Last night, while looking up some words I didn’t understand in a Chinese kids’ book, I found something really interesting, or at least really interesting if you’re a language geek. Unless there’s some reason to say something in a certain way, the Chinese way of saying it and the English way are often completely different. Here’s a case in which the similarity is so strong it seems like it couldn’t possibly be a coincidence.
In English, the word “swallow” can be a verb which means to gulp something down your throat. It can also be a noun which means a certain kind of bird.
The Chinese character 燕 means a swallow (the bird). Just by adding a mouth radical on the left side to make it 嚥, the meaning can be changed to swallow (i.e. gulp). In Mandarin at least, both words even have the same pronunciation – yàn.
Swallows swallow mosquitoes
What’s the deal with swallows swallowing anyway?
[1:] As usual the simplified variant is convenient, but not very interesting. The commies changed 嚥 into 咽, which doesn’t look anything at all like 燕.