False cognate

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Not to be confused with False friend.

False cognates are pairs of words that seem to be cognates because of similar sounds and meaning, but actually have different etymologies; these word pairs can be within the same language or be from different ones.[1] This is different from false friends, which may in fact be related but have different meanings. 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).

As an example of false cognates, the Spanish words mucho and haber mean roughly the same as and look similar to the English words much and have, but are in fact unrelated.


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" type[edit]

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 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.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ from Latin focus
  2. ^ from Proto-Germanic *fūri


  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. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition.
  7. ^ Martin, Samuel E. (1966). "Lexical Evidence Relationg Korean to Japanese". Language 42 (2): 187. 
  8. ^ Lyle Campbell, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction, 3rd edition, p. 355
  9. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary
  10. ^ LIV s. v. *sleh₂gʷ-, *lembʰ-
  11. ^ 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. 
  • 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 

Further reading[edit]

  • Geoff Parkes and Alan Cornell (1992), 'NTC's Dictionary of German False Cognates', National Textbook Company, NTC Publishing Group.