When learning any foreign language, it is common to come across words that resemble familiar words in English. Those studying the Spanish language often encounter such cognates, which can make learning the language easier, or more difficult, depending on the definition and pronunciation of the cognate, and how it differs from the familiar word in a native tongue. This guide will define what makes a cognate, and provide examples of cognates that are often found in common between the Spanish and English languages.
What is A Cognate?
A cognate is defined as a word that shares a common etymology with another word, most often a word of a different language. Etymology is the study of word history, and more specifically, how words originate. Etymologists also study the meanings of words, and how those meanings change across different languages, and with the passage of time. Two words that are cognates, therefore, share a similar historical origin. For example, cognates often share a similar root, usually from ancient Germanic, Greek, or Latin languages.
English words are most often derived from Old English, which was the original language of the Anglo-Saxon peoples and countries. The modern Romance languages, which include Spanish, Portuguese, French, Romanian, and Italian, were derived from Vulgar Latin. As a result, words in these languages often have cognate counterparts in other Romance tongues. The word cognate itself is derived from the Latin word cognatus, which means ‘blood relative.’ Because so many of today’s modern languages developed from Latin, Latin roots are incredibly popular among cognate pairs. Greek roots are equally easy to find in common between words in different languages.
Cognates are not always easy to recognize. It is commonly believed that any two words with a similar spelling or sound are cognates. It is also believed that two words in different languages that are cognates must have the same definition. The defining characteristic of a pair of cognates, however, is that the two words must have been derived from the same root, whether that root first appeared in Vulgar Latin, Ancient Greek, or a Germanic language. Cognates can have completely different definitions in different languages, but are still considered cognates if the root of both words came from the same language or dialect. And two words in different languages can look or sound very much alike, but if they do not share a common etymological origin, they are simply similar looking words, and not cognates.
False cognates refer to pairs of words that appear to be cognates because of their similarities, but have different meanings, or do not share a root. A true pair of cognates, by this definition, must share both a common root and a similar definition. Some false cognates in Spanish and English include assist and asistar. The Spanish word actually means to attend, rather than to assist. Another example would be body and boda; the Spanish word means wedding rather than body.
English and Spanish Cognates
As many Spanish students and speakers know, there are plenty of words in Spanish and English that share a common root and a common definition. These roots are often Latin in origin, but there are also many Greek word roots that the Spanish and English languages have in common. Here are some examples of cognates found in Spanish and English words, including the roots that tie the words together etymologically:
- The English word arena exists in Spanish as well, and means “sand.” They both come from the Latin word harena, which means “sand” too.
- Anniversary in Spanish is aniversario, from the Latin word anno, which means year.
- Verse in Spanish is verso; both words are derived from the Latin versus, which can mean to turn from one thing to another.
- Philosophy in Spanish is filosofía. Both words are derived from the Latin words philo, meaning love for, and soph, meaning wisdom.
- The spelling of audio is the same in English and Spanish. Audio comes from the Latin root audi, which means to hear.
- Scribe in Spanish is escriba. These words share the common root in Latin, scrib, which refers to writing.
- The Spanish word for photo is foto; both words come from the Greek word photo, which means light.
- Vacant in Spanish is vacante. Both vacant and vacante are derived from the Latin vac, which means empty.
- Phone or telephone in Spanish is teléfono. Both words come from Greek tele, which translates to far away, as well as Greek phon, which translates to sound.
- English logic translates to Spanish lógica; these words share the root log in Latin, which means thought.
- Benefit in Spanish is beneficio. These words are both derived from the Latin root bene, meaning good.
- English biology and Spanish biología are cognates. They share the Greek root bio, which means life.
- English graph and Spanish gráfico share the Greek root graph, which means to write.
- The word justice in Spanish is justicia. The common root is Latin jus, meaning law.
- Chronology and Spanish cronología share the common Greek root chrono, which translates to time.
- Demand in Spanish is demanda. The common root between these words is the Latin mand, meaning order.
- The English word manual is spelled the same way in Spanish; the words share the Latin man, which means hand.
- Omnipotent in Spanish is omnipotente. The words share the Latin root omni, which means all.
- Astronomy in Spanish is astronomía. Both words are derived from the Greek ast or aster, meaning star.
- The English to transmit is transmitir in Spanish. Both words are derived from the Latin mis or mit, which means to send.
- The verbs produce in English and producir in Spanish share the Latin root duc, which means to lead or to make.
- English banner and Spanish bandera share a common root in the Latin word bannum, meaning proclamation.
- To accept in Spanish is acceptar; the Latin acceptare, meaning to willingly receive, is the common root between the two verbs.
- The word for celebrate in Spanish is celebrar. The common root for these two verbs is the Latin word celebrare, meaning to assemble to honor.
- Latin scientia is the common root for the English word science and its Spanish cognate ciencia.
- English secret and Spanish secreto are both derived from the Latin word secretus, which translates to hidden or concealed.
- Latin realis is the common root for the English and Spanish words real, which are spelled the same way.
- Latin idem, meaning the same, is the root of both English identical and Spanish idéntico.
- English instant and Spanish instante are both derived from the Latin root instans, meaning urgent or pressing.
- English automobile and Spanish automóvil have common roots in Greek, with autos, meaning self, and Latin, with mobilis, meaning movable.
Cognates and Language Learning
Being able to identify cognates, in Spanish as well as other languages, will improve your knowledge of linguistics, and enable you to learn foreign languages more quickly. Etymological knowledge can also help you derive the definition of an unfamiliar word by examining its root, whether the root came from a Germanic language, Vulgar Latin, or Ancient Greek. English words in particular are full of Latin and Greek roots; knowing the meaning of a few key Greek or Latin words, such as chronos, philo, or geo, can do a lot to clarify the meaning of words that include those roots. All cognates, in particular Spanish and English cognates, of which there are numerous examples, can be fascinating, and developing a familiarity with cognates can aid you in your study of the Spanish language.