Thu 7 Apr 2011
Cognates are words that have common linguistic roots (annoying people call these etymological origins.) These words sometimes look the same too. Contrast false cognates, on the other hand, which are pairs of words in different languages that are similar in form/meaning but have different etymological origins. Many people confuse false cognates with false friends (faux amis) which, on the other hand yet*, are pairs of words or phrases in two languages that look or sound similar, but differ in meaning. To summarize, whereas false cognates mean roughly the same thing in two languages, false friends bear two distinct (sometimes even opposite) meanings. Examples, please!
In Arabic (and Hebrew) akh means brother and in Mongolian akh is also the word for brother, but these false cognates have no etymological relationship.
Next, consider the French word magasin, which you might think means magazine, that is, a periodical publication. But it doesn’t. Magasin is the French word for store. Faux amis!
But back to cognates. Let’s use them to learn the same word in a ton of languages.
For instance, the word “night”:
- nacht (German) / nacht (Dutch)
- nicht (Scots)
- natt (Swedish, Norwegian) / nat (Danish) / nátt (Faroese)
- noc (Czech, Slovak, Polish)
- ночь, noch (Russian)
- ноќ, noć (Macedonian)
- нощ, nosht (Bulgarian)
- ніч, nich (Ukrainian)
- ноч, noch/noč (Belarusian)
- noč (Slovene) / noć (Croatian) / noć (Bosnian)
- νύξ, nyx (Ancient Greek
- νύχτα/nyhta in Modern Greek)
- nox (Latin)
- natë (Albanian)
- noche (Spanish)
- nos (Welsh)
- nueche (Asturian)
- noite (Portuguese & Galician)
- notte (Italian)
- nit (Catalan)
- noapte (Romanian)
- nakts (Latvian)
- naktis (Lithuanian)
- nuit (French)
All from the Proto-Indo-European nókts. Commit them to memory and then impress your Albanian, Romanian and Czech friends!
* that would be three, and yes, I can count.