Same, same – but different

The first time I heard this phrase was when I was ordering food in a restaurant in Thailand. I was trying to figure out what I got if I ordered number 617 of the menu instead of number 598. The reply I got was “same, same – but different”. To this day I still don’t know what exactly was the same, and what was different, but that’s beside the point.

This little anecdote illustrates something common to most languages though, bear with me. In Germanic languages there are usually two words meaning “the same”. English is a little bit of a troublemaker, because it is not as distinct, but for German, the Scandinavian languages and so on there are two different words meaning “the same”. One meaning the actual same object, and the other meaning two different yet identical objects.

“We live in the same apartment!”
“We live in apartments that are the same!”

For English one needs to reformulate the sentence in order for the reader (or listener) to understand the meaning. For many other languages it’s enough simply to replace one word. There are, however, some drawbacks. If one is learning a language this type of detail may not be the first thing one learns, making for very odd sentences. Here are some of my favorites (translated into English).

Two girls walking down the street meet up with a third girl not native to the language.
“You are wearing the same pants!”

An older lady is waiting at a bus stop, when the bus pulls in.
Lady: “Is this the same bus that leaves in half an hour?”
Driver: “No, that is a different bus.”
Lady sits down to wait, not realizing that the buses still go to the same place even if the actual bus doesn’t make it back.

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