The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #27 May / June 2017
More About Cognates Than You Ever Wanted to Know
by John C. Rigdon
May / June 2017 | 

Before you endeavor to tackle a new language, a fine selection of cognacs – uh cognates should be at the top of your agenda.

So just what is the meaning of cognac anyway?

From Webster's Dictionary…

a brandy from the departments of Charente and Charente-Maritime distilled from white wine.

As any connoisseur of fine French words and wines knows, Cognac is 40% alcohol by volume and as smooth as any brandy you'll ever enjoy.

So there you have two fine French words, cognac, and connoisseur which are in common use in English, mean the same in both languages, and are pronounced in very similar ways. Some may argue that these are loan words, not cognates, but for our discussion that is best left to linguists who enjoy arguing such things and is in my opinion, a distinction without a difference.

One thing any student of linguistics learns quickly is that linguists can never agree on the definition of anything as the following discussion excerpted from Wikipedia illustrates.

Cognates Across languages

Examples of cognates in Indo-European languages are the words night (English), nuit (French), noche (Spanish), Nacht (German), nacht (Dutch), nag (Afrikaans), nicht (Scots), natt (Swedish, Norwegian), nat (Danish), nátt (Faroese), nótt (Icelandic), noc (Czech, Slovak, Polish), ночь, noch (Russian), ноќ, no
(Macedonian), нощ, nosht (Bulgarian), ніч, nich (Ukrainian), ноч, noch/no
(Belarusian), no
(Slovene), no
(Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian), νύξ, nyx (Ancient Greek, νύχτα/nychta in Modern Greek), nox/nocte (Latin), nakt- (Sanskrit), natë (Albanian), nos (Welsh), nueche (Asturian), noite (Portuguese and Galician), notte (Italian), nit (Catalan), nuèch/nuèit (Occitan), noapte (Romanian), nakts (Latvian), naktis (Lithuanian) and Naach (Colognian), all meaning "night" and derived from the PIE *nókʷts, "night".

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

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

Cognates may often be less easily recognized 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 melk, Russian молоко (moloko) and (Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian) mlijeko. On the other hand, French lait, Catalan llet, Italian latte, Romanian lapte, Spanish leche and leite (Portuguese and Galician) (all 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 be semantic opposites. For instance, while the Hebrew word חוצפה chutzpah means "impudence," its Classical Arabic cognate حصافة ḥaṣāfah means "sound judgment." English black and Polish biały, meaning white, are cognates with opposite meanings, both deriving from the PIE *bʰleg-, meaning, "to burn or shine."

So, to borrow from "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through The Looking Glass:" 1

I don't know what you mean by "cognate",' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

'But "cognate" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'

And so, our definition of cognate is:

Words which look the same and mean the same in two languages – neither more nor less.

Having said that, realize that just as in any family, there are identical twins, twins, brothers, sisters, cousins, adopted family and the kid down the street. True cognates are confined to immediate family at best. As you try to match up characteristics with cousins and "true friends" the similarities become less obvious to the casual acquaintance.

Then there are always "false friends" – those words which look the same or similar, but mean something entirely different. Sometimes these "false friends" engender funny connections and other times they can just serve to embarrass you. A funny example of a "false friend" is the English term "pet" which doesn't mean at all in French what we generally mean when we say "We love having pets in the house." Look it up! The French word for "fart" is pet, so telling a French girl about your pets may serve to embarrass you. On the other hand, "fart" means "wax" in French, so talking about "fart candles all around the house" isn't such a juvenile humor phrase.

Examples of Nouns with Identical Spellings

Un garage, une table, une nation, un tennis, un budget, une suggestion, une influence, une ambulance, une automobile, une cuisine, une correspondance, une machine, un sofa, un restaurant, une route, etc. In every one of the above examples, there are major differences of pronunciation between English and French words.

Examples of Nouns with Small Differences in Spelling

In the following list, despite small differences of spelling, one can see the resemblance with the corresponding English word : une victime, un hôpital, un hôtel, un diplôme, une université, une liste, une différence, une maladie, un docteur, un réfrigérateur, un intérêt, une banque, une monnaie, un policier, un conférencier, un appartement, un développement, etc.

Before you start slinging French cognates around, here are four essential things you must remember:

1. The French pronunciation is different.  True French-English cognates may look temptingly identical, but they always sound different. If you simply say the word as you would in English, you are not speaking French – you're speaking English! And you risk not being understood. So, remember to use the proper French pronunciation for each word.

2. The French usage may differ. Even though true cognates are spelled the same and have the same meaning, sometime the words have a different connotation in one or both of the languages. For example, take the cognate "carafe." In a restaurant in France, you might ask: "Puis-je avoir une carafe d'eau, s'il vous plaît?" (May I have a carafe/bottle of water, please?) By saying this, it is implied that you want tap water, not commercially bottled water. To communicate the same thing in English, you would need to say: "May I have a bottle of tap water, please?" The difference in usage is something you will have to learn through exposure to native French speakers.

3. Some true cognates are actually "semi-true" cognates. A semi-true cognate is one where the French and English word are spelled the same and part of the meaning is the same, but part is different. For example, the French word "porc" shares a definition with "pork" in English in that it refers to the flesh of a pig. But porc also refers to the animal itself, whereas in English you'd have to say "pig."

4. Be wary of false cognates. False cognates (or "faux amis") are French words that look identical or extremely similar to English – but have an entirely different meaning (e.g. coin: in English: a form of currency; in French, a corner).

There are many words that are very similar in English and French. Thanks to William the Conqueror (or as the French call him: Guillaume le Conquérant) and his invasion of England nearly a millennia ago, French and English share thousands of similar words. Some are identical in spelling and meaning (e.g., impossible); some have the same meaning and slightly different spelling (e.g., adresse /address) and some have slightly different spelling and a partially different meaning (e.g., porc/pork). These words are known as cognates.

It is estimated that 29% of the words in modern English are from French2. But, it also works in the other direction: a lot of French terms come from English. Another 29% of the English words come from Latin including many scientific words. Many are TRUE friends, or almost: they have the same or similar meaning, and are written in the same way. Our French and English Cognates contains these "True Friends" or cognates. But beware, there are many words which look similar in French and English, but they're FALSE Friends, because they do not have the same meaning.

Finally, know that if the spelling is similar, pronunciation is almost always totally different between languages.

While a list of cognates in your language and your target language you want to learn can prove to be a great help in getting started, I find very little that has been published in this area when I do a search of Amazon and WorldCat. Our recently published French and English Cognates contains almost 9,000 terms, but most lists I have found are quite small and focus on false cognates between languages. I believe this is primarily because until recently it required that someone be conversant in both languages to develop such tools. Our Words R Us database makes the task much easier, but the task of teaching a computer to recognize these using "fuzzy logic" is particularly daunting and for the immediate future I believe that it will require someone looking at these lists of terms side by side in both languages to discover the cognates.

Languages which do not share the same alphabet script pose particular challenges. It is estimated that Punjabi and Hindi share 60% cognates. A look at the word ‘cow' reveals:

cow - ਗਊ - Ga'ū (Punjabi)

cow - गाय – gaay (Hindi)

These are indeed cognates and pronounced very closely to the English word, so I would designate those as cognates in all three languages.

If you are working two languages and would like to explore the cognates, we can probably generate an Excel spreadsheet for you with the terms side by side in both languages. Drop me a note a with your request. Some lists will have thousands of words, others only a few hundred.

John C. Rigdon has authored a number of books on the American Civil War and is the manager of the web site, Research OnLine, ( the premier site for researching Civil War ancestors in the Civil War. His titles include the Historical Sketch and Roster Volumes (1100 plus titles) and a dozen volumes in the "We Fought" series focusing on particular battles and commanders. Additionally, John works in translation of materials in several languages and maintains the website,

John resides in the foothills of the Appalachians outside Cartersville, GA. where he enjoys gardening and aquaponics. You may reach him at

More About Cognates Than You Ever Wanted to Know
Writer: John C. Rigdon
Petey: Glass of Cognac (title); Alice with Humpty Dumpty; Pitcher of water

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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