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False cognates are pairs of words that seem to be cognates because of similar sounds and meaning, but have different etymologies; they can be within the same language or from different languages.[1] For example, the English word dog and the Mbabaram word dog have exactly the same meaning, but by complete coincidence. This is different from false friends, which are similar-sounding words with different meanings, but which may in fact be etymologically related. (For example: Spanish dependiente looks like dependent, but means employee as well.)

Even though false cognates lack a common root, there may still be an indirect connection between them (for example by phono-semantic matching or folk etymology).



The term "false cognate" is sometimes misused to refer to false friends, but the two phenomena are distinct.[1][2] False friends occur when two words in different languages or dialects look similar, but have different meanings. While some false friends are also false cognates, many are genuine cognates (see False friends § Causes).[2] For example, English pretend and French prétendre are false friends, but not false cognates, as they have the same origin.[3] A related phenomenon is the expressive loan, which looks like a native construction, but is not.

"Mama and papa" typeEdit

The basic kinship terms mama and papa (together with the wider class of Lallnamen) comprise a special case of false cognates. The striking cross-linguistical similarities between these terms are thought to result from the nature of language acquisition. According to Jakobson (1962), these words are the first word-like sounds made by babbling babies; and parents tend to associate the first sound babies make with themselves and to employ them subsequently as part of their baby-talk lexicon. Thus, there is no need to ascribe the similarities to common ancestry. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that these terms are built up from speech sounds that are easy to produce (nasals like [m] or [n], typically for "mother" words, or plosives like [p], [b], [t], [d], typically for "father" words, along with the low vowel [a]). However, variants occur; for example, in Old Japanese, the word for "mother" was papa, and in Slavic languages, baba is a common nickname for "grandmother", as in Baba Yaga and babushka. In Georgian, the usual pattern (nasal for "mother", plosive for "father") is inverted: the word for "father" is mama, and the word for "mother" is deda.


  • Arabic mirʾāh (مرآة) and English mirror
  • Arabic jayyid (جيد) (good, having quality) and English good
  • Arabic nabil (نبيل) and English noble
  • English ache and Ancient Greek ἄχος ákhos (pain, distress)[4]
  • English ask and Jaqaru aska[5]
  • English bad vs. Persian bad vs. Armenian ւադ vad[5][6]
  • English dog and Mbabaram dog[6]
  • English be and Gbaya be[5]
  • English chill, chilly and Quechua chiri, chili "cold"
  • English cut and Hindi काट (kaṭ) = "cutting"
  • English day and Spanish día, or Latin dies, or Italian , or even English diary[7][6]
  • English dung and Korean ttong (excrement)[8]
  • English emoticon and Japanese 絵文字 emoji[9]
  • English hollow and Lake Miwok hóllu[5]
  • English kill and Japanese 斬る kiru
  • English like and Hawaiian like
  • English love and Samoan alofa
  • English mount and Hawaiian mauna
  • English much and Spanish mucho[6]
  • English saint and Hindi sant
  • English see and Assyrian Neo-Aramaic zee (see)
  • English sheriff and Arabic sharif, both legal officers
  • English tiny and Yana tʼinii[5]
  • English -s (plural ending[note 1]) and French and Spanish -s (plural ending)
  • Arabic anta and Japanese anata 'you'.
  • French feu (fire)[note 2] and German Feuer (fire)[note 3][10][6]
  • German haben and Latin habere (both "have")[11]
  • Greek root -lab- and Sanskrit root -labh- (take)[12]
  • Inuktitut kayak and Turkish kayık[13]
  • Malay mata and modern Greek máti (eye, from ommátion)[5][6]
  • Malay aku and Latin ego (I)
  • Malay dua and Russian Два (dva) (two)
  • Malagasy vorona "bird" and Russian vorona "crow"
  • Malagasy nosy and Greek νησί nisí, both meaning 'island'.
  • French saint and Spanish san vs. Mandarin Chinese shèng and Cantonese sing3 聖/圣
  • Hungarian fiú 'son' and Romanian fiu 'son'[note 4][6]
  • Japanese arigatō and Portuguese obrigado (thank you)
  • Japanese miru (見る) and Spanish mirar (to watch)
  • Japanese nomu and Tagalog inum (to drink)
  • Latin deus, Greek theos and Nahuatl teotl, all meaning 'god'
  • Serbo-Croatian macan "tom-cat" and Indonesian / Javanese macan "panther"
  • Tagalog mata and modern Greek máti (eye, from ommátion)[14][15]
  • Tagalog "pu-matay" or "Matay" and Spanish "matar" both relating to death.[16][17]
  • Tagalog matay die, English Die and Thai Tay
  • Tagalog aku and Latin ego[18][19]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Inherited from Old English -as, see Middle English#Nouns and Old English grammar#Nouns
  2. ^ from Latin focus
  3. ^ from *fu(w)er-, from Proto-Germanic *fōr ~ *fun-, see Kroonen, Guus (2013), Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic, Leiden: Brill
  4. ^ Hungarian fiú is from Proto-Uralic *pojka, while Romanian fiu is from Latin filius.


  1. ^ a b Moss (1992), p. ?.
  2. ^ a b Chamizo-Domínguez (2008), p. 166.
  3. ^ Harper, Douglas. "Pretend". The Online Etymological Dictionary. Retrieved 2015-09-14. 
  4. ^ Harper, Douglas. "ache". Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper. Retrieved 29 August 2014. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f Lyle Campbell, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction, 3rd edition, p. 350
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Campbell, Lyle; Mixco, Mauricio J. (2007). A Glossary of Historical Linguistics. Edinburgh University Press. p. 29. ISBN 978 0 7486 2378 5. 
  7. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition.
  8. ^ Martin, Samuel E. (1966). "Lexical Evidence Relating Korean to Japanese". Language. 42 (2): 187. doi:10.2307/411687. 
  9. ^ Taggart, Caroline (5 November 2015). "New Words for Old: Recycling Our Language for the Modern World". Michael O'Mara Books – via Google Books. 
  10. ^ Lyle Campbell, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction, 3rd edition, p. 355
  11. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary
  12. ^ LIV s. v. *sleh₂gʷ-, *lembʰ-
  13. ^ de la Fuente, José Andrés Alonso (2010). "Urban legends: Turkish kayık 'boat' and "Eskimo" Qayaq 'Kayak'" (PDF). Studia Linguistica Universitatis Iagellonicae Cracoviensis. Retrieved 2015-03-06. 
  14. ^ "mata - Wiktionary". Retrieved 2018-03-16. 
  15. ^ "μάτι - Wiktionary". Retrieved 2018-03-16. 
  16. ^ "matar - Wiktionary". Retrieved 2018-03-16. 
  17. ^ "matay - Wiktionary". Retrieved 2018-03-16. 
  18. ^ "ako - Wiktionary". Retrieved 2018-03-16. 
  19. ^ "ego - Wiktionary". Retrieved 2018-03-16. 
  • Chamizo-Domínguez, Pedro J. (2008), Semantics and Pragmatics of False Friends, New York/Oxon: Routledge 
  • Jakobson, Roman (1962), "Why 'mama' and 'papa'?", Selected Writings, I: Phonological Studies, The Hague: Mouton, pp. 538–545 
  • Moss, Gillian (1992), "Cognate recognition: Its importance in the teaching of ESP reading courses to Spanish speakers", English for Specific Purposes, 11 (2): 141–158, doi:10.1016/s0889-4906(05)80005-5 

Further readingEdit

  • Rubén Morán (2011), 'Cognate Linguistics', Kindle Edition, Amazon.
  • Geoff Parkes and Alan Cornell (1992), 'NTC's Dictionary of German False Cognates', National Textbook Company, NTC Publishing Group.

External linksEdit