same person

with

喜歡一樣的人/like the same kind

I was fervently assured the last sentence would not be misunderstood for the one before it.

Reasons for necessity

The necessity of the distinction will occur in every culture with lawyers, even if rarely. It is therefore my belief that every modern language facilitates it, the question being just how common it is and whether it occurs lexically or by other means (Grammar, syntax).

In the US you can be convicted twice for the same kind of crime (für das gleiche Verbrechen/για ίδιο αδίκημα) but not twice for the very deed (für das selbe Verbrechen/για το ίδιο αδίκημα).

My roommate and I may use the same type of toothbrush (gleiche Zahnbürsten/ίδιες οδοντόβουρτσες/一樣的牙刷), but hopefully not the same one (Die selbe Zahnbürste/την ίδια οδοντόβουρτσα/同一個牙刷)!

In the course of a criminal investigation involving shooting there will always be interest in whether two killings occurred with the same type of bullet (mit den gleichen Kugeln/με ίδιες σφαίρες), or with the very same bullets (mit den selben Kugeln/με τις ίδιες σφαίρες) .

My brother and I pay the same insurance fee. We are entitled to the same kind of beds in hospital, but not in the very same bed to be shared!

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