False cognate

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Not to be confused with False friend.

False cognates are pairs of words in the same or different languages that are similar in form and meaning but have different roots. That is, they appear to be, or are sometimes considered, cognates, when in fact they are unrelated. This is different from a false friend, which two words may have similar roots but have diverged in meaning.

Even though false cognates lack a common root, there may still be an indirect connection between them (for example through phono-semantic matching or folk etymology), and in any case they can be helpful (if only as mnemonics) in learning another language.


As an example of false cognates, the word for "dog" in the Australian Aboriginal language Mbabaram happens to be dog, although there is no common ancestor or other connection between that language and English (the Mbabaram word evolved regularly from a protolinguistic form *gudaga). Similarly, in the Japanese language the word 'to occur' happens to be okoru (起こる).

The term "false cognate" is sometimes misused to describe false friends. One difference between false cognates and false friends is that while false cognates mean roughly the same thing in two languages, false friends bear two distinct (sometimes even opposite) meanings. In fact, a pair of false friends may be true cognates (see False friends § Causes).

A related phenomenon is the expressive loan, which looks like a native construction, but is not.

Some historical linguists presume that all languages go back to a single common ancestor. Therefore, a pair of words whose earlier forms are distinct, yet similar, as far back as they have been traced, could in theory have come from a common root in an even earlier language, making them real cognates. The further back in time language reconstruction efforts go, however, the less confidence there can be in the outcome. Attempts at such reconstructions typically rely on just such pairings of superficially similar words, but the connections proposed by these theories tend to be conjectural, failing to document significant patterns of linguistic change. Under the disputed Nostratic theory and similar theories such as that of monogenesis, some of these examples would indeed be distantly related cognates, but the evidence for reclassifying them as such is insufficient. (Alternatively, apparent cognates in Eurasian language families far removed from each other could also be early loanwords, compare Wanderwort.) The Nostratic hypothesis is however based on the comparative method, unlike some other superfamily hypotheses.

"Mama and papa" type[edit]

The basic kinship terms mama and papa (together with the wider class of Lallnamen) comprise a special case of false cognates.[dubious ] The striking cross-linguistical similarities between these terms are thought to result from the nature of language acquisition (Jakobson 1962). According to Jakobson, 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 and t/d, typically for "father" words, along with the basic vowel a). However, variants do 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.


Within a single language[edit]

  • English amenable and amenity
  • English island and isle
  • English loon and lunatic
  • English male and female, which come from the Latin masculinus and femella, respectively.
  • English man and human
  • English pen and pencil
  • English pusillanimous (cowardly, from Latin meaning "tiny-spirited") and pussy
  • English trawl (to fish by dragging a net) and troll (to fish by trailing a line, or to provoke someone on purpose)
  • English villain and vile

Across languages[edit]

  • Antillean Creole French ak (and)[note 1] and Latin ac (and)
  • Arabic/Hebrew akh/aḥ (brother) and Mongolian akh (brother)
  • Arabic al- (the) and Spanish el/Italian il (the)
  • Arabic ana/Amharic ena (I) and Gondi ana (I)
  • Arabic/Amharic anta (you, masculine singular) and Japanese anata (貴方, あなた) / anta (あんた) (you, informal or rude) and Malay anda (you)
  • Arabic (ha)dha (this) and English the, this, that
  • Arabic (Egyptian dialect) جيد gayyid (good, having quality)[1] and English good
  • Arabic houri (heavenly virgins according to Muslim theology) and English whore, German Hure[2]
  • Arabic ma and Greek (Doric ) (not)
  • Arabic mati (die) and Indonesian mati (die) and Spanish matar (kill)
  • Arabic sharif (and its Portuguese descendant xerife) and American English sheriff
  • Arabic wa (و) (Tunisian u) (and) and Armenian ու (u) (and) and Middle Persian u and Kurmanji û
  • Arabic walad (ولد) (boy, son) and British English lad
  • Aramaic di or de- (which, of), and Italian di and Spanish and French de (of)
  • Archi dogi and English donkey[3]
  • Archi mejmanak (monkey) and Spanish mono (monkey)[3]
  • Archi qaz (goose) and English gosling[3]
  • Archi qol (ice) and English cold[3]
  • Armenian hēr (հեր) (hair) and English hair
  • Ashkenazi Hebrew meis (dead)/ mos (Death of ___, or Die, as imperative) and Latin mors (death); Sephardi Hebrew mot (death of) / Arabic "mawt" and Italian morte
  • Babylonian šī and English she
  • Bagvalal акъо /atɬʼo/ (hut) and Greenlandic illu /iɬːu/ (house)
  • Bagvalal уᴴ /ũ/ (yes) and Japanese un /ɯɴ/ (yes)
  • Basque elkar (each other) and Dutch elkaar (each other)
  • Bengali fela (throw away/put down) and English fell (make something fall) and fall and Hebrew pol (which becomes fol after a vowel sound)
  • Bikol aki (child) and Korean agi (child)
  • Blackfoot aki (woman) and Even akhi (woman)
  • Chinese cāntīng (餐厅) (dining room, cafeteria) and English canteen (Pinyin <c> has the value [ts])
  • Chinese dàmā (大妈) (middle-aged woman) and Spanish dama (lady)
  • Chuvash nĕrtte (awkward, inept) and English nerdy
  • Coptic per (house) and Etruscan pera (house) and Hittite pēr (house)
  • Dutch maar (but, from PIE *ne h₂wes-) and Italian ma (but, from PIE *meǵh₂) and Vietnamese (but)
  • Dzongkha Druk (dragon) and English drake
  • Egyptian bity and English bee
  • Egyptian *marar (to see, to look) and Japanese miru (見る) (to look) and Spanish mirar (to look at, to watch)/Portuguese mirar (to stare)
  • Egyptian mennu (food) and French menu
  • English able and Turkish -abil/-ebil (ability infix)
  • English ache and Ancient Greek ἄχος (ákhos) (pain, distress)[4]
  • English am (first person present tense of to be), Etruscan am (to be), and Sumerian am (to be)
  • English among and Visayan among (accidentally included)
  • English ask and Jaqaru aska[5]
  • English aye (yes, affirmative vote), Japanese hai (はい) (yes) and Cantonese hai (係) (yes)[citation needed]
  • English bad, Persian bad, and Armenian vad (ւադ) (bad)[5]
  • English be and Gbaya be [5]
  • English beat and Russian бить (to hit or batter; both words also pronounced nearly identically)
  • English better[note 2] and Persian behtar[note 3]
  • English buy and Japanese on'yomi bai (買, to buy)
  • English boy, Japanese bōya (坊や) (young male child), and Finnish poika (boy, son)
  • English brush and Texmelucan Zapotec brush
  • English can and Japanese kan (缶) (portable container)[note 4]
  • English cheek and Russian shcheka (щека; cheek)
  • English chop and Uzbek chop
  • English cover and Biblical Hebrew kaphar (Hebrew word #3722 in Strong's Concordance) (appease, cover over)
  • English cut and Vietnamese cắt (to cut)
  • English cut and Finnish kaataa (to cut down) (to hew)[note 5]
  • English dairy and Russian/Ukrainian doyar (дояр; milker), doyarka (milkmaid)
  • English day, daily and Spanish día (day) (or Latin dies (day) or even English diary)[6]
  • English delete and Russian udalit' (удалить; to delete, remove)
  • English die and Thai dtâi (ตาย) (to die)
  • English dog and Mbabaram dog
  • English dork and Russian durak (дурак)
  • English dung and Korean ttong (excrement)
  • English each and Hebrew ish (man; can be used for "each")
  • English egg, Ganda eggi (egg) and Egyptian Arabic eggah (omelette)
  • English evaporate and Ukrainian vyparovuvaty (випаровувати);
  • English eye and Hebrew `ayin/ Arabic `ain (eye)
  • English fall and Hebrew nafal (fell)
  • English fee and Shanghainese fi (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: )/ Vietnamese phí
  • English fire and Thai fai (ไฟ)
  • English folk and Latin vulgus (the public)
  • English fruit and Hebrew perot (פֵּרוֹת) (which becomes ferot after a vowel sound)
  • English have and French avoir/Latin habeo
  • English heart and Malay hati
  • English hole and Mayan hol
  • English hollow and Lake Miwok hóllu[5]
  • English honest and Japanese honne
  • English house, Hungarian ház (house, block of flats)
  • English humo(u)r and Russian umora (fun)
  • English hut and Ukrainian khata (хата)
  • English Indian (native American) and Mescalero Inde (Apache, person)
  • English it, Russian eto(это) and Tagalog eto/ito (it, this)
  • English kitten, Indonesian and Malaysian kucing (cat) and Tagalog kuting (kitten)
  • English lake[note 6] and Latin lacus (lake, pond)[note 7]
  • English laser and Scottish Gaelic lasair (light beam, flame)
  • English many and Korean 많이 mani (much, many)
  • English market and Kannada maarukatte
  • English martyrdom and Russian mytarstvo (suffering, torture)
  • English mount (short form of mountain), and Hawaiian mauna (mountain)
  • English much and Spanish mucho
  • English mysterious and Hebrew mistori (מִסְתּוֹרִי)
  • English neck/German Nacken and Spanish nuca and Hungarian nyak
  • English observer and Russian obozrevatel' (observer)
  • English owe and Japanese 負う ou (to bear, to take responsibility, to owe)
  • English pan and Mandarin pan/Vietnamese bàn (pan, shallow plate, table)
  • English pear and Korean pay, bae (Korean pear)
  • English persecution and Bulgarian and Russian presechenie (пресечение; persecution, suppression, injunction)
  • English person and Sanskrit puruṣa (person)
  • English platypus and Czech ptakopysk
  • English portion and Hebrew parashat (פָּרָשַׁת; weekly Torah portion)
  • English pussy (pet name for cat); Samoan pusi (cat) / Tagalog pusa (cat); and Turkish pisi (cat)
  • English reason and Bulgarian and Russian razum (разум)
  • English road and French route
  • English screech and Croatian skričati (shriek, screech)
  • English seed and Korean ssi (pip)
  • English she and Irish
  • English shower and Portuguese chuveiro (shower)
  • English so and Japanese (そう) (in the sense of referring to something that was said being correct or referring to something said previously)
  • English sow and German Sau
  • English strange and Italian strano (both from Latin extraneus) and Bulgarian stranno (странно)
  • English stranger and Bulgarian and Russian strannik (странник)
  • English tiny and Yana tʼinii[5]
  • English tongue and Mapudungun dungun (tongue, speech)
  • English viscosity and Russian vyazkost' (вязкость)
  • English why and Korean wae (what for)
  • English yea and Korean ye (yes)
  • English zone (state of immersion in an activity) and Japanese 禅 zen (from Sanskrit dhyāna, being absorbed in meditation)
  • Estonian/Finnish ei (no, not), Etruscan ei (no, not), and Norwegian ei/Swedish ej (not)
  • Estonian mana (magic, spell, incantation) and Polynesian-Melanesian mana
  • Estonian kalamari (roe, caviar) and Italian calamaro, Slovene kalamari (squid)
  • Estonian lapsus (childishness, childish error) and Latin lapsus (falling, slip, error)
  • Estonian mina/Finnish minä (I), and Zulu mina (I)
  • Estonian seitse (seven) and Japanese shichi (seven)
  • Estonian ta (short form of tema) (he/she) and Mandarin (他/她) (he/she)
  • Etruscan ac (to make, act) and Sumerian ak (to make,act)
  • Etruscan an (he/she/it), Sumerian ane (he/she/it) and Tagalog ang (it/the)
  • Etruscan ipa (who, which), Indonesian siapa (who) and Sumerian aba (who)
  • Etruscan mi (I/me), Lombard mi (I/me) and Sumerian ma (I/me)
  • Finnish kasa (pile) and Japanese kasamu (嵩む) (to pile up)
  • Finnish hän (he, she) and Swedish/Norwegian/Danish han (he)
  • Finnish liian (too, exceedingly)[note 8] and Greek lían (λίαν; very, very much, overmuch, exceedingly)
  • Finnish mua (me, colloquial)[note 9] and French moi (me)
  • French boudoir (bedroom) and English bower
  • French écouter (listen) and Greek akouō (hear)
  • French caisse/Italian cassa (money box) and Tamil kasu (an ancient monetary unit) (see Cash (disambiguation))
  • French feu (fire)[note 10] and German Feuer (fire)[note 11][7]
  • French Gaule (whence English Gaul) and Latin Gallia
  • French le and Samoan le (both "the")
  • French lien and Mandarin lián/ Vietnamese liên (both "link")
  • French papillon and Nahuatl papalotl (both "butterfly")
  • French qui est-ce? (who is this?)/ Italian chi è? (Who is this?) and Hungarian ki ez? (who is this?)
  • French rue and Mandarin (路)/ Vietnamese lộ (both "road")
  • Ga ba (come) and Hebrew ba (בא) (came) and Kannada ba (come).
  • Gascon babau, Romanian babau, Italian (dialectal) babau and Ukrainian babay (bogeyman)
  • German Ach, so! and Japanese Aa, soo (ああ、そう) (I see)
  • German haben (to have) and Latin habere (to have)[8]
  • German Seele and Lithuanian siela (both meaning "soul")
  • German Kreuz and Russian krest (крест) (both "cross")
  • Greek thesato and Russian sosat' (сосать; to suck)
  • Greek alla (but) and Hebrew/Aramaic ella (but rather)
  • Greek gyné (γυνή; woman), Hawaiian/Maori wahine (woman) (and similar forms in other Polynesian languages) and Latin vagina
  • Greek root -lab- and Sanskrit root -labh- (take)[9]
  • Greek pauo (παύω, stop, cease) and Hawaiian pau (finished, done, end)
  • Greek phullon (leaf, plant), Korean p'ul (풀) (herb, grass) and Tamil pul (புல்) (grass)
  • Greek pou (where) and Hebrew poh (here)/ephoh (where)
  • Greek stylos (column) and Latin stilus (pen): the English spellings "style" and "stylus" result from a false etymology
  • Greek theos (god) and Greek Zeus (the king of all gods)
  • Greek theos and Latin deus (both "god")
  • Greek theos (god) and Nahuatl teo (god - absolutive: teotl)
  • Greenlandic tallimat and Tagalog lima (both "five")
  • Hawaiian kahuna (priest) and Hebrew k'huna (כְּהוּנָה) (priesthood)
  • Hebrew ari (lion) and Tamil ari (lion) and Kazakh Aristan
  • Hebrew din (law) and Persian din (religion)
  • Hebrew derekh (דֶרֶך) (way, route) and Russian doroga / Ukrainian doroha (дорога; road)
  • Hebrew derekh (דֶרֶך) and German durch (both "through")
  • Hebrew har (הר) and Ukrainian hora (гора) (both "mountain)
  • Hebrew ish and Yana Ishi (both "man")
  • Hebrew sar (prince), English sir (nobleman), Russian Tsar (emperor)
  • Hebrew shesh (שׁשׁ) (six) with Hurrian šeše and Persian shesh (six)
  • Hindi chapatti and Italian ciabatta
  • Hungarian föld (earth, land, soil) and Icelandic fold (earth, land, ground)
  • Indonesian dua (two), Korean dul (two) and Vietnamese đôi (pair)
  • Indonesian kepala (head) and Greek kephale (head)
  • Inuktitut kayak and Turkish kayık[10] and Choco language group cayuca (rowing boat)
  • Italian aiutare and Finnish auttaa (both "to help")
  • Italian donna and Japanese onna (女) (both "woman")
  • Italian micio (small cat) and Quechua michi (cat)
  • Italian popolo and K’iche’ popol (both "people")
  • Italian roba (set of things) and Croatian roba (goods, things for sale)
  • Italian sette (seven)[note 12] and Yakut sette (seven)[note 13]
  • Japanese arigatō (ありがとう; thank you) and Portuguese obrigado (thank you)
  • Japanese baba (祖母/ばば) (grandmother) and Bulgarian and Russian baba (бабушка, баба; grandmother) and Yiddish Bubbe (Grandmother)
  • Japanese gaijin (外人) (non-Japanese), Romani gadjo (non-Romani), Hebrew and Yiddish goy (non-Jew)
  • Japanese hato (dove, from Proto-Japanese pato) and Spanish pato (duck)
  • Japanese kofun (古墳) (megalithic tomb) and English coffin
  • Japanese ne (), colloquial German ne, colloquial Portuguese (contraction of não é? "isn't it?"), colloquial Kapampangan neh ("right?", "isn't it?") (all tag question markers)
  • Japanese oi (おい) and British English oi (Interjection to get someone's attention)
  • Japanese shiru (知る) (know) and Latin scire (know)
  • A graphic example; the Japanese katakana ト to and the Latin letter t, as well as the hiragana て te and ꞇ, a Gaelic form of the Latin letter t
  • Kannada kivi (ಕಿವಿ) (ear) and Korean kwi (귀) (ear) (Korean kwi pronounced ki in normal speech)
  • Korean tokki (axe) and Mapuche natives and Easter Island Polynesian toki (axe)
  • Korean nan (난) and Tamil naan (நான்) (I)
  • Kyrgyz ayal and Parji ayal (both "woman")
  • Latin ego and Tagalog ako (both "I")
  • Latin et and Kapampangan at (both "and")
  • Latin faciō (I make) and Māori whaka- (causative prefix; wh represents an f-like sound)
  • Latin fēmina (woman, female) and Old English fǣmne/Old Frisian fēmne (maiden)
  • Latin Iov- (Jupiter, oblique case stem) and Medieval Latin Iehovah (Jehovah)
  • Malay atuk and Inuit atuk (both "grandfather")
  • Malay mata and modern Greek máti (eye, from ommátion)[5]
  • Mandarin Chinese (你), Swedish ni and Tamil nii (நீ). All three words mean you.
  • Mandarin Chinese de (的) and Spanish de, both used for possession
  • Mandarin Chinese "tā shì" (她是) and Irish "tá sí", meaning "she is"
  • Persian se (سه) and Korean se (세) and Shanghainesese, all meaning: three.
  • Polish mieszkanie (apartment) and Hebrew mishkan (מִשׁכָּן) (Hebrew word #3722 in Strong's Concordance) (dwelling)
  • Proto-Indo-European *temh₁- "to cut" and Proto-Algonquian *temah- "to cut off (by tool)" (compare tomahawk)
  • Romanian rău and Hebrew ra (רַע) (both masculine forms of adj. "bad")
  • Romanian feminine definite article -a and Aramaic definite article -a (both suffixes)
  • Russian нам (nam, us, dative of мы (my, we)), Ngarrindjeri nam (us) and Tagalog namin (us, by us, through us)
  • Russian taz (basin) and unitaz (toilet bowl)
  • Spanish como (as/like) and Hebrew k'mo (כְּמוֹ) (as/like) and Arabic kma (as/like)
  • Sanskrit urj (ऊर्ज्) (strength, vigour) and English urge
  • Santali seta (dog) and Ainu seta/sita (dog)
  • Spanish y [i] and Slavic и/i [i] (both "and")
  • Spanish first-person pronoun yo (I) and archaic Japanese first-person pronoun yo (よ) (I)
  • Tamil amma (அம்மா)(mother) and Korean eomma (엄마) (mother)
  • Tamil appa (அப்பா) and Korean appa (아빠) (both "father")
  • Tamil nāḷ (நாள்) and Korean nal (날) (both "day")
  • Tamil (வா) (come) and Korean wa (와) (come) --the Korean wa is an artifact of verb conjugation
  • Tamil onnu (ஒண்ணு) and Korean eoneu (어느) (both "one")
  • Thai dao (ดาว) and Vietnamese sao (both "star")
  • Turkish bir and Ingain biré (both "one")
  • Turkish dil and Tagalog dila (both "tongue")
  • Turkish göl and Swedish göl (both "lake")
  • Turkish kara (land, shore) and Tamil karai (கரை) (shore)
  • Welsh cwmwl / Latin cumulus and Japanese kumo (雲) (cloud)
  • Welsh hi and Hebrew hee (She)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ From Latin apud hoque
  2. ^ better is from Proto-Germanic *batizan-, compare Gothic batiza
  3. ^ behtar is from Proto-Indo-Iranian *Hu̯as-i̯as- + comparative suffix *-tara-, compare Avestan vahiiah-
  4. ^ Regarding the primary usage of both terms to denote fist-sized cylindrical metal container the use of 缶 is actually a form of ateji.
  5. ^ However, kaataa and to hew are related, see http://www.sgr.fi/susa/92/koivulehto.pdf
  6. ^ lake is from PIE *leg-, to leak
  7. ^ lacus is from PIE *lakw-
  8. ^ Genitive case of the noun liika (excess).
  9. ^ Standard Finnish minua, partitive case of minä
  10. ^ from Latin focus
  11. ^ from Proto-Germanic *fūri
  12. ^ from Latin septem
  13. ^ from Proto-Turkic *yetti


  1. ^ Jihed Gasmi. "Answer to Is the similarity between the Arabic word Gayyid and the English word Good due to a borrowing?". Linguistics Stack Exchange, 2013-02-20. Accessed 2014-02-04.
  2. ^ Monthly Gleanings: April 2007 | OUP Blog
  3. ^ a b c d Greville G. Corbett. "Gender and noun classes". 2007-02-24. Accessed 2014-02-03.
  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. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition.
  7. ^ Lyle Campbell, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction, 3rd edition, p. 355
  8. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary
  9. ^ LIV s. v. *sleh₂gʷ-, *lembʰ-
  10. ^ de la Fuente, José Andrés Alonso (2010). "Urban legends: Turkish kayık 'boat' and "Eskimo" Qayaq 'Kayak'". Studia Linguistica Universitatis Iagellonicae Cracoviensis. Retrieved 2015-03-06. 
  • Jakobson, R. (1962) ‘Why “mama” and “papa”?’ In Jakobson, R. Selected Writings, Vol. I: Phonological Studies, pp. 538–545. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Geoff Parkes and Alan Cornell (1992), 'NTC's Dictionary of German False Cognates', National Textbook Company, NTC Publishing Group.

External links[edit]