In linguistics, cognates are words that have a common etymological origin. This learned term derives from the Latin cognatus (blood relative). In linguistic research it is generally understood as excluding doublets and loan words, although broader definitions are used in other areas such as language teaching.
Characteristics of cognate words
Cognates do not need to have the same meaning, which may have changed as the languages developed separately. For example, consider English starve and Dutch sterven or German sterben ("to die"); these three words all derive from the same Proto-Germanic root, *sterbaną ("die"). English dish and German Tisch ("table"), with their flat surfaces, both come from Latin discus, but it would be a mistake to identify their later meanings.
Examples of cognates in Indo-European languages are the words night (English), nuit (French), Nacht (German), nacht (Dutch), nag (Afrikaans), nicht (Scots), natt (Swedish, Norwegian), nat (Danish), nátt (Faroese), nótt (Icelandic), noc (Czech, Slovak, Polish), ночь, noch (Russian), ноќ, noć (Macedonian), нощ, nosht (Bulgarian), ніч, nich (Ukrainian), ноч, noch/noč (Belarusian), noč (Slovene), noć (Serbo-Croatian), νύξ, nyx (Ancient Greek, νύχτα/nychta in Modern Greek), nox/nocte (Latin), nakt- (Sanskrit), natë (Albanian), noche (Spanish), nos (Welsh), nueche (Asturian), noite (Portuguese and Galician), notte (Italian), nit (Catalan), nuèch/nuèit (Occitan), noapte (Romanian), nakts (Latvian), naktis (Lithuanian) and Naach (Colognian), all meaning "night" and derived from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *nókʷts, "night".
Another Indo-European example is star (English), str- (Sanskrit), tara (Hindustani), étoile (French), ἀστήρ (astēr) (Greek or ἀστέρι/ἄστρο, asteri/astro in Modern Greek), astro/stella (Italian), aster (Latin) stea (Romanian and Venetian), stairno (Gothic), astl (Armenian), Stern (German), ster (Dutch and Afrikaans), Schtähn (Colognian), starn (Scots), stjerne (Norwegian and Danish), stjarna (Icelandic), stjärna (Swedish), stjørna (Faroese), setāre (Persian), stoorei (Pashto), seren (Welsh), steren (Cornish), estel (Catalan), estela (Occitan) estrella and astro Spanish, estrella Asturian and Leonese, estrela (Portuguese and Galician) and estêre or stêrk (Kurdish), from the PIE *h₂stḗr, "star".
Cognates may often be less easily recognised than the above examples and authorities sometimes differ in their interpretations of the evidence. The English word milk is clearly a cognate of German Milch, Dutch melk, Russian молоко (moloko) and Croatian mlijeko. On the other hand, French lait, Catalan llet, Italian latte, Romanian lapte, and Spanish leche (all meaning "milk") are less obviously cognates of Ancient Greek γάλακτος gálaktos (genitive singular of γάλα gála, "milk"), a relationship more evidently seen through the intermediate Latin lac "milk", as well as the English word lactic and other terms borrowed from Latin. At times, cognates may even be semantic opposites. For instance, while the Hebrew word חוצפה chutzpah means "impudence," its Classical Arabic cognate حصافة ḥaṣāfah means "sound judgment;" even more contradictorily, the English word black and Polish biały, meaning white, both derive from the PIE *bʰleg-, meaning, "to burn or shine."
Within the same language
Cognate doublets can exist within the same language, with meanings which may be anything from slightly to totally different. For example, English ward and guard (<PIE *wer-, "to perceive, watch out for") are cognates, as are shirt (garment on top) and skirt (garment on bottom) (<PIE *sker-, "to cut"). In some cases, such as "shirt" and "skirt", one of the cognate pairs has an ultimate source in another language related to English, while the other one is native, as happened with many loanwords from Old Norse borrowed during the Danelaw. Sometimes, both cognates come from other languages, often the same one but at different times. For example, the word chief (meaning the leader of any group) comes from the Middle French chef ("head"), and its modern pronunciation preserves the Middle French consonant sound; the word chef (the leader of the cooks) was borrowed from the same source centuries later, by which time the consonant had changed to a "sh"-sound in French. Such word sets can also be called etymological twins, and of course they may come in groups of higher numbers, as with, for example, the words wain (native), waggon/wagon (Dutch) and vehicle (Latin) in English.
A word may also enter another language, develop a new form or meaning there, and be re-borrowed into the original language; this is called a Rückwanderer (German for "one who wanders back"). For example, the Greek word κίνημα (kinēma, "movement") became French cinéma (cf. American English movie) and then later returned to Greece as σινεμά (sinema, "the art of film", "movie theater"). Now in Greece κίνημα (kinēma, "movement") and σινεμά (sinema, "filmmaking, cinema") exist together as a doublet (see next section).
An example of very different and non-obvious English-language doublets is grammar and glamour.
False cognates are words that are commonly thought to be related (have a common origin) whereas linguistic examination reveals they are unrelated. Thus, for example, on the basis of superficial similarities one might suppose that the Latin verb habere and German haben, both meaning 'to have', were cognates. However, an understanding of the way words in the two languages evolved from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) roots shows that they cannot be cognate (see for example Grimm's law). German haben, like English have, in fact comes from PIE *kh₂pyé- 'to grasp', and its real cognate in Latin is capere, 'to seize, grasp, capture'. Latin habēre, on the other hand, is from PIE *gʰabʰ, 'to give, to receive', and hence cognate with English give and German geben.
- "cognate", The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed.: "Latin cognātus: co-, co- + gnātus, born, past participle of nāscī, to be born." Other definitions of the English word include "[r]elated by blood; having a common ancestor" and "[r]elated or analogous in nature, character, or function". Ibid.
- Gaston Ümlaut (2013-10-09). "Is a loanword also a cognate or are the two terms mutually exclusive? [comment]". Stack Exchange. Retrieved 6 November 2014.
The reason borrowed cognates are not much discussed is because they can't be used in historical reconstruction in the same way as forms which were inherited from the parent language. Instead, borrowed cognates have to be treated as borrowings. This distinction is crucial to linguistic stratigraphy, where layers of borrowings at different points in time can provide important information.
- Nordquist, Richard. "cognate". About Education. Retrieved 6 November 2014.
(from Shira Lubliner and Judith A. Scott, Nourishing Vocabulary: Balancing Words and Learning. Corwin, 2008) Teaching cognates, which are words that are similar in two languages, is one of the most fruitful methods of instruction for English learners who speak Spanish as their first language.
- Discus is itself from Greek δίσκος (from the verb δικεῖν "to throw"). A later and separate English reflex of discus, probably through medieval Latin desca, is desk (see OED s.v. desk).
- Cf. also Greek ἀμέλγω amelgō "to milk".
- Wehr, Hans (1994) . J. Milton Cowan, ed. Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. Urbana, Illinois: Spoken Language Services, Inc. ISBN 0-87950-003-4.
- In fact, σινεμά stands beside a Greek neologism based on the original form of the same root: κινηματογράφος (kinimatoγráfos), with the same two meanings as cinéma/σινεμά. (The film or movie itself is the unrelated ταινία (tainia).
- Ringe, Don. "A quick introduction to language change". Univ. of Pennsylvania: Linguistics 001 (Fall 2011). ¶ 29. pp. 11–12. Archived from the original on 2010-06-20. Retrieved 15 June 2014.
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