False cognate

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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, 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 came by their similar meanings via completely different Proto-Indo-European roots, and same for English have and Spanish haber. This is different from false friends, which are similar-sounding words with different meanings, and may or may not be cognates.

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[edit]

The basic kinship terms mama and papa comprise a special case of false cognates.[4][5][6][7]


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

Within English[edit]

Term 1 Etymology 1 Term 2 Etymology 2
day OE dæġ
<< PGmc *dagaz
<< PIE *dʰeǵʰ-[8]
diary Latin diārium << dies ("day")
<< Proto-Italic *djēm
<< PIE *dyḗws ("heaven")[9][10]
island OE īġland
<< PGmc *awjōlandą
or ea + land
isle Latin insula

Between English and other languages[edit]

English term English etymology Foreign term Foreign etymology
bad Possibly from OE bæddel ("hermaphrodite, effeminate man")
<< PGmc *bad- ("defile")
Persian بد, bad[11][10] Middle Iranian *vat
<< PIE *wed(h)-
better OE betera Persian بهتر, behtar and Hindustani descendants
cinder OE sinder

<< PGmc *sendra- "slag" << PIE *sendhro- "coagulating fluid"

French cendre ("ash") Latin cinerem

<< PIE *ken- ("to arise, begin")

dog OE docga or dogga Mbabaram dog ("dog")[10] Proto-Pama-Nyungan *gudaga
day OE dæġ
<< PGmc *dagaz
<< PIE *dʰeǵʰ-[8]
Latin dies ("day") and descendants[9][10] Proto-Italic *djēm
<< PIE *dyḗws ("heaven")[9][10]
hollow OE holh
<< PGmc *holhwo-
Lake Miwok hóllu[11]
much OE myċel
<< PGmc *mikilaz
<< PIE *meǵa- ("big, stout, great")
Spanish mucho ("much")[10] Latin multus (many)
<< PIE *ml̥tos ("crumbled")
desert Latin dēserō ("to abandon")
<< ultimately PIE **seh₁- ("to sow")
Ancient Egyptian Deshret (refers to the land not flooded by the Nile) from dšr (red)
saint Latin sanctus
<< PIE *seh₂k- ("to sanctify") via French
Sanskrit sant and descendants[12] sat ("truth, reality, essence")
shark Middle English shark from uncertain origin Chinese (shā) Named as its crude skin similar to sand (沙 (shā))

Between other languages[edit]

Term 1 Etymology 1 Term 2 Etymology 2
French feu ("fire") Latin focus German Feuer ("fire") PGmc *fōr ~ *fun-[8][13][10]
<< PIE *péh₂wr̥
French nuque ('nape') Hungarian nyak ('neck')[14]
German haben ('to have') PG *habjaną
<< PIE *keh₂p- ("to grasp")
Latin habere ("to have") and descendants[15] PIE *gʰeh₁bʰ- ("to grab, to take")
Swedish göl ("pool") PG *guljō Salar göl ("pool") Proto-Turkic *kȫl ("lake")
German Erdbeere ('strawberry') Erd ('earth') + Beere ('berry') Hungarian epér ('strawberry')[14]
German Haus ('house') Hungarian ház ('house')[14]
Hungarian ('woman') Mandarin Chinese (nü̆) ('woman')[14]
Inuktitut ᖃᔭᖅ (kayak) Proto-Eskimo *qyaq Turkish kayık[16] Old Turkic kayguk
<< Proto-Turkic kay- ("to slide, to turn")
Mayaimi Mayaimi (Big water) Hebrew מים mayim ("water")
Japanese ありがとう arigatō ("thank you") Clipping of 有難う御座います "arigatō gozaimasu" ("(I) am thankful")
<< 有難く "arigataku"
<< 有難い "arigatai" ("thankful, appreciated")
<< Old Japanese 有難斯 "arigatasi" ("difficult to be")[citation needed]
Portuguese obrigado ("thank you")[17] Literally "obliged"
<< Latin obligātus
Indonesian tanah ("ground") Proto-Austronesian *tanaq Aleut tanax̂ ("ground") Proto-Eskimo *luna ("earth")

False cognates used in the coinage of new words[edit]

The coincidental similarity between false cognates can sometimes be used in the creation of new words (neologization). For example, the Hebrew word דַּל dal ("poor") (which is a false cognate of the phono-semantically similar English word dull) is used in the new Israeli Hebrew expression אין רגע דל en rega dal (literally "There is no poor moment") as a phono-semantic matching for the English expression Never a dull moment.[18]

Similarly, the Hebrew word דיבוב dibúv ("speech, inducing someone to speak"), which is a false cognate of (and thus etymologically unrelated to) the phono-semantically similar English word dubbing, is then used in the Israeli phono-semantic matching for dubbing. The result is that in Modern Hebrew, דיבוב dibúv means "dubbing".[19]

See also[edit]


  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. ^ Jakobson, R. (1962) "Why 'mama' and 'papa'?" In Jakobson, R. Selected Writings, Vol. I: Phonological Studies, pp. 538–545. The Hague: Mouton.
  5. ^ Nichols, J. (1999) "Why 'me' and 'thee'?" Historical Linguistics 1999: Selected Papers from the 14th International Conference on Historical Linguistics, Vancouver, 9–13 August 1999, ed. Laurel J. Brinton, John Benjamins Publishing, 2001, pages 253-276.
  6. ^ Bancel, P.J. and A.M. de l'Etang. (2008) "The Age of Mama and Papa" Bengtson J. D. In Hot Pursuit of Language in Prehistory: Essays in the four fields of anthropology. (John Benjamins Publishing, Dec 3, 2008), pages 417-438.
  7. ^ Bancel, P.J. and A.M. de l'Etang. (2013) "Brave new words" In New Perspectives on the Origins of Language, ed. C. Lefebvre, B. Comrie, H. Cohen (John Benjamins Publishing, Nov 15, 2013), pages 333-377.
  8. ^ a b c Kroonen, Guus (2013) Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic (Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series; 11), Leiden, Boston: Brill
  9. ^ a b c Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ a b Lyle Campbell, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction, 3rd edition, p. 350
  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 ethical 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. ^ Lyle Campbell, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction, 3rd edition, p. 355
  14. ^ a b c d Bárczi, Géza (1958). A magyar szókincs eredete. Budapest: Tankönyvkiadó. p. 8.
  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.
  17. ^ "'Arigato in Japanese and Obrigado in Portuguese', Semantic Enigmas". The Guardian. Retrieved June 24, 2021.
  18. ^ Page 91 of Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003). Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781403917232.
  19. ^ Page 96 of Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2020). Revivalistics: From the Genesis of Israeli to Language Reclamation in Australia and Beyond. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199812790.

Works cited[edit]

  • Chamizo-Domínguez, Pedro J. (2008), Semantics and Pragmatics of False Friends, New York/Oxon: Routledge
  • 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 reading[edit]

  • 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.
  • Jakobson, Roman (1962), "Why 'mama' and 'papa'?", Selected Writings, vol. I: Phonological Studies, The Hague: Mouton, pp. 538–545
  • Trask, R. Larry (2004), Where do mama/papa words come from?, University of Sussex Working Papers in Linguistics and English Language LxWP 10/04, Brighton, UK: Department of Linguistics and English Language, University of Sussex

External links[edit]