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Concourse 2

Cognates and false friends

false friends

What are cognate words?

Cognates are words which have the same origin but exist in more than one language.

For example, the English word beer and the German word Bier both come from the same root.  One theory is that the words come from the Latin word biber [a drink] and another theory is that the words come from a very early German word for barley.  It really doesn't matter, even if it is quite interesting.  What is important is that the words have the same root and refer to the same thing.  This, of course, makes it easy for English speakers to learn the German word and vice versa.


What cognates are not

Whatever you may read on the web, cognates are not:

  1. words which exists in the same language, with the same root but which mean different things.
    For example, in English, the words skirt and shirt both derive from the same word (the Old English scyrte) but they are not cognates.  The technical term is a doublet.
  2. words which are imported into one language from another.
    Partly for historical reasons, there are many hundreds of these in English taken from a variety of languages.
    For example, from the West African language Hausa, English has borrowed bogus, from Arabic, there is a huge range from admiral to zenith and zero, from Hindi, English has borrowed another large number, from avatar to veranda and from European languages there are many hundreds more.
    Words may come from other languages via an intermediary language so a word borrowed from Arabic into Spanish (a common event) may then be borrowed again by English from Spanish.
    Such words can make it slightly easier for speakers of some languages to learn some words in English but the words are not cognates, they are, technically, loan words.
  3. words which look the same but have different origins.
    For example, the German word Gift [poison] and the English word gift [present] may look the same but they are not closely connected and the English word hell (Hades) looks and sounds the same as the German word hell (light coloured) but they derive from wholly different roots.  Equally, the Japanese word for occur happens to be okoru but they, too, derive from very different sources.  The English word kitten, looks like the Tagalog word kuting and they both mean the same thing but are wholly unconnected.  Coincidences happen.
    Technically, these are called false cognates, not, please note, false friends.

For a little more help in disentangling the terms, there is a language-question answer here which also considers a separate area known as pseudo-Anglicisms.

dog cat

True and false friends

True friends help

It is sometimes difficult (and rarely necessary) to distinguish between a loan word and a cognate derived from the same source.
For example, in Modern English we have many words derived from Latin directly but we also have words imported from Norman French which in turn were derived from Latin.  Most people would now call the words cognates, whatever their route into English.
These are true friends to learners because the words not only look much the same they mean much the same.  They make reading comprehension, in particular, much easier.

The following lists could be extended very greatly, of course.  They are examples only.

Latinate words in English and some Italic languages:

English Spanish Italian French Portuguese Romanian
administer administrar amministrare administrer administrar administra
operation operación operazione opération operação operație
expression expresión espressione expression expressão expresie
communication comunicación comunicazione communication comunicação comunicare

Right across Europe a number of words derived from Greek will also be familiar.  Greek, too, is often the source of Latin words, incidentally.  In the following Italian is the only Italic language (i.e., derived ultimately from Latin) but the word will be similar in others (see last table).

English Greek Polish Italian German Danish
democracy δημοκρατία demokracja democrazia Demokratie demokrati
athletics αθλητισμός atletyka atletica Athletik atletik
theatre θέατρο teatr teatro Theater teater
mathematics μαθηματικά matematyka matematica Mathematik matematik

Greek still, of course, often forms the basis for coining new words, especially, in academic (ακαδημαϊκός) areas.

Among Germanic (such as English and most Scandinavian) languages there are also a number of commonalities but they are not usually as consistent as the ones above.  We get, for example, the English noun cook as Koch (German), kok (Dutch and Danish), kokk (Norwegian) etc.
We can also see cognate words across languages which share an ancestor.  For example, the names of days of the week in Germanic, Slavic and Italic languages are closely related within their groups (with a few oddities):

Germanic languages Slavic languages Italic languages
English German Swedish Polish Czech Slovak French Spanish Italian
Sunday Sonntag söndag niedziela neděle nedeľa dimanche domingo domenica
Monday Montag måndag poniedziałek pondělí pondelok lundi lunes lunedi
Tuesday Dienstag tisdag wtorek úterý utorok mardi martes martedì
Wednesday Mittwoch onsdag środa středa streda mercredi miércoles mercoledì
Thursday Donnerstag torsdag czwartek čtvrtek štvrtok jeudi jueves giovedi
Friday Freitag fredag piątek pátek piatok vendredi viernes venerdì
Saturday Samstag lördag sobota sobota sobota samedi sábado sabato

Numbers, of course, show similar patterns and are noticeably similar even between languages only distantly related with some numbers (such as six and seven) being clearly related across all nine languages:

Germanic languages Slavic languages Italic languages
English German Swedish Polish Czech Slovak French Spanish Italian
one eins en jeden jeden jedna un uno uno
two zwei två dwa dva dva deux dos due
three drei tre trzy tri tři trois tres tre
four vier fyra cztery štyri čtyři quatre cuatro quattro
five fünf fem pięć päť pět cinq cinco cinque
six sechs sex sześć šesť šest six seis sei
seven sieben sju siedem sedem sedm sept siete sette
eight acht åtta osiem osem osm huit ocho otto
nine neun nio dziewięć deväť devět neuf nueve nove
ten zehn tio dziesięć desať deset dix diez dieci

Family relationships are also fundamental concepts and are, unsurprisingly, similar across languages:

Germanic languages Slavic languages Italic languages
English German Swedish Polish Czech Slovak French Spanish Italian
mother Mutter mor matka matka matka mère madre madre
father Vater far ojciec otec otec père padre padre
sister Schwester syster siostra sestra sestra sœur hermana sorella
brother Bruder bror brat bratr brat frère hermano fratello

All these words derive ultimately from a language ancestral to almost all European languages known as Proto-Indo European and that language was also ancestral to Sanskrit, other South Asian languages and Persian among many others.
The presumed Proto-Indo European words were:
Father: pəter (which is related to the Sanskrit pitar, the Latin [and Greek] pater and the Old Persian pita)
Mother: mater (which is the root of many cognate words from South India to Ireland)
Sister: swesor (recognisable almost unchanged in hundreds of Indo-European languages from the Sanskrit svasar to the Russian sestra)
Bother: bhrater (another almost unchanged word recognisable in the Sanskrit bhrátár, Old Persian brata, Greek phratér, Latin frater, Old Irish brathir, Welsh brawd etc.)

Problems with true friends

  1. Because the words look so similar, learners are tempted to pronounce them as they would in their first language(s).  This results in lots of incorrect stress and phoneme production.
  2. Because word formation, and especially the use of suffixes, works differently across languages, learners may mistake word class, confusing nouns with verbs and adjectives and so on.
  3. A word which is basically a true friend may have slightly different connotations or uses in particular registers.
    For example, Angst in German means worry or anxiety (both as nouns only) but does not carry the special psychological sense which the word has in English.  Similarly, the verb demander in French simply means to ask and carries none of the sense of insistence and authority that the verb demand carries in English.
  4. Many true friends in English for speakers of Latin-derived languages are stylistically inappropriate and too formal.  For example, while
        I administered an aspirin to him
    may communicate the sense, it would be more usual to use
        I gave him an aspirin

False friends deceive

Cognates may have the same origin but often do not have the same meaning because languages evolve in different ways.  For example, the word dish in English and the word Tisch [table] in German both derive from the Latin for a disc but they no longer mean anything like the same thing.  Fortunately, Tisch and dish look sufficiently different for learners of either language not to get too confused.  Some pairs of words are not so obliging.

In other cases, a word may be a loan word rather than a cognate but has developed a different sense in the language into which it was borrowed.  As we saw above, for example, the word Angst (German for worry or fear) has been borrowed in English but only in a special psychological sense.  The word smoking has been taken from English into French where it ends up meaning a kind of dinner jacket.

In the following, some words are cognates and others are loan words.  It doesn't matter for the purposes of helping learners recognise false friends and avoid making embarrassing mistakes.

By the way, whatever you may read on the web out here, these are false friends and are specifically and definitely not false cognates (see above for a definition of those).  Some false cognates may, in fact, be false friends but all false friends should not be called false cognates.

Take the following for example.  Can you fill in the gaps?  Click on the table when you have:

ff task
The list for all these languages can be considerably extended.  Moreover, related languages will often share characteristics so what is a false friend for an Italian speaker will probably be one for a French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian speaker, too.

Related guides
the roots of English for more about the origins and development of English and its vocabulary
types of languages for a more technical guide to how languages vary and how they are related
false friends exercises some exercises for learners deliberately targeting false friends in a number of languages