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Cognate

Did you know that the English word "eat" and the German word "essen" (meaning "to eat") both come from the Indo-European root "ed"? Words that share the same word of origin are known as cognates. Cognates are a part of historical linguistics, which is the study of how language evolves over time. When looking at the origins of a language, we are able to form a deeper understanding of how different languages are connected and how they influence each other.

Cognate Definition

In linguistics, cognate refers to groups of words in different languages that come from the same word of origin. Because they descend from the same word, cognates often have similar meanings and/or spellings.

For example, the English "brother" and German "bruder" both derive from the Latin root "frater."

It is important to know that cognates do not always have similar meanings. Sometimes, a word's meaning changes over time as a language evolves (which can happen at different rates depending on the language).

For example, the English verb "starve," the Dutch word "sterven" ("to die"), and the German word "sterben" ("to die") all come from the same Proto-Germanic verb *sterbaną" ("to die"), making them cognates.

The Dutch, German and Proto-Germanic verbs have the same meaning, but the English word "starve" has a slightly different meaning. Originally, "starve" did mean "to die," but over time, the meaning became more specific, and it now means "to suffer/die from hunger."

When the meaning of a word becomes more specific over time, this is known as "narrowing."

Cognate Words

Before we get into some examples of cognates, let's discuss the etymology of words and what they can tell us about the history of English and other languages.

Etymology refers to the study of a word's origin.

By looking at the etymology of a word, we can tell which language the word originated from and whether or not the word's form or meaning has changed over time. This helps us to understand how language evolves and the influences languages have on each other.

Cognate Image of world map on hands StudySmarterFig. 1 - Etymology can help tell us about the history and evolution of a language over time.

As cognate words are derived from the same origin and are often similar in meaning, we can often guess the meanings of words from another language. This is especially helpful for those learning languages, as they will already know similar words from other languages. In particular, Romance languages (such as Spanish, Italian, and French) contain many words that are derived from Latin. Because of this, if you already know one Romance language, it is easier to pick up on the vocabulary of another.

Cognate Meaning

The meaning of cognates and loanwords is often confused. Although they both deal with words from other languages, cognates and loanwords differ slightly.

A loanword is a word that has been borrowed from one language and incorporated into the vocabulary of another. Loanwords can be directly taken from another language with no changes in spelling or meaning. For example, the English word "patio" comes from the Spanish "patio."

On the other hand, cognates can have slightly different spellings. For example, the English "enthusiasm" derives from the Latin "enthusiasmus."

Cognate Examples

Check out some examples of cognate words below:

  • English: night

  • French: niu

  • Spanish: noche

  • Italian: notte

  • German: nacht

  • Dutch: nacht

  • Swedish: natt

  • Norwegian: natt

  • Sanskrit: nakt

All these words for "night" derive from the Indo-European root "nókʷt."

Let's look at some further examples.

  • English: nourish:

  • Spanish: nutrir

  • Old French: noris

From the Medieval Latin root "nutritivus."

  • English: milk

  • German: milch

  • Dutch: melk

  • Afrikaans: melk

  • Russian: молоко (moloko)

From the Proto-Indo-European root "melg."

  • English: attention

  • Spanish: atencion

From the Latin root "attentionem."

  • English: athiest
  • Spanish: ateo/a
  • French: athéiste
  • Latin: atheos

From the Greek root "átheos."

Types of Cognates

There are three types of cognates:

1. Words that have the same spelling, e.g.,

  • English "atlas" and German "atlas"

  • English "cruel" and French "cruel"

2. Words that have slightly different spelling, e.g.,

  • English "modern" and French "moderne"

  • English "garden" and German "garten"

3. Words that have different spelling but sound similar - e.g.,

  • English "equal" and Spanish "igual"

  • English "bicycle" and French "bicyclette"

Linguistic Term for a Misleading Cognate

The linguistic term for a misleading cognate is "false cognate." A false cognate refers to two words in two different languages that have similar meanings and are spelled/pronounced similarly but have different etymologies.

For example, the English word "much" and the Spanish "mucho" (meaning "much" or "many") are both spelled and pronounced similarly and have similar meanings. However, much" comes from the Proto-Germanic "mikilaz," whereas mucho comes from the Latin "multum."

False cognates are sometimes confused with the term "false friends," which refers to two words from different languages that sound similar or are spelled similarly but have different meanings (regardless of etymology).

For example, the English "embarrassed" (feeling awkward/ashamed) vs. the Spanish "embarazado" (pregnant). Although these two words look/sound similar, they have different meanings.

False Cognates

False cognates can sometimes be confused with actual cognates, especially if you are unsure of a word's etymology. Below are some more examples of false cognates:

  • The French "feu" (fire) is from the Latin "focus," whereas the German "feuer" (fire) is from the Proto-Germanic "for."

  • The German "haben" (to have) is from the Proto-Germanic "habjaną," whereas the Latin "habere" (to have) is said to have come from the Proto-Indo-European "gʰeh₁bʰ-."

  • The English "bad" is (perhaps) from the Old English "baeddel," whereas the Persian بد, (bad) is from the Middle Iranian "vat."

  • The English "day" is from the Old English "daeg," whereas the Latin "dies" (day) is from the Proto-Italic "djēm."

Cognate Languages

Much like individual words, languages as a whole can originate from other languages. When two or more languages originate from the same language, these are known as cognate languages.

For example, the following languages are all derived from Vulgar Latin:

  • Spanish
  • Italian
  • French
  • Portuguese
  • Romanian

These languages - known as Romance languages - are all considered cognate languages, as they share the same language of origin.

Cognate Image of Spanish flag on map of Spain StudySmarterFig. 2 - Out of all 44 Romance languages, the most widely spoken is Spanish (over 500 million speakers).

Cognate - Key takeaways

  • Cognates are groups of words in different languages that come directly from the same word of origin.
  • Because they descend from the same word, cognates often have similar meanings and/or spellings - although a word's meaning can change over time.
  • A false cognate refers to two words in two different languages that have similar meanings and are spelled/pronounced similarly but have different etymologies.
  • False friend refers to two words from different languages that sound similar or are spelled similarly but have different meanings (regardless of etymology).
  • When two or more languages originate from the same language, they are known as cognate languages.

Frequently Asked Questions about Cognate

A cognate is a word that shares the same etymology as other words from different languages.

An example of a cognate is:


The English "brother" and German "bruder", which both come from the Latin "frater."

A regular cognate is a word that shares the same origin as another word.

The three types of cognates are:


1. Words that have the same spelling

2. Words that have slightly different spelling

3. Words that have different spelling but sound similar

Some synonyms of cognate include:

  • related
  • associated
  • connected
  • linked
  • correlated

A false cognate refers to two words in two different languages that are spelt/pronounced similarly and have similar meanings but have different etymologies.

A true cognate is a word that has the same etymology as other words from other languages, whereas a false cognate has a different etymology.

Final Cognate Quiz

Question

What are cognates?

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Answer

Cognates are groups of words in different languages that come from the same word of origin.

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Question

What is the term for a misleading cognate?

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Answer

False cognate

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Question

False cognates are not to be confused with what?

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Answer

False friends

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Question

When the meaning of a word becomes more specific over time, this is known as what?

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Answer

Narrowing

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Question

The study of the origin of words is know as what?

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Answer

Etymology

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Question

Cognate is a part of which branch of linguistics?

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Answer

Historical

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Question

What is a loanword?

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Answer

A loanword is a word that has been borrowed from one language and incorporated into the vocabulary of another.

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Question

What does "false friends" refer to?

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Answer

Two words from different languages that sound similar or are spelt similarly but have different meanings (regardless of etymology).

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Question

What is the difference between a cognate and a false cognate?

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Answer

A cognate is a word that has the same etymology as other words from other languages, whereas a false cognate has a different etymology.

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Question

Out of all 44 Romance languages, which is the most widely spoken?

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Answer

Spanish

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Question

Languages that derive from Vulgar Latin are known as what?

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Answer

Romance languages

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Question

When two or more languages originate from the same language, these are known as what?

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Answer

Cognate languages

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Question

True or false?


Cognates can sometimes have slightly different meanings due to changes over time.

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Answer

True

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Question

What do cognate strategies refer to?

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Answer

Cognate strategies refer to a set of communication goals often used to help someone structure and express a clear message to an audience. 

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Question

True or false?


Cognate strategies can only be used for spoken communication.

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Answer

False

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