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March 2016

The Secret Life of Cognates

What are cognates and how can they help us communicate?

In law, cognate refers to a relative. The definition is similar when it comes to linguistics. Stemming from the Latin term cognatus (“blood relative”), cognates are loan words that appear in more than one language. Understanding cognates helps us draw similarities between different languages, allowing us also to see how the languages themselves have evolved over time. Like its definition in law, linguistic cognates show how languages are related to one another.

For words to be cognates, they must originate and evolve from the same roots. Examples of cognates across different languages include the words for night. In German, it would be Nacht. In French, nuit. In Italian, notte. In Sanskrit, nakt. The varying words for night all originate from the same source as these languages (and many others) are considered Indo-European languages.

Conversely, much (English) and mucho (Spanish) are not cognates, though they sound the same and have similar meanings. This is because they have different roots. Much comes from the Proto-Germanic mikilaz, whereas mucho derives from the Latin multum. Such examples are what linguists call false cognates.

Also important to consider is the existence of false friends, deriving appropriately from the phrase “false friend of the translator”. These are words across languages that sound the same but have different meanings. An example would be the French word demande ("a request"), often mistaken for the English demand or the Spanish demandar ("to sue"). Another good example of a false friend is the Spanish word actual, which means "current", as opposed to the definition for the English word actual.

So, knowing all this, how can knowledge of cognates help us understand different languages? That these words are so similar can help us understand one another even with limited knowledge of the other language. For example, if a German speaker were to say to an English speaker, Guten Morgen or Gute Nacht, the English speaker could easily identify the phrases as “good morning” and “goodnight”. Similarly, it’s far easier for an Italian speaker to learn Spanish or French than, say, Mandarin Chinese. Because the former languages share so many loan words, they’re more accessible. Understanding the relationships between the roots of languages are also helpful in choosing a language to learn and discerning its difficulty.

It is often challenging to tap into the power of cognates while learning a new language simply because we overthink everything we do. With so many grammatical rules and words to memorize, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. Take a step back and read foreign text with a clear mind, letting your eyes settle upon words that sound similar to those of your native language. If the language you’re reading has the same roots as your native tongue, you’re likely able to pick up more than you would think.

Just be wary of those false friends.

What are some cognates that you recognize in other languages? Have they helped you transition into a new language? Let us know on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” TELC English for more language learning articles!

Picture: (c) Fotolia, calmlookphotos