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I know it's a stretch, and I'm pretty sure it's not, but is 名前 related to name? I always thought it was weird that they were so similar in pronunciation.

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    They are also not close in pronunciation, only in Rōmaji spelling. /neim/ vs /na.ma.e/
    – ithisa
    Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 12:04
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    @user54609 However, it's not as far off from German's "Name" (ナーメ).
    – Kaz
    Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 15:33

4 Answers 4

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It's just a coincidence and an example of a false cognate.

The etymology is covered here in Japanese.

Basically, the term "名" has been around for a pretty long time with the same meaning as 名前. It's thought that the 前 part is an honorific that was added some time later. Early uses of the full word 名前 can be seen in use in relatively modern times. The English term for it seems to be "modern" in the historical sense, but in Japanese 近世 seems to refer roughly to the Azuchi-momoyama period through Edo, roughly 1500s to mid 1800s. Not quite sure exactly when the first recorded use was. It was widely used from the Meiji period onward.

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I'd like to add onto ssb's answer, further exploring the etymologies for these terms.

名前【なまえ】

I use Shogakukan's 国語大辞典【こくごだいじてん】 (KDJ) as one of my main sources. This dictionary includes more etymology (word-origin) information than most Japanese dictionaries that I've seen.

Here's the KDJ entry for 名前. As we can see, the earliest citation is from 1720, with a sense closer to "appellation, what something is called, the label put ʻin front of’ something". This is slightly different from "name" per se. The actual "name" sense, in terms of "a person's or thing's proper name", appears from 1731.

Both of these citations are early enough that influence from English is exceedingly unlikely -- the English language had little relevance for Japanese until the Perry Expedition of 1853.

That said, Dutch did have some influence on Japanese much earlier, from around 1600, and the Spanish and Portuguese even earlier, from 1542. So it still bears asking if a European language may underlie the Japanese term 名前【なまえ】.

Derivation of 名前【なまえ】

This is clearly a compound, of 名【な】 "name" + 前【まえ】 "front". The "name front" translation sounds super weird in English, but we must remember that word order is different in Japanese. It's worth noticing too that there are other Japanese compounds that end in 前【まえ】 in reference to something ʻput in front’, such as 建前【たてまえ】, or 一人前【いちにんまえ】, etc.

The straightforward compound nature, plus the late appearance of this term in the historical record, presents a strong case against this being at all related directly to any European word.

But what about 名【な】? Might that be at all related?

名【な】

Here's the KDJ entry for 名. We see that the first citation is in the Man'yōshū, a large poetry collection finalized around 759 CE, and the first large corpus (collection of texts) with Japanese written phonetically and grammatically as Japanese. Other ancient texts like the Kojiki of 712 or the Nihon Shoki of 720 are mostly written in a kind of Classical Chinese, and thus don't provide us with much information about the ancient Japanese language.

So we know that the word 名【な】 with a sense of "name for a person or thing" has been around unchanged for a very long time.

Derivation of 名【な】

This same sense of "name", and mostly the same pronunciation -- albeit with a longer vowel value, as //naː// -- is reflected as well in the various Ryūkyūan languages, strongly suggesting that this is a cognate term inherited from the Proto-Japonic stage of the language family. See also the Wiktionary entry for 名, which includes a few of the Ryūkyūan terms.

"name"

The English term clearly has a final consonant, and nothing to do with "front". Where did this come from?

Derivation of "name"

As visible in various dictionaries, the English term traces back to Old English, back to Proto-Germanic, ultimately back to the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) term h₁nómn̥. See, for instance, the Merriam Webster entry, or the Wiktionary entry.

So while English is an unlikely source for Japanese namae, or Japanese na, what about PIE?

Likelihood of relatedness to English "name"?

The Japonic term is consistently realized as na, a single syllable with no final consonant.

The PIE reconstruction, and pretty much all the cognates in descendant languages, include a closing nasal consonant //m// as either the final sound in the word, or the close on the first syllable.

Given the known and reconstructed phonetic rules for Japonic languages, I'm not aware of any means by which a (mostly polysyllabic) word with a core syllable ending in //m// would shift to a monosyllable with an open vowel and no final consonant.

Conclusion: Highly likely to be wholly unrelated.

It's actually surprisingly easy to find words in any two languages that kinda sorta sound similar and kinda sorta have similar meanings. If you're interested in word origins and comparative linguistics, I highly recommend you read "How likely are chance resemblances between languages?" The author even lays out a well-backed-up mathematical model for determining the likelihood of such non-cognate similarities.

Addendum

A different poster brought up the possibility that Japanese 青空【あおぞら】 is somehow related to English azureus.

青空【あおぞら】 is clearly a compound, consisting of 青【あお】 "blue" + 空【そら】 "sky".

Meanwhile, azureus is Latin, not English, and traces in turn to Arabic, and then to Persian. See the Wiktionary entry for azureus.

The Persian term لاجورد‎ (lâjvard, “lapis lazuli”) is itself probably also a compound, consisting of lâj "blue" + vard "stone".

  • Japanese ao and Persian lâj both mean "blue", but the phonetics certainly don't match up very well.
  • Japanese sora means "sky", while Persian vard means "stone" -- these don't match in either meaning or sound.

If you think you've found a cognate, dig. Chances are quite high that the ancestor terms of the modern "matches" you've found are not actually matches at all. "What if" can be a fun game, but it won't get you very far.

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    Just to add onto this, English azure comes more directly from the French, which mis-analyzed the word lazure as being l' (definite article) + azure. This is something that would be unique to French, so if the Japanese had "ancient roots" to Latin or Persian, the initial L- would have been expected.
    – cmw
    Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 0:31
  • @cmw, per en.wiktionary.org/wiki/azur#French, French apparently got it from Latin, which was already missing the initial //l//. Latin has feminine demonstrative pronoun illa, from which French definite article la later evolved. From what you've read, was it confusion with this Latin demonstrative that led to the deletion of the initial //l//? Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 18:50
  • Wiktionary is unsourced here, I wouldn't trust it. Etymonline (which typically gets its information from the OED) says that the Latin has an initial L, which you can see in old books.
    – cmw
    Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 19:02
  • @cmw, that's interesting, thank you. Given the grammar, though, that must be a different word -- a putative lazureus would have the genitive form lazurei. The form lazuri appearing in the text you linked would have the nominative form lazurus or lazurum (depending on gender). The phrase in the text appears to be a variant of lapis lazuli, where lazuli is the genitive singular of lazulum meaning "sky, heavens", likely metonymy from the "blue" sense, a medieval Latin word deriving from the same Persian etymon as English azure. Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 20:47
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    Now that's possible. It could still go through French first, just not in written sources, but that misunderstanding the Arabic instead is just as likely (cf. Alexandria -> al-Iskandariya). Either way, though, it's not a mis-bracketing of the Latin, and still would be very unlikely to have gone to Japanese as such, considering that Persian is an IE language and therefore wouldn't be subject to the same process as Arabic or French. All that to say, you're right that it's a coincidence.
    – cmw
    Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 23:42
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Since 名 alone means name, there is no need 前 to be added to form a word to mean "name". This is true to other countries such as Korea which also uses Chinese characters.

And 前 means front(or first in certain context),

so 名前 together could literally interpreted as "first name".

this makes me doubt/wonder if the usage of 名前 instead of 名 as a Japanese term for "name" indeed has something to do with Japanese people's first encounter with English speaking foreigners hundreds of years ago.

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    Regardless of whether 前【まえ】 is "needed", it is added as the latter element of many terms to add a sense of "what others perceive", i.e. "what is up-front and center; what is presented". Consider 建前【たてまえ】・言【い】い前【まえ】・気前【きまえ】・出【だ】し前【まえ】・向【む】こう前【まえ】・取【と】り前【まえ】・分【わ】け前【まえ】 etc. Commented Dec 2, 2021 at 17:35
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It might be a true cognate.

I see responses above that say they aren't close in pronunciation, but the roots are close. In Old English name was "nama" and linked with similar sounding words in other languages. 「なまえ」is a similar pronunciation. https://www.etymonline.com/word/name

I've definitely seen other similar cognates while learning Japanese that appear coincidental and potentially connect to ancient roots, even though the etymologies tend to document the Chinese character development, rather than linking to other potential influences.

Consider 青空. 青空 or あおぞら or aozora appears linked through ancient roots to the English word azureus. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/青空 https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/azureus

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    As explained - regardless of Chinese characters or anything, 'namae' is a simple combination of much older 'na' and 'mae'. As for 'aozora' - why would that be linked to 'azureus', rather than simply being 'ao' blue 'sora' sky?
    – Angelos
    Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 22:53
  • It is clearly ao, blue, and sora, sky. Isn't in possible that in addition to this the current word 'sora' and the current word 'azureus' are connected through ancient roots that go back to 'lapis lazuli'?
    – Ryan Davis
    Commented Jan 20, 2018 at 0:15
  • Regarding what you said about 名前, "'namae' is a simple combination of much older 'na' and 'mae'" Do you know the ancient 'na' didn't share a root with the Old English 'nama' through some ancient middle language? From what was shared so far, I'm not sure you actually have enough evidence to call this a false cognate for sure.
    – Ryan Davis
    Commented Jan 20, 2018 at 0:29
  • Even if 前 was added in the Meiji period, if 名 has roots outside Japanese, it could be a kind of convergent cognate.
    – Ryan Davis
    Commented Jan 20, 2018 at 0:40
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    This isn’t a problem with evidence, it’s a problem with attitude. A statement like “there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that they aren’t cognates” shows a fundamentally flawed attitude towards basic concepts in science and statistics, like the scientific method and the null hypothesis.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 4:00

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