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The Similarity of Languages

Posted by on 9 May 2008

When I was a sophomore at the Ateneo de Manila University, I took up Spanish 1 and 2. One of our assignments for Spanish 2 was to write a short poem in Spanish. Somehow, I still remember the words that love-struck young me wrote at that time:

No hay amor como este amor;
No hay amante como mi amante.
Ojala que este amor y amante
Se queden conmigo
Mas alla de la muerte.

This roughly translates to:
There is no love like this love;
There is no lover like my lover.
I hope that this love and this lover
Stay with me
Even beyond death.

Okay, okay, so I’m showing off a bit here ;) I knew enough Spanish at that time to debate in Spanish, write essays and poems in Spanish, even exchange letters totally in Spanish with a special ‘friend’.

But what I really want to talk about it the word ojala in the poem. The word ojala is pronounced as ‘o-ha-la’. So knowing that Spain was under Moorish rule for many, many years in the past, I can only conclude that ojala must have come from the expression ‘oh Allah‘. Basically, ‘ojala‘ must have started as a prayer to God for something, which was absorbed into the Spanish language to express a wish or a hope.

I am no linguist but I know quite a number of languages, enough to see the similarities of certain words. And it fascinates me to no end.

In Indonesia, they say kamar for room. In Dutch, room is kamer. With Indonesia being a former Dutch colony, it only makes sense that the Indonesian language integrated a lot of Dutch words into its language. But then again, kamer may have probaly originated from the Arab word kamara, as the Arab civilisation is older than the Dutch civilisation. And kamara also happens to be the source of the word camera. The word camera comes from the Latin term camera obscura, literally meaning “dark room.” But the root word is actually kamar, the Arabic word for room, which we can derive from the fact that the first camera obscura was built by an Arab.

When I learned how to count in Jawa (Javanese) from one of our former housemaids, I was totally astonished at the similarities.

Cebuano Jawa
usa siji
duha loro
tulo telu
upat papat
lima limo
unom enam
pito pitu
walo walu
siyam songo
napulo sepuluh

The name of the animal orangutan, native to Malaysia and Indonesia could only have come from the Malay/Indonesian words orang + hutan, with orang meaning ‘person’ and hutan meaning ‘jungle’.

The rambutan fruit is also said to have originated in Malaysia. If such is the case, it only makes sense it’s called rambutan, due to its hairy appearance, as the word rambut means ‘hair’ in Malay.

The similarities in Tagalog, Cebuano, Malay and Indonesian languages is not at all surprising, as every Filipino child learns in history class that the ancestors of Filipinos are the Indonesian and Malay migrants who crossed the waters of the Sulu Sea and the Celebes Sea. For instance, the word mata (eye) is the same in all four languages. So is kanan (right), mahal (expensive), anak (child), sayang (a term used to express regret) with just the slightest variations in the pronunciation. Some words have also metamorphosed along the way, such as the Tagalog/Cebuano lapu-lapu versus the Malay kerapu (garoupa fish), the Tagalog kalabaw versus the Cebuano kabaw versus the Malay kerbau (carabao or water buffalo), the Cebuano paliya versus the Malay peria. Some words remain the same, but the mean has subtle differences in the usage, such as the Malay/Indonesian dosa (sin) versus the Tagalog dusa (suffering).

But what I find most fascinating is when there is no specific term for a certain word in that language. For instance, there is no specific word in the English language for pedas (Malay/Indonesian), pet (Thai), halang (Cebuano) or maanghang (Tagalog). The usual words used are either ‘hot’ or ‘spicy’. But hot refers more to the temperature, as a certain food that is hot is not necessarily hot. You get what I mean? ;) And spicy, strictly speaking, comes from the word ‘spice’, which ranges from the spicy pepper to the sweet vanilla bean.

So when there is no Malay equivalent for the word ‘urgent’, I can only surmise that it is reflective of the Malay language. And if there is no exact English equivalent for the Tagalog lambing, Cebuano langi or Malay manja, what does that tell us?

Languages are fascinating indeed. Maybe I should be a linguist one day! But that won’t stop me from continuing to indulge in my passion for photography ;)

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