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What is a cognate

In linguistics, cognates, also called lexical cognates, are words that have a common etymological origin. Cognates are often inherited from a shared parent language, but they may also involve borrowings from some other language. For example, the English words dishdisk and desk and the German word Tisch (“table”) are cognates because they all come from Latin discus, 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.

Cognates definition helps children develop even remotely.


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).

Cog­nates also 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), нічnich (Ukrain­ian), ночnoch/noč (Be­laru­sian), noč (Slovene), noć (Bosn­ian, Ser­bian, 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”.

 Cognates may have evolved similar, different or even opposite meanings
Cognates may have evolved similar, different or even opposite meanings

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/ἄστροas­teri/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 سلام salām, the He­brew שלום‎ shalom, 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), Ser­bian and Sloven­ian mleko, and Mon­tene­grin, Bosn­ian, 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-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 حصافة ḥaṣāfah means “sound judgment.” 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, but the other one (“shirt”) is native. That hap­pened with many loan­words, such as skirt in this ex­am­ple, which was bor­rowed from Old Norse dur­ing the Danelaw. Cognates will help you and your children learn a lot of new things.

 Cognates may have evolved similar, different or even opposite meanings
Cognates may have evolved similar, different or even opposite meanings

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