False cognate

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, even within the same family.[1] For example, the English word dog and the Mbabaram word dog have exactly the same meaning and very similar pronunciations, but by complete coincidence. Likewise, English much and Spanish mucho which came by their similar meanings via completely different Proto-Indo-European roots. This is different from false friends, which are similar-sounding words with different meanings, but which may in fact be etymologically related.

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]

"Mama and papa" type

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.


Note: Some etymologies may be simplified to avoid overly long descriptions.

Between English words

Term 1Etymology 1Term 2Etymology 2
dayOE dæġ
<< PG *dagaz
<< PIE *dʰogʷʰ-o-s
<< *dʰegʷʰ- ("to burn")
diaryLatin diārium << dies ("day")
<< Proto-Italic *djēm
<< PIE *dyḗws ("heaven")[4][5]
islandOE īġland
<< PG *awjōlandą
or ea + land
isleLatin insula

Between English and other languages

English term English etymology Foreign term Foreign etymology
badPG *bad-Persian بد, bad[6][5]PIE *wed(h)-
dogOE doggaMbabaram dog ("dog")[5]Proto-Pama-Nyungan *gudaga
dayOE dæġ
<< PG *dagaz
<< PIE * *dʰegʷʰ- ("to burn")
Latin dies ("day") and descendants[4][5]Proto-Italic *djēm
<< PIE *dyḗws ("heaven")
emoticonemotion + iconJapanese 絵文字 emoji[7]e ("picture") + 文字 moji ("character")
hollowOE holh
<< PG *holhwo-
Lake Miwok hóllu[6]
muchOE myċel
<< PG *mikilaz
<< PIE *meǵa- ("big, stout, great")
Spanish mucho ("much")[5]Latin multus
<< PIE *ml̥tos ("crumbled")
roadME road, rade (“ride, journey”)
<< OE rād (“riding, hostile incursion”)
<< PG *raidō- ("a ride")
Irish ród ("road, route")[8][9]Old Irish rót
Uncertain etymology, perhaps from Old Irish ro-sét, "great path", or rōut ("distance, length")[10][11]
saintLatin sanctus
<< PIE *seh₂k- ("to sanctify")
Sanskrit sant and descendants[12]sat ("truth, reality, essence")
cover Arabic كَفَرَ kafara ("cover")

Between other languages

Term 1 Etymology 1 Term 2 Etymology 2
French feu ("fire")Latin focus
<< PIE *bʰeh₂- ("to shine")?
German Feuer ("fire") PG *fōr ~ *fun-[13][14][5]
<< PIE *péh₂wr̥
German haben ("to have")PG *habjaną
<<PIE *keh₂p- ("to grasp")
Latin habere (" to have") and descendants[15]PIE *gʰeh₁bʰ- ("to grab, to take")
Inuktitut ᖃᔭᖅ (kayak)Proto-Eskimo *qyaqTurkish kayık[16]Ottoman Turkish قایق‎ (kayık)
<< Proto-Turkic
Japanese ありがとう arigatō ("thank you")ありがたく arigataku
<< Old Japanese ありがたし arigatashi
Portuguese obrigado ("thank you")Literally "obliged"
<< Latin obligātus

See also


  1. Moss (1992), p. ?.
  2. Chamizo-Domínguez (2008), p. 166.
  3. Harper, Douglas. "Pretend". The Online Etymological Dictionary. Retrieved 2015-09-14.
  4. Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition.
  5. Campbell, Lyle; Mixco, Mauricio J. (2007). A Glossary of Historical Linguistics. Edinburgh University Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-7486-2378-5.
  6. Lyle Campbell, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction, 3rd edition, p. 350
  7. Taggart, Caroline (5 November 2015). New Words for Old: Recycling Our Language for the Modern World. Michael O'Mara Books. ISBN 9781782434733 via Google Books.
  8. Jucker, Andreas H.; Landert, Daniela; Seiler, Annina; Studer-Joho, Nicole (December 15, 2013). John Benjamins Publishing in the History of English: Words and texts in context https://books.google.ie/books?id=ba0bAgAAQBAJ&pg=PA71&lpg=PA71 in the History of English: Words and texts in context Check |url= value (help) via Google Books. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  9. "Y Cymmrodor: The Magazine of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion ..." The Society. December 2, 1880 via Google Books.
  10. "eDIL - Irish Language Dictionary". www.dil.ie.
  11. "eDIL - Irish Language Dictionary". www.dil.ie.
  12. Schomer, Karine; McLeod, W. H. (1987). The Sants: Studies in a Devotional Tradition of India. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. p. 3. ISBN 978-81-208-0277-3. OCLC 879218858. Retrieved 7 November 2018. Thus conceptually as well as etymologically, it differs considerably from the false cognate 'saint' which is often used to translate it. Like 'saint', 'sant' has also taken on the more general eithical meaning of the 'good person' whose life is a spiritual and moral exemplar, and is therefore attached to a wide variety of gurus, 'holy men', and other religious teachers.
  13. see Kroonen, Guus (2013), Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic, Leiden: Brill
  14. Lyle Campbell, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction, 3rd edition, p. 355
  15. "have - Search Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com.
  16. de la Fuente, José Andrés Alonso (2010). "Urban legends: Turkish kayık 'boat' | "Eskimo" Qayaq 'Kayak'" (PDF). Studia Linguistica Universitatis Iagellonicae Cracoviensis. Retrieved 2015-03-06.

Further reading

  • 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.
  • 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
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