Cognates in English: History and Application

8 min read
Cognates in English: History and Application

My husband called me this evening on his way to work and let me know that he had been in a car accident. Thankfully, everybody is okay, but the car is a little banged up. Now, if we were in Mexico, and he had been involved in a fender-bender, he would’ve still called me, and told me he was in an accidente. Now, I have never taken a Spanish class in my life, but thanks for cognates, I would know that he had been involved in a car accident.

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A cognate is a word that comes from the same origin as a word in a different language. Cognates generally have similarities in spelling, pronunciation, and meaning. So, even though I don’t speak Spanish, I could discern that accidente was the same as an accident in English.

History of Cognates

English is a language that is built by cognates from various languages.
. These people separated into four different dialects, who eventually migrated to Britain. When they migrated, they brought their languages and dialects with them and, upon landing, adopted the language that we consider “Old English.”

These dialects are important because English speakers speak a mix between the Angles and Saxon subsets of Germanic Old English. But other languages are other mixes of these Germanic languages.

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Just like when you go to the South, a dialect might be so thick that you can’t understand the speaker, dialects in 500 B.C. operated much the same. Even though these four dialects were spoken in Britain, over time, they created different languages altogether. 

Modern English

Around 1480 B.C., the English language transitioned into Modern English. With this transition came more intentional use of vowels, but also our first indicator of cognates. After the Norman Conquest, the French invaded Britain and brought with them French words. Slowly, French words began to enter into the English language, especially with words about royalty, food, and laws.

After the British Empire, the English language moved rapidly through various countries, and in the process, the English language picked up more cognates, dialects, and slang

Cognates in English

The English language likes words for Latin (Spanish, French, and Italian), which is why many English words have similar counterparts in the Romantic/Italic languages. 

is a word that has been derived from another word. For example, brother in English and bruder in German, both derive from the same base.
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Doublets vs. Triplets

If two words in the same language come from the same origin, they are called doublets. If three terms in the same language come from the same origin, they are called triplets.

This is a fancy way of saying that a word may have entered into the English language from two different routes. For example,

  • Stand = Native
  • Stay = Middle French
  • State and Status = Latin
  • Static = Ancient Greek via Latin

While all of these words have the same meanings, they entered into the English language from different lines. This is an example of a doublet or triplet cognate in English.

Three Types of Cognates

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There are three different kinds of cognates. These cognates are still considered valid but have a few distinctions that set them apart from each other.

  1. Words that are spelled the same.

These words are exactly the same in English and another language. This is the most easily identifiable cognate and doesn’t require much explanation to understand them.

  1. Words that are spelled slightly differently.

These words may have an additional letter, but for the most part, are written the same in English and another Romantic language. If you are reading and encounter a word that you don’t know, but it is spelled like a word that you know in English, then it’s a safe bet that you have encountered a cognate.

3. Words that are spelled differently, but sound similar.

You may encounter a word that looks completely different than it’s English counterpart, but after saying the word aloud, you may be able to identify the word. For example, initial in English and incial in Spanish are cognates.

False Cognates

One final rule about cognates to determine if a word is a false cognate. A false cognate is a pair of words that appear to be cognates because they sound or look alike, but they are derived from different languages. 

An example of a false cognate includes how many languages reduce the word mother down to “ma.” While this seems like the two words are tied together, they are not. Since one word is derived from Latin (Mother), and one is slang (Ma).

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This is an incredibly hyper-focused look at cognates and not a common occurrence. Still, it is important to know that just because a word appears to be a cognate, there are certain circumstances where they are false. 

Examples of Cognates

English WordCognates
AnimalEl AnimalSpanish
HospitalEl HospitalSpanish

Why Do We Need to Know This?

There are a handful of reasons why understanding cognates is helpful.

Understanding a New Language

The first is that when you can identify cognates, you will be able to learn new languages more easily. If English is your first language, then learning another Latin-based language (like Spanish or French) will come more easily to you. If you are trying to master a third language, it will come even easier.

When we get continued exposure to these cognates, it is easier for us to pick them up without even thinking. Plus, you will be able to remember vocabulary words easier and be able to apply the words you know to their cognate counterparts.

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Understanding Words Out of Context

Additionally, since the English language is built with many cognates, you might be able to use them to understand words more easily. 

This is where your knowledge of roots and prefixes might be helpful. Since many cognates share similar prefixes, you will be able to more quickly identify a definition of a word that you don’t know. For example, if you know the root bio means life, then you will be able to define biology, bioluminescence, and biosphere, even if you don’t fully grasp the meanings of the words.


Language is often a great unifier because so many different languages blend to create their vocabulary. As we discussed, the Romantic and Germanic languages were the building blocks of the English language. And while the English language has many unique words (for example, you won’t find “yeet” in any Old English textbooks), many of the words can be found as cognates in other languages

This is a helpful resource for many students, as understanding cognates to unlock many different languages basic vocabulary and help understand more complex English words. 

If you can correctly identify cognates, you will be able to grasp words with more ease than if you didn’t realize that many terms are shared across languages. 

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The English language is a complex language to master, so it makes sense that even English-speaking students struggle with mastery of these concepts in school. Do you find yourself scratching your head when you are reading about these various English topics? ArgoPrep is the perfect solution for you! With workbooks for all ages and stages, you can find the perfect resource to master the English language.

For more information about English topics, just like cognates, check out the ArgoPrep blog!