You say maguro and I say magura

Today we had lunch at a Japanese restaurant. On the placemats were drawings of the various ingredients, with their English and Japanese names. I noticed that the Japanese name for tuna is ‘maguro’. By one of those very strange coincidences of languages, the word for ‘fish’ in the Indigenous language of the Sydney region is ‘magura’. Various sources from the early colonial period render the word in various ways, but the scholar Jakelin Troy has reconstructed the spelling ‘magura’.

This is not to suggest that there is any connection between Japanese and the Sydney language. Given six thousand (approx) languages in the world, and a core vocabulary of ten thousand (approx) words in each language, similar-sounding words with similar-sounding meanings must crop up reasonably often.

Colonial Judge-Advocate David Collins draws an exceptionally long bow when he compares three individual words from the Sydney language with three individual words from European languages:

‘I met with only two or three words which bore a resemblance to any other language. The middle head of Port Jackson is named Cā-ba Cā-ba — in Portuguese Cāba signifies a head. Cam-ma-rāde, a term of affection used among girls, has a strong resemblance to the French word Cammerade; and may not some similitude be traced between the word E-lee-mong, a shield, and the word Telamon, the name given to the greater Ajax, on account of his being lord of the seven-fold shield? How these words came into their language must be a mystery till we have a more intimate knowledge of it than I can pretend to.’

If he could use Portuguese, French and Greek examples in a single passage, he must have known that relationships between languages are more systematic than that.


4 thoughts on “You say maguro and I say magura

  1. Hi. Did you look more into this word ”magura”. I am currently working on a folk taxonomy, and in Sri Lanka, there is a freshwater fish called magura. While further searching, I was able to find that the same name is using for the same fish in North India, Japan and even in South America.


  2. The word magura is not strictly related to fish and can be found in various cultures around the world without any obvious connection. The highest concentration of the same word hits can be found in the Balkan peninsula. I pesonally believe that the roots of the word are very very old and mysterious!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for your comment. I sure there are many words which sound similar and mean similar things in widely different languages. With approx 6,000 languages and tens of thousands (at least) words in each, and with human mouth optimised for certain kinds of sounds, it would be more surprising if there weren’t! Whether we can draw any firm conclusions about roots of languages and words is a very different question.


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