I recently came across the kanji , and found out about today.

According to jisho.org, both translate to "swallow", except that the first one means swallow bird and the second one (with the "mouth" radical) means the act of swallowing.

Both kanji look very similar, and both English words are homonyms. After some research, I found that some people pointed out the fact swallows swallow insects and hold them in their throat to feed their youngs, which indicates this pair of words could be related at the other end of the world too.

It still seems mysteriously coincidental to me, which is why I decided to ask.

1 Answer 1


I believe that the apparent relations are a coincidence.

  • The English swallow (deglutition) and swallow (bird) are unrelated, according to the Proto-Germanic reconstructions given in Wiktionary:

    • deglutition *swelganą
    • bird *swalwǭ
  • Zhengzhang's Old Chinese phonetic series for「燕」(*qeːns) suggests several semantic groups which are homonyms:

    • Those relating to food (嚥, 讌・醼・宴 - banquet)
    • Those relating to the bird (燕, 鷰, possibly 驠 - horse with a white backside)
    • Those relating to a proper noun (燕, 酀)
    • A word meaning beautiful (嬿)

Coincidental homonyms for unrelated words are possible for any language, and it is likely that the Chinese words are just that.

  • 1
    So the English words are unrelated, and the Chinese ones essentially use 燕 as a hint on how to speak the hanzi if I understand correctly ? What an amazing coincidence then! I know those exist but still, it's quite impressive.
    – Pacific
    Dec 16, 2018 at 14:32
  • 1
    @Pacific yep - much of the time, the phonetic component in a character may not contribute any meaning to the character, only sound. Of course, it's also possible that ancient Chinese ate lots of beautiful swallows...
    – dROOOze
    Dec 16, 2018 at 14:35
  • 1
    I see, sounds like it's purely coincidental then. Thank you very much for answering ! Oh by the way, on that last point, wikipedia says "edible bird's nest" is a very prized thing in China, and they call it 燕窝 [yànwō]. Might not be too far from the truth then !
    – Pacific
    Dec 16, 2018 at 15:00

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