Cognate: Definition and Examples

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Brother (English) and bruder (German) are an example of words that are cognate.

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cognate is a word that is related in origin to another word, such as the English word brother and the German word bruder or the English word history and the Spanish word historia. The words were derived from the same source; thus, they are cognates (like cousins tracing their ancestry). Because they come from the same origin, cognates have similar meanings and often similar spellings in two different languages

"Cognates are often derived from Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian) that have their origins in Latin, although some are derived from other language families (e.g., Germanic)," noted Patricia F. Vadasy and J. Ron Nelson in their book "Vocabulary Instruction for Struggling Students" (Guilford Press, 2012).  

If two words in the same language are derived from the same origin, they're called doublets; likewise, three are triplets. A doublet may have come into English from two different languages. For example, the words fragile and frail both came from the Latin word fragilis. Frail came into English from French into Old English and stayed on through Middle and now Modern English, and the word fragile was borrowed directly from Latin instead of going through French first.

Origins of Cognates

The Romance languages have so much in common etymologically because the Roman Empire brought Latin to those regions. Of course, regional dialects were already established in present-day Spain, Portugal, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, and Italy, but because of the relative stability of the empire, Latin influenced vocabulary throughout these regions for a long period, especially in the sciences and law.

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Latin was still in use in various forms and continued to move into areas where the empire hadn't been, such as Slavic and Germanic regions. It was useful as a universal language for people from different regions to be able to communicate.

Christian missionaries brought the Roman alphabet to present-day Britain during the first millennium of the common era, and Latin remained in use in the Catholic church even as the Middle Ages evolved into the Renaissance.

When the Normans conquered England in 1066, Latin words and roots came into English via Old French. Some English words also came from Latin itself, thus creating doublets, two words with the same origin in the same language. The cognates would be the French words and the English words derived from them and the Latin originals. The derived words are all related to a common ancestor.

Examples of Cognates

Here are a few examples of cognates (including those that share only the stem and not all the affixes, which are semi-cognates, or paronyms) and their roots:

  • night: nui (French), noche (Spanish), Nacht (German), nacht (Dutch), natt (Swedish, Norwegian); root: Indo-European, nókʷt
  • constipated: constipado (Spanish); root (stem): Latin cōnstipāt-
  • nourish: nutrir (Spanish), noris (Old French); root: nutritivus (Medieval Latin)
  • atheist: ateo/a (Spanish), athéiste (French), atheos (Latin); root: átheos (Greek)
  • controversy: controversia (Spanish); root: controversus (Latin)
  • comic (meaning comedian)cómico (Spanish); root: cōmĭcus (Latin)
  • abortion: aborto (Spanish); root: abŏrtus (Latin)
  • government: gobierno (Spanish), governement (Old French), gubernus (Late Latin); root: gŭbĕrnāre (Latin, loaned from Greek)

Obviously, not all the cognates for a root are listed, and not all of these words came directly from Latin into English. These examples show some of the most common ancestral roots. Note that some words have changed in between their roots and the cognates listed. For example, government came into English from French, where many "b"s became "v"s. Language is always evolving, though it may not seem like it, because it's gradual, happening over centuries.  

Aid in Learning Other Languages

Because of the relationship between Romance languages and their roots in Latin, learning a third language can be easier than learning a second because of the similarity in vocabulary, for example, learning French after already understanding Spanish.

Author Annette M. B. de Groot illustrated the concept in "Bilingual Cognition: An Introduction" with an example that compares Swedish and Finnish learners of English: "... Ringbom (1987) reasoned that the existence of cognates might be one reason why Swedes are generally better in English than Finns; English and Swedish are related languages, sharing many cognates, whereas English and Finnish are completely unrelated. The consequence is that a Finn will be at a complete loss when encountering an unknown English word, whereas in many cases a Swede may infer at least part of the English cognate's meaning."

Using cognates to teach vocabulary can be helpful to English language learners (ELL), especially those students whose native language is Spanish, because of the great amount of overlap between the two languages.

Authors Shira Lubliner and Judith A. Scott noted, "Researchers indicate that English-Spanish cognates account for one-third of educated adult vocabulary (Nash, 1997) and 53.6 percent of English words are of Romance-language origin (Hammer, 1979)." ("Nourishing Vocabulary: Balancing Words and Learning." Corwin, 2008) 

Not only can you learn new-language words faster and infer meaning to figure words out in context, but you can also remember the vocabulary more easily when the words are cognates. This kind of language study can begin with learners as early as preschool age.

Problems that come with learning vocabulary through cognates include pronunciation and false cognates. Two words might share similar spellings but be pronounced differently. For example, the word animal is spelled the same way in English and Spanish but pronounced with different stresses in each language.

False, Accidental, and Partial Cognates

False cognates are two words in different languages that appear to be cognates but actually are not (for example, the English advertisement and the French avertissement, which means "warning" or "caution"). They're also called false friends. Author Annette M. B. De Groot shared some examples:

"False cognates are etymologically related but no longer overlap in meaning between the languages; their meanings may be related but also opposite (in English an auditorium is a place for a large gathering, whereas in Spanish an auditorio is an audience; stretch means 'to extend' in English but estretcher in Spanish is 'to make narrow'). Accidental cognates are not etymologically related but just happen to share form (English juice and Spanish juicio, 'judge'...)." ("Language and Cognition in Bilinguals and Multilinguals: An Introduction." Psychology Press, 2011)

Partial cognates are words that have the same meaning in some contexts but not others. "For example, twig and Zweig are used similarly in some contexts, but in other contexts, Zweig is better translated as 'branch'. Both Zweig and branch have metaphoric meanings ('a branch of a business') which twig does not share." (Uta Priss and L. John Old, "Bilingual Word Association Networks" in "Conceptual Structures: Knowledge Architectures for Smart Applications," ed. by Uta Priss et al. Springer, 2007)