Cognates: often-- but not always--
a help to your English vocabulary

If an English word closely resembles a word in a Romance or Germanic language, it is very likely to be a cognate— a word with similar meaning because of similar roots. Liberty, equality, fraternity; family, fruit, favorite; comprehension, compassion, and honor all come directly from French and Latin roots and are relatives of similar words in current Romance languages.

These cognates, from the French and Latin roots of so many English words, can make academic reading much easier for students whose first languages are also based on Latin. (especially French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian).

A table of Spanish-English cognates showing similarities and common endings, with blanks to complete the pattern.
A table of Spanish-English cognates showing similarities and common endings, with blanks to complete the pattern.

The speakers of Germanic languages (Dutch and Scandinavian languages as well as German) can also find many familiar words because of the Anglo-Saxon roots of English and extensive Danish influences.

Much of the most basic vocabulary in English resembles German, though often with a change in consonants. Family relationships like mother/Mutter, father/Vater, brother/Bruder; body parts like arm/Arm, hand/Hand, knee/Knie, and so many more: house/Haus, is/ist, land/Land, milk/Milch, good/gut, and have/haben show their similar roots.

False Cognates

However, a few words are ‘false cognates’ or 'false friends': words that resemble Latin- or German-based words but have a very different meaning. If the meaning you expect for a word doesn’t make sense, investigate further— and don’t use the word yourself until you are sure.

I don’t speak German, but if you are interested in German-English 'false friends', there is a lot of information here.

Here are several examples of 'false friends' in Spanish: globo (means balloon in English, not 'globe'), ropa (means clothes, not rope), éxito (means success, not an exit), largo (long, not large), and hay ('there is; or 'there are', not the dried grass horses eat.)

Assist/asistir attend/atender can be true cognates or false, as each has several meanings-- but only one is the same in both languages.To ‘assist’ someone is to help them (‘ayudar’ or 'asistir' in Spanish). 

In English ‘to attend’ usually means to be present or go often to a place: a student attends school and a business person attends many meetings. However, in Spanish ‘asistir’ is to attend classes, while ‘atender’ means to meet, serve, or care for. (In English ‘tend’ or 'attend' can also mean to care for, especially to take care of things: to tend a fire or attend/tend to business.)

The English verb ‘to embarrass’ means to cause minor shame or emotional discomfort. We may feel embarrassed about mistakes, or even about a compliment someone gives us. The Spanish verb embarazar means to make pregnant (embarazada.) There is a story about this false cognate. (It’s funny, but probably did not really happen.)

According to the story, a Mexican man told a young English-speaking tourist in Mexico, “Eres muy hermosa.” (“You’re very beautiful.”) She answered, “Señor, me ha embarazado.” (Sir, you’ve made me pregnant.”) She thought she was saying, “Sir, you have embarrassed me.” (“Me ha avergonzado.”) At any rate, it pays to be careful!

If you are reading a new word that seems to be a cognate, and it makes sense in its context, you are probably right. However, if you have questions, or if it is important to understand the reading very well, it would be wise to look the word up to be sure. “Better safe than sorry” is a useful English proverb! (It means to be careful and not take risks that could harm you.)

For explanations and practice of some English words that have false cognates in Spanish, see Word Family Practice.

A Little Cognate Practice for Spanish-speakers+

I developed this practice activity for Spanish-speakers, but I think much of it might also be useful to Portuguese, Italian, or French speakers. 

Many of the words are from 50 Word Roots from Latin. Crescere, currere, dicere, facere (Spanish hacer), finis, portare, scribere, sequi (seguir), tener, terminus, trahere (traer), tribuere, and venire are roots of many Spanish words as well as English ones. (Many of the verb infinitives are the same or quite similar to the Latin except for the Latin final ‘e.’)

Many Latin verbs ending in –are came into Spanish as –ar verbs and often into English as verbs ending in –ate.

Here are some of the English verbs: accumulate, aggregate, calculate, collaborate, communicate, compensate, concentrate, cooperate, coordinate, create, demonstrate, dictate, domesticate, dominate, evaluate, facilitate, frustrate, incorporate, indicate, initiate, investigate, manipulate, participate, -- and many others. These also have nouns ending in –tion (Spanish –ción) and often adjectives ending in –ed (-ado.)

In the list above (or the noun forms), can you find cognates for the Spanish words calculación, comunicarse, cooperación, demonstrar, indicación, or participar?

There are many other cognates based on Latin origins. The next time you are studying academic writing in English, see how many words are similar to words in Spanish!

Try This Interactive Quiz

(This includes cognates that aren’t in the cognate list above:  from the Spanish ceder & exceder, poner, oponer, & postponer, querer, adquirir, requerir, etc.)

Choose a word from the list below to replace each word or phrase in capital letters. Fill in all the gaps, then press "Check" to check your answers. Use the "Hint" button to get a free letter if an answer is giving you trouble. You can also click on the "[?]" button to get a clue. Note that you will lose points if you ask for hints or clues.

acquired, affect, concurrently, consequences, eventually, excessive, extract, increased, interruptions, occur, opposition, postpone, prerequisites, procedure, sequel, unpredicted

!
1. The population has GROWN (or ) by 12% annually for the past five years, but the economic production has decreased.

2. An inattentive student may do all right for a test or two, but SOONER OR LATER () he or she will have problems in school.

3. Students all over the U.S. take certain examinations AT THE SAME TIME (.)

4. People in the U.S. have gotten heavier in the last twenty years because of drinking LARGER THAN DESIRABLE () amounts of soft drinks, as well as eating too much food.

5. A series of UNFORESEEN () events led to the flu epidemic of 1918.

6. The research you do for your essay will INFLUENCE () your teacher’s evaluation more than the illustrations you include.

7. Our parents taught us not to PUT OFF ( or delay) our school projects until the last minute.

8. One reason is that sometimes things can HAPPEN () that prevent us from finishing the project as quickly as we planned.

9. It’s good to be prepared for THINGS THAT INTERFERE WITH OUR WORK ().

10. Starting projects early and planning ahead can save us from the unwanted RESULTS () of delay.

11. Many universities have COURSES REQUIRED BEFORE TAKING OTHER COURSES () in order to register for upper division classes.

12. Joey GOT () a sports car to impress his girlfriend, but she thought it was a waste of money.

13. Mercy Hospital just developed a NEW OFFICIAL PLAN FOR HOW TO TREAT A PROBLEM () that saved Mr. Smith’s life.

14. Robert broke his tooth and the dentist had to PULL IT OUT ( it.)

Much of the Academic Vocabulary in English comes from French or Latin roots, and so would be related to words in the Romance languages. As you read academic texts or professional materials, try to guess meanings before looking them up (if they are important for understanding wha you are reading.)

In a little while you should develop the ability to predict many new word meanings from words you already know. Practice with recognizing cognates can increase your English comprehension and fluency quickly.

HomeLearn English Vocabulary > Cognates.

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