The word "Chance" has a few translations to German: Chance, Zufall, Gelegenheit, etc. The German Chance is borrowed from Latin, where it developed from cadere "to fall". I can assume the word Zufall means also "to fall" (because that's the literally meaning of the word, if you break it zu-fall). So the existence of multiple words for the same concept definitely show some cultural exchange of the people speaking the language.

My question is can synonyms be used to show (or speculate) merges of ethnicities/tribes, etc? And are there any prominent examples of this?

EDIT: maybe a more concrete example are the words Lage and Schicht(ung) in German, both can mean "Layer", but the first origin is from Old High German, while the 2nd is from Old Low German. Could it be that some people used one word, other people used another, and with time and cultural exchange, both people started to use both words?

  • Zufall also translates coincidence, apparently with the same cado. However, what stumps me is that zu would look like a false cognate of co- given that c- had been used to render z- occasionally and that c before other vowels at least had become /s/. There are a few more coincidental co- ~ zu- analogies to be drawn. This is difficult to ignore. On another note, it might be misleading to associate all incidences of -fall with "to fall". Anyhow, one denotional sense of v. zu-fallen "to fall to" (i.e. inherit, win) might offer some intermediate insight. Thus I 2nd the Q
    – vectory
    Jun 8, 2020 at 4:50
  • @vectory In most of Romance, C and G palatalized only before front vowels and /j/; in what would become French, also before /a/ (which may have been a front vowel [æ] at that point). I can't think of any Romance language that palatalized C before /o/.
    – Draconis
    Jun 9, 2020 at 19:30
  • that's why I said "occasionally". You are not saying co- were occasionally rendered with a high vowel or iotization? That would be quite the coincidence indeed.
    – vectory
    Jun 9, 2020 at 20:39

2 Answers 2


In Sanskrit there are dozens and dozens of synonyms for 'sun', none of them a loanword. The same goes about other notions, too, generally speaking Sanskrit has very few loanwords, mostly names of plants and animals. A dozen words for 'spoon'. Could you, please, definitely show some cultural exchange that stood behind the unimaginable number of synonyms in Sanskrit, in a language with almost no loanwords?

I'd rather say that synonyms show the massive cultural background behind a language, a man who never makes anything with one's own hands doesn't need two words for "hammer".

  • What vectory said. If it has dozen of words for Sun, how do you know it's not infusion of many different tribes using different words for sun? To show this you would need to find and map all the languages that joined to make sanskrit. Of course it's not the only explanation, but surely for many words this could be the case. Jun 8, 2020 at 8:08
  • @DavidRefaeli - Usually, languages split, not join.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jun 9, 2020 at 16:02
  • @yellowsky, that's nonsense, not only because an implicit definition of joining is questionable, but rather because typological evidence cannot negate a specific instance.
    – vectory
    Jun 9, 2020 at 20:37
  • @YellowSky I think languages split when cultures split, or become too far apart. But if cultures become closer, and unite, the languages follow. Jun 9, 2020 at 21:33
  • @DavidRefaeli - I know no example when two cultures unite or when two languages join. The usual course of things in the real world is like this: when 2 cultures meet, one of them either absorbs some elements of the other or assimilates the other one, destroys it. The same with the languages. Either both remain or only one of them remains, but it's never like both of them disappear and something new is born from the ashes.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jun 9, 2020 at 21:46

To me, your question merges a couple of non-related issues. Firstly, talking about synonyms is chiefly a matter related to a specific language and not a cross-linguistic one. Secondly, the fact that two different languages use a certain word with the same language-specific etymology for the same concept may be due to two phenomena:

-coin due to language contact, which is probably what you are alluding to.

-a similar pattern of conceptualisation, which is due to cognitive principles and has nothing to do with contact.

  • 3. semantic calque
    – vectory
    Jun 9, 2020 at 20:35
  • What do you mean? We are talking about semantics here, so that's pretty obvious..
    – user27758
    Jun 9, 2020 at 20:41
  • I mean you should know what a semantique calque is. Fernseher for example is modeled on the basis of television, but fern and seh have germanic roots. You have alleged this were a coincidence ... except, you might argue, Fernseher is not a synonym at all and a new concept needs new words. But It's also notable that the strict assumption, every word were either a synonym or not, leads to paradoxes (ask me about it). Contrast Mattscheibe "silver screen", Röhre "tube", there are near synonyms.
    – vectory
    Jun 9, 2020 at 20:49
  • Sorry, but you don't know what you are arguing about. Linguistics has nothing to do with creativity, which you perfectly master.
    – user27758
    Jun 9, 2020 at 20:52
  • You still fail to answer the question. The OP has obviously shown--in a trivial sense albeit--that one particular loan can be used to identify culture clash. Working that out into a fully fledged answer is difficult, because analogy is the bain of etymology (paraphrasing Beekes 2011, intro to the comparative method, chapter 6)
    – vectory
    Jun 9, 2020 at 21:01

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