I go – 아이고

A few days ago we were out and about in the car when the traffic light turned to orange while we were an inconvenient distance from the intersection. My wife, who was driving, had to make a very quick decision to brake or continue through the intersection at the last moment. She said, in second-language-speaker English, ‘I go’ and continued through. Or she might have said, in first-language-speaker Korean ‘아이고!’ (approximately the same pronunciation), which my students dictionary of Korean translates as ‘oh, oops, my goodness’. Both would be perfectly reasonable things for her to say in the context. I asked her which meaning she’d meant, and she said the English one. In fact the Korean meaning hadn’t occurred to her until I mentioned it. Soon after, she was talking to someone else in Korean and said ‘아이고!’ for real.

Any two languages are going to have certain sounds which are very similar, and therefore strings of sounds (words or longer) which are very similar. Sometimes the meanings are accidentally similar, though usually they are very different. Sometimes students can use accidental similarity as a mnemonic. The Korean word for ‘son’ is ‘아들’ (a-deul), so I imagine ‘my idle son’. The Korean word for ‘daughter’ is ‘딸’ ‘ddal’, so I imagine ‘my daughter has a doll’. There are inter-lingual jokes: ‘What did the little tissue say to the big tissue? You’re 휴지!’ (hyu-ji/huge).

Some people with better knowledge of two languages than I’ve got take this even further. There is a book called Mot d’heures: gousses, rames by Luis d’Antin van Rooten. The French means ‘Words of the hours: root and branch’, but is pronounced similarly to the English Mother Goose Rhymes. The English verses are rendered in French which sounds like English spoken with a French accent, but which is unrelated in actual French. The first item is:
Un petit d’un petit
S’étonne aux Halles

(that is, Humpty Dumpty), which translates approximately as
A child of a child
Is surprised at the market

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