In linguistics, cognates are words that have a common etymological origin. This learned term derives from the Latin cognatus (blood relative).[1] Cognates within the same language are called doublets. Strictly speaking, loanwords from another language are usually not meant by the term, e.g. the English word king is not considered a true cognate of Dutch koning or German König.[2]

For example, the English words shirt and skirt are doublets; the former derives from the Old English sċyrte, while the latter is loaned from Old Norse skyrta, both of which derive from the Proto-Germanic *skurtjōn-. Additional cognates of the same word in other Germanic languages include the German Schürze and Dutch schort (apron).


Characteristics of cognate words

Cognates need not have the same meaning, which may have changed as the languages developed separately. For example, consider English starve and Dutch sterven or German sterben ("to die"); these three words all derive from the same Proto-Germanic root, *sterƀ- ("die"). English dish and German Tisch ("table"), with their flat surfaces, both come from Latin discus, but it would be a mistake to identify their later meanings.[3] (Such potentially misleading cognate pairs are known as false friends.)

Cognates across languages

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

Another Indo-European example is star (English), str- (Sanskrit), tara (Hindi-Urdu), étoile (French), ἀστήρ (astēr) (Greek or ἀστέρι/ἄστρο in Modern Greek), stella (Latin, Italian), stea (Romanian and Venetian), stairno (Gothic), astl (Armenian), Stern (German), ster (Dutch and Afrikaans), starn (Scots), stjerne (Norwegian and Danish), stjarna (Icelandic), stjärna (Swedish), stjørna (Faroese), setāre (Persian), stoorei (Pashto), seren (Welsh), steren (Cornish), estel (Catalan), estrella Spanish, estrella Asturian and Leonese, estrela (Portuguese and Galician) and estêre or stêrk (Kurdish), from the PIE *h₂stḗr, "star".

The Hebrew שלום shalom, the Arabic سلام salām, the Maltese sliem and the Amharic selam ("peace") are also cognates, derived from Proto-Semitic *šalām-.

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, Russian молоко (moloko) and Croatian mlijeko.[4] On the other hand, French lait and Spanish leche (both meaning "milk") are less obviously cognates of Ancient Greek γάλακτος gálaktos (genitive singular of γάλα gála, "milk"), a relationship more evidently seen through the intermediate Latin lac "milk", as well as the English word lactic and other terms borrowed from Latin. At times, cognates may even be opposites. For instance, while the Hebrew word חוצפה chutzpah means "impudence," its Arabic cognate حصافة ḥaṣāfah means "sound judgment;"[5] even more contradictorily, the English word black and Polish biały, meaning white, both derive from the PIE *bhleg-, meaning, "to burn or shine."

A word may also enter another language, develop a new form or meaning there, and be re-borrowed into the original language; this is called a Rückwanderer (German for "one who wanders back"). For example, the Greek word κίνημα ("movement") became French cinéma (cf. American English movie) and then later returned to Greece as σινεμά ("the art of film", "movie theater"). Now in Greece κίνημα ("movement") and σινεμά ("filmmaking, cinema") exist together as a doublet (see next section).[6]

Cognates within the same language

Cognate doublets can exist within the same language, often with slightly different meanings. 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, such as "shirt" and "skirt", one of the cognate pairs has an ultimate source in another language related to English, while the other one is native, as happened with many loanwords from Old Norse borrowed during the Danelaw. Sometimes, both cognates 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, by which time the consonant had changed to a "sh"-sound in French. Such word sets can also be called etymological twins, and of course they may come in groups of higher numbers, as with, for example, the words wain (native) wagon (Dutch) and vehicle (Latin) in English.

False cognates

False cognates are words that are commonly thought to be related (have a common origin) whereas linguistic examination reveals they are unrelated. Thus, for example, on the basis of superficial similarities one might suppose that the Latin verb habere and German haben, both meaning 'to have', were cognates. However, an understanding of the way words in the two languages evolve from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) roots shows that they cannot be cognate (see for example Grimm's law). German haben (like English have) in fact comes from PIE *kap, 'to grasp', and its real cognate in Latin is capere, 'to seize, grasp, capture'. Latin habere, on the other hand, is from PIE *gʰabʰ, 'to give, to receive', and hence cognate with English give and German geben. English much and Spanish mucho also look similar and even have a similar meaning yet are not cognates, with much < Proto-Germanic *mikilaz < PIE *meg-, while mucho < Latin multum < PIE *mel-.[7]

The mere similarity of words between languages is not enough to demonstrate that the words are related to each other, in much the same way that facial resemblance does not imply a close genetic relationship between people. Over the course of hundreds and thousands of years, words may change their sound completely. Thus, for example, English five and Sanskrit pança are cognates, while English over and Hebrew ′avar are not, and neither are English dog and Mbabaram dog.

Contrast this with false friends, which frequently are cognate.

See also


  1. ^ "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". Ibid.
  2. ^ English king (already attested in late Old English as cyng) is more likely an old loanword from Scandinavian, cf. Danish, Norwegian konge, Swedish kung, which all have the loss of the *i (in the second syllable) in common. Of course, the cited Scandinavian and the West Germanic forms do have a common origin, viz. from Germanic *kuningaz. The genuinely inherited English form (Old Engl. cyning) has survived in the place name Cunningham (literally the "King's home"). English, Dutch and German, together with Frisian, belong to the Western branch of the Germanic language group, whereas Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are part of the Northern branch of Germanic.
  3. ^ Discus is itself from Greek δίσκος (from the verb δικεῖν "to throw"). A later and separate English reflex of discus, probably through mediaeval Latin desca, is desk (see OED s.v. desk).
  4. ^ Cf. also Greek ἀμέλγω "to milk".
  5. ^ Wehr, Hans (1994) [1979]. J. Milton Cowan. ed. Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. Urbana, Illinois: Spoken Language Services, Inc.. ISBN 0879500034. 
  6. ^ 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.)
  7. ^ Ringe, Don. A quick introduction to language change, 22 March 2010

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • cognate — [käg′nāt΄] adj. [L cognatus, related by birth < co , together + gnatus, pp. of gnasci, older form of nasci, to be born: see GENUS] 1. related by family; having the same ancestor 2. having the same nature or quality 3. Linguis. related through… …   English World dictionary

  • Cognate — Cog nate, a. [L. cognatus; co + gnatus, natus, p. p. of nasci, anciently gnasci, to be born. See {Nation}, and cf. {Connate}.] 1. Allied by blood; kindred by birth; specifically (Law), related on the mother s side. [1913 Webster] 2. Of the same… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Cognate — Cog nate, n. 1. (Law) One who is related to another on the female side. Wharton. [1913 Webster] 2. One of a number of things allied in origin or nature; as, certain letters are cognates. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • cognate — I adjective affiliated, affined, agnate, akin, alike, allied, analogical, analogous, appertaining, appurtenant, associated, bearing upon, belonging, close, closely allied, closely related, coordinate, commensurate, common, comparable, comparative …   Law dictionary

  • cognate — cognate, cognatic Having a common ancestor who can be traced back bilaterally through either the male or female line; that is, descent is not unilineal. See also descent groups …   Dictionary of sociology

  • cognate — (adj.) 1640s, from L. cognatus of common descent, from com together (see CO (Cf. co )) + gnatus, pp. of gnasci, older form of nasci to be born (see GENUS (Cf. genus)). Words that are cognates are cousins, not siblings. As a noun, from 1754 …   Etymology dictionary

  • cognate — *related, allied, kindred, affiliated Analogous words: akin, alike, identical, similar (see LIKE): common, generic, general, *universal Contrasted words: diverse, *different, divergent, disparate, various …   New Dictionary of Synonyms

  • cognate — [adj] alike, associated affiliated, agnate, akin, allied, analogous, comparable, connate, connatural, connected, consanguine, general, generic, incident, kindred, like, related, same, similar, universal; concepts 487,573 Ant. disassociated,… …   New thesaurus

  • cognate — cognateness, n. cognatic /kog nat ik/, adj. /kog nayt/, adj. 1. related by birth; of the same parentage, descent, etc. 2. Ling. descended from the same language or form: such cognate languages as French and Spanish. 3. allied or similar in nature …   Universalium

  • cognate — adj. cognate to, with (Dutch is cognate to English and German) * * * [ kɒgneɪt] with (Dutch is cognate to English and German) cognate to …   Combinatory dictionary

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