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Diagram showing relationships between etymologically-related words Etymological Relationships Tree.png
Diagram showing relationships between etymologically-related words

In linguistics, cognates, also called lexical cognates, are words that have a common etymological origin. [1] Cognates are often inherited from a shared parent language, but they may also involve borrowings from some other language. For example, the English words dish , disk and desk and the German word Tisch ("table") are cognates because they all come from Latin discus , borrowed from Ancient Greek δίσκος(dískos), which relates to their flat surfaces. Cognates may have evolved similar, different or even opposite meanings, and although there are usually some similar sounds or letters in the words, they may appear to be dissimilar. Some words sound similar, but do not come from the same root; these are called false cognates, while some are truly cognate but differ in meaning; these are called false friends.


The word cognate derives from the Latin noun cognatus , which means "blood relative". [2]


Cognates do not need to have the same meaning, which may have changed as the languages developed separately. For example English starve and Dutch sterven or German sterben ("to die") all derive from the same Proto-Germanic root, *sterbaną ("die"). Discus is from Greek δίσκος (from the verb δικεῖν "to throw"). A later and separate English reflex of discus, probably through medieval Latin desca, is desk (see OED s.v. desk).

Also, cognates do not need to have similar forms: English father , French père , and Armenian հայր (hayr) all descend directly from Proto-Indo-European *ph₂tḗr. An extreme case is Armenian երկու (erku) and English two , which descend from Proto-Indo-European *dwóh₁ (note that the sound change *dw > erk in Armenian is regular).

Across languages

Examples of cognates in Indo-European languages are the words night (English), nicht (Scots), Nacht (German), nacht (Dutch, Frisian), nag (Afrikaans), Naach (Colognian), natt (Swedish, Norwegian), nat (Danish), nátt (Faroese), nótt (Icelandic), noc (Czech, Slovak, Polish), ночь, noch (Russian), ноќ, noć (Macedonian), нощ, nosht (Bulgarian), nishi (Bengali), ніч, nich (Ukrainian), ноч, noch/noč (Belarusian), noč (Slovene), noć (Serbo-Croatian), nakts (Latvian), naktis (Lithuanian), νύξ, nyx (Ancient Greek), νύχτα / nychta (Modern Greek), nakt- (Sanskrit), natë (Albanian), nos (Welsh, Cornish), noz (Breton), nox/nocte (Latin), nuit (French), noche (Spanish), nueche (Asturian), noite (Portuguese and Galician), notte (Italian), nit (Catalan), nuet/nit/nueit (Aragonese), nuèch / nuèit (Occitan) and noapte (Romanian), all meaning "night" and being derived from the Proto-Indo-European *nókʷts "night".

Another Indo-European example is star (English), starn (Scots), Stern (German), ster (Dutch and Afrikaans), stjer (Frisian) Schtähn (Colognian), stjärna (Swedish), stjerne (Norwegian and Danish), stjarna (Icelandic), stjørna (Faroese), stairno (Gothic), str- (Sanskrit), tara (Hindustani and Bengali), tera (Sylheti), tora (Assamese), setāre (Persian), stoorei (Pashto), estêre or stêrk (Kurdish), astgh (Armenian), ἀστήρ (astēr) (Greek or ἀστέρι/ἄστρο, asteri/astro in Modern Greek), astrum / stellă (Latin), astre / étoile (French), astro / stella (Italian), stea (Romanian and Venetian), estel (Catalan), astru / isteddu (Sardinian), estela (Occitan), estrella and astro (Spanish), estrella (Asturian and Leonese), estrela and astro (Portuguese and Galician), seren (Welsh), steren (Cornish) and sterenn (Breton), from the Proto-Indo-European *h₂stḗr "star".

The Arabic سلامsalām, the Hebrew שלוםshalom, the Assyrian Neo-Aramaic shlama and the Amharic selam ("peace") are also cognates, derived from the Proto-Semitic *šalām- "peace".

Cognates may often be less easily recognised than the above examples, and authorities sometimes differ in their interpretations of the evidence. The English word milk is clearly a cognate of German Milch , Dutch and Afrikaans melk , Russian молоко (moloko), Serbo-Croatian and Slovenian mleko / mlijeko . [3] On the other hand, French lait , Catalan llet, Italian latte, Romanian lapte , Spanish leche and leite (Portuguese and Galician) (all meaning "milk") are less-obvious cognates of Ancient Greek γάλακτος gálaktos (genitive singular of γάλα gála, "milk"), a relationship that is more evidently seen through the intermediate Latin lac "milk" as well as the English word lactic and other terms borrowed from Latin.

Some cognates are semantic opposites. For instance, while the Hebrew word חוצפה chutzpah means "impudence", its Classical Arabic cognate حصافةḥaṣāfah means "sound judgment." [4] Another example is English empathy "understanding of thoughts" and Greek εμπάθεια empátheia "malice".

Within the same language

Cognates within a single language, or doublets , may have meanings that are slightly or even totally different. For example, English ward and guard (<PIE *wer- , "to perceive, watch out for") are cognates, as are shirt (garment on top) and skirt (garment on bottom) (<PIE *sker- , "to cut"). In some cases, including this one, one cognate ("skirt") has an ultimate source in another language related to English, [5] but the other one ("shirt") is native. [6] That happened with many loanwords, such as skirt in this example, which was borrowed from Old Norse during the Danelaw.

Sometimes both doublets come from other languages, often the same one but at different times. For example, the word chief (meaning the leader of any group) comes from the Middle French chef ("head"), and its modern pronunciation preserves the Middle French consonant sound; the word chef (the leader of the cooks) was borrowed from the same source centuries later, but by then, the consonant had changed to a "sh" sound in French. Such word sets can also be called etymological twins, and they may come in groups of higher numbers, as with, for example, the words wain (native), waggon/wagon (Dutch), and vehicle (Latin) in English.

A word may also enter another language, develop a new form or meaning there, and be re-borrowed into the original language; that is called reborrowing. For example, the Greek word κίνημα (kínima, "movement") became French cinéma (compare American English movie) and then later returned to Greece as σινεμά (sinemá, "the art of film", "movie theater"). In Greek, κίνημα (kínima, "movement") and σινεμά (sinemá, "filmmaking, cinema") are now doublets. [7]

A less obvious English-language doublet pair is grammar and glamour .

False cognates

False cognates are words that people commonly believe are related (have a common origin), but that linguistic examination reveals are unrelated. For example, on the basis of superficial similarities, the Latin verb habēre and German haben, both meaning 'to have', appear to be cognates. However, because the words evolved from different roots, in this case, different Proto-Indo-European (PIE) roots, they cannot be cognate (see for example Grimm's law). German haben, like English have, comes from PIE *kh₂pyé- 'to grasp', and its real cognate in Latin is capere, 'to seize, grasp, capture'. Latin habēre, on the other hand, is from PIE *gʰabʰ, 'to give, to receive', and hence cognate with English give and German geben. [8]

Likewise, English much and Spanish mucho look similar and have a similar meaning but are not cognates, as they evolved from different roots: much from Proto-Germanic *mikilaz < PIE *meǵ- and mucho from Latin multum < PIE *mel- . Instead, its real cognate is Spanish maño. [9]

See also

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  1. Crystal, David, ed. (2011). "cognate". A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (6th ed.). Blackwell Publishing. p. 104. ISBN   978-1-4443-5675-5. OCLC   899159900.
  2. "cognate", The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language , 4th ed.: "Latin cognātus: co-, co- + gnātus, born, past participle of nāscī, to be born." Other definitions of the English word include "[r]elated by blood; having a common ancestor" and "[r]elated or analogous in nature, character, or function".
  3. Compare also Greek ἀμέλγω amelgō "to milk".
  4. Wehr, Hans (1994) [1979]. J. Milton Cowan (ed.). Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic . Urbana, Illinois: Spoken Language Services, Inc. ISBN   0-87950-003-4.
  5. Harper, Douglas. "skirt (n.)". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 16 June 2017. early 14c., "lower part of a woman's dress," from Old Norse skyrta "shirt, a kind of kirtle"
  6. Harper, Douglas. "shirt (n.)". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 16 June 2017. Old English scyrte "skirt, tunic," from Proto-Germanic *skurtjon "a short garment"
  7. In fact, σινεμά stands beside a Greek neologism based on the original form of the same root, κινηματογράφος (kinimatoγráfos), with the same two meanings as cinéma/σινεμά. (The film or movie itself is the unrelated ταινία (tainia).)
  8. Lexikon der indogermanischen Verben
  9. Ringe, Don. "A quick introduction to language change" (PDF). Univ. of Pennsylvania: Linguistics 001 (Fall 2011). ¶ 29. pp. 11–12. Archived from the original (PDF) on 20 June 2010. Retrieved 15 June 2014.CS1 maint: location (link)

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