Make Friends with English Cognates

There are true friends, false friends, and acquaintances.

Friend or False Friend?

Most languages belong to families. Just like siblings and cousins, they have a common grandparent or ancestor. For example, the Romance languages have Latin as a common ancestor which explains why vocabulary in these languages is so similar from language to language in that family. Numerous English words have Latin roots as well.

Borrowed Words

On the other hand, many languages share a common influence. For example, ancient Greek loan words are present in many languages today, including English. Any two languages with common origins or which are influenced by a common language share a lot of vocabulary.

What are cognates?

Words which look or sound similar because they are derived from the same origin are called cognates. Cognates may occur within the same language or across languages. Cognates may or may not retain the same meaning in every language which is why they are often divided into two main categories: true and false, simply to help make these categories more easily understood.

English Cognates

Cognates in English are English words which look very similar to words in other languages. This is why they are sometimes called "friends." These pairs of words are called "true friends" when they are also similar or identical in meaning. Erroneous cognates, or words which look similar but which are not similar in meaning are called "false friends."

Often false friends, i.e. false cognates, were at one time in the past similar or identical in meaning but their uses have diverged with differing uses in separate cultures. In these cases, the English meanings and usages can be very different from the others, so learning these in English is quite important.

True cognates act as bridges across languages to help learners. They also indicate some shared cultural history to explore.

The ability to use cognates in one language to help understand words in another language is called cognate awareness. Cognate awareness makes language learning many times more efficient.

Why study cognates to learn new English? Students can often access unfamiliar terms in English by associating them with their cognates in another language.

For instance, approximately 30 to 40% of all words in English have a related word in Spanish.

The English words that are easiest for learners are those which are similar to the words they already know. “Important” in English is a cognate with “important” in French and Romanian and “importante” in Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian. All of these evolved from the Latin importans.

English is a member of the Germanic Language Family

English is a Germanic language despite the extensive French influence resulting from the Norman Invasion and that of Latin as the language of the Church and scholarship for so many centuries.

Let’s have a look at the word for "important” across several other Germanic languages.

  • wichtig in German

  • wichtig in Dutch

  • wichtich in Frisian

  • viktig in Norwegian and Swedish

  • vigtig in Danish

  • mikilvægt in Icelandic

How are the words on this list related to English?

"Weighty" in English is another way of saying "having great weight or importance" in English, so the connection, although not so obvious, is there. Letters, V and W are related in Germanic languages, and like the word "weighty," you will find that all but one on the list start with a W or V. In Icelandic, the similarity is in the latter part of the word.