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The Debunking of False Cognates

Oh! You’re still reading! Well, get ready for my rant on False Cognates. We will go from plain and boring, but also massive and authoritative statistics, to a more in-depth discussion with my foes and detractors, those of you who overprotect those tiny and harmless, but over-dimensioned creatures called ‘False Cognates’.

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Are False Cognates (in)significant?

Actually, the right question to be asked is: how relevant or insignificant are both the number and the impact of false cognates in ELT compared to that of real cognates?

According to the 2016 Random House Dictionary, ‘Insignificant’ means too small to be important. Hey, that sounds like my own claim; that is, the number of false cognates compared to that of real cognates is small, very small; and therefore, insignificant. The math is not difficult:

  • The Dictionary of Cognates features 20,000 English-Spanish cognate words (Note: the DOC was based on use-frequency and practicality rather than on exhaustiveness.)
  • The database of the online Cognate Highlighter reaches 30,000 words (Note: this database includes those words in DOC + infrequent cognates + international borrowed words + all types of renowned proper nouns. That is exhaustive!)
  • In contrast, our Coherent List of False Cognates features 430 words, many of which –by the way- are infrequently used. (Note: this list was created based on the ‘cognates by nature principle’ explained in my book Cognate Linguistics and to be summarized below.)

So, what do you mean, False Cognate Lovers? Shouldn’t we exploit more than 25,000 real cognates because there are +/- 450 false cognates? Did you know that only those -tion/-ción cognates (education/educación) account for 1,000 words?

"False cognates have produced so much doubt and misconception to the point of making us keep a prudent distance from absolutely all lexical resemblances. We could be before a foreign word that is identical to one in our mother tongue but, when we realize that we are unaware of all its possible meanings and integral usage, refusal sometimes seems to be more sensible than approval."

Rubén Morán

“Yeah, right, Mr. Cognate! YOU are your own reference.”

Well, I do my best! I have bought all the books that contradict the spirit behind cognate linguistics so as keep a balanced perspective, but I just don’t get their rationale!

For example, the NTC’s Dictionary of Spanish False Cognates (Prado, 1993) features 2,500 Spanish words (false cognates) "you think you know, but you don’t". But, from the very first word in this book (ABANDON) all the way to the last word of it (ZONE), the author builds up a terrible fallacy!

These two sample words are so innately cognate that even their synonyms shout it out loud:
Abandon (evacuate, discard, retire, abdicate, cede, renounce).
Abandonar (evacuar, descartar, retirar, abdicar, ceder, renunciar).
Zone (area, region, district, section).
Zona (area, región, distrito, sección).

False Cognates?! This is not 'confusing', it's just wrong and regrettably misleading! This reminds me of what the Online Etymology Dictionary (Harper, 2016) says about the word 'Cognate'. It informs us that this word comes from Latin and it means "to be born together" (from com- "together" + gnatus "to be born"). Nevertheless, it also says that "Words that are cognates are cousins, not siblings" (?!).

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According to Prado, the use of the Spanish phrase es muy abandonado en su ropa (he is very negligent with his clothes; or literally, abandoned with his clothes), and the single Spanish collocation zonas verdes (park and garden areas; or literally, green areas) ruin the 'innate nature' of these real cognate words. That is a regrettable error. I would suggest false cognate worshippers that the most suitable definition or explanation for many of their so-called false cognates should be that of real cognate words which may have an additional unrelated or uncognate meaning.

Luckily, this arguing has given me a great idea. I am planning to start working soon on the second edition of my Dictionary of Cognates, which besides featuring 25,000 cognate words and 25,000 cognate collocations, it would now also feature cognate synonyms of the words so as to be 'overwhelmingly authoritative'. (I am sorry, but I have to be annoyingly clear…) And of course, the real cognate words Abandon and Zone will be in my Dictionary as they have always been. Have a sneak peek:

EnglishSpanish
ZONE n.ZONA s.
(syn. area, region, district, section)(sin. área, región, distrito, sección)
zones n. zonas s.
zonal adj. zonal adj.
- alpine zone - zona alpina
- arid zone - zona árida
- autonomous zone - zona autónoma
- climatic zone - zona climática
- coastal zone - zona costera
- combat zone - zona de combate
- demilitarised zone - zona desmilitarizada
- disaster zone - zona de desastre
- economic zone - zona económica
- emergency zone - zona de emergencia
- erogenous zone - zona erógena
- evacuation zone - zona de evacuación
- exclusion zone - zona de exclusión
- geographical zone - zona geográfica
- industrial zone - zona industrial
- marginal zone - zona marginal
- military zone - zona militar
- neutral zone - zona neutral
- occupied zone - zona ocupada
- peripheral zone - zona periférica
- security zone - zona de seguridad
- seismic zone - zona sísmica
- transition zone - zona de transición
- to control a zone - controlar una zona
- to create a zone - crear una zona
- to violate a zone - violar una zona

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Cognates by nature


(Excerpts taken from Cognate Linguistics)

There are several claims that have become the common criteria for some linguists and teachers when determining the false cognate status of a word. Let us discuss the inappropriateness of three of the most common assertions:

1. A word is a false cognate when the (English) term is more common than its (Spanish) counterpart.
False. A cognate will always be a cognate by nature. Its innate status is determined by its origin, not by its frequency. Although evidential frequency can certainly help us decide on the use of a more common or appropriate word, it has nothing to do with the cognate nature of a word, much less with its usefulness.

2. Although both words mean X, in (English) the word has upgraded/downgraded its meaning, making it a false cognate.
False. Analyzing whether the Spanish word estúpido (simple, limitado; bruto, rudo; ignorante, nulo) is much more offensive or not than the English word stupid (unintelligent, dense, slow, obtuse; brainless; unwise, foolish) so as to label it as a false cognate is evidently too impractical and fruitless to be commented. The word is simply pejorative; in fact, in foreign language texts such differentiation is inexistent. On the other hand, a deeper analysis would take us to the next claim.

3. X is a false cognate when it additionally means Y in only one of the two languages.
False. This assertion arises when any of the several meanings of a cognate word is not shared by its cognate counterpart. For example, in both English and Spanish, the word club means: association - asociación, society - sociedad, organization - organización, alliance - alianza; nightclub - nightclub, discotheque - discoteca, casino - casino (Thesaurus of Microsoft Office Word 2003). However, in Spanish it does not share the meanings: stick, bat; or the black trefoil symbol on a playing card.

Does this mean the word club should be considered a false cognate even when its several synonyms are unequivocal cognates too? I don't think so. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, association and club are synonyms because they share at least one common meaning, not all of their meanings. Association does not mean stick or a trefoil symbol; however, these unrelated meanings do not take away its status as a synonym of club.

A cognate word goes far beyond being a type of foreign synonym of a word. The cognate nature of words -either borrowed foreign words or ancestral Greek or Latin derivations- cannot be taken away by the fact that not all of their meanings, connotations or usages coincide with or exist for their cognate counterparts. Cognates have nothing to do with the idea of exactness between all the meanings and usages of two foreign words.

Cognates need to be studied less by linguists and studied more by foreign language learners. We propose exploitation over analysis as it seems that these words have been analyzed for too long in their linguistic and historical context. Sunderman and Schwartz (2008) say that, in historical linguistics, cognates are often defined as words that share a common etymological origin; while in psycholinguistics, cognates are any two words with shared aspects of spelling, sound, and meaning across two languages. Sunderman and Schwartz interestingly assert that the history of a word is not represented in the mind of a language user as it is its spelling, sound, and meaning. The use of cognates is certainly more important than their history, just as it is the number of real cognates over the number of false ones.

Word Frequency

For those of you who may not be into the world of linguistics, there is a subfield of this science called Corpus Linguistics. In a nutshell, Corpus Linguistics gathers, for example, every single word on a newspaper and by means of software it tells you that that newspaper was written using a million words but, since many of the words are repeated several times, over and over, the unique words may be only 5,000 words. If you do that with newspapers, fiction and non-fiction books, songs, and with the scripts of spoken language (interviews and random street conversations), you will come to have a list of the most frequently used words in the *English language. That would mean that you would discover the English words that people actually use in everyday language, or maybe the most frequent business English words if the language gathered was related to business.
Based on renown frequency wordlists, we offer some more tedious, but revealing statistics:

GSLOxfordBrownAWL
2,284 words3,457 words1st 5,000 words570 words
Cognates32%42%44%71%
False Cogn.7%6%4%7%
Remainder61%52%52%22%

* (GSL - The General Service List, West, 1953. The Oxford 3000 Word List, Oxford University Press. The Brown Corpus, Francis and Kucera, 1982. AWL, The Academic Wordlist, Coxhead, 2000. For more extensive statistical sampling click here).

In this chart, we can see that as the number of frequently used words or academic ones increases, real cognates also increase while false cognates decrease. Additionally, it is crucial to keep in mind that the effect of that average 5% of false cognate occurrence is easily, dramatically and permanently going to be reduced once we are informed about them. In other words, we will hardly ever make the same mistake twice concerning the use of a wrong cognate word.

This is an interesting decremental formula; after being informed or corrected about the meaning of the false cognate embarrassed, for example, the future incidence of this mistake will be permanently annulled; or at least dramatically lowered if we have a bad memory. As the number of mistakes caused by false cognates is permanently going to decrease after guided study, the production of language aided by real cognates is permanently going to increase.

“The best players learn from their mistakes and cope with failure as well as success. That’s what separates the leader on the court from the pack. And if you fail, you need to learn from your mistakes. Making mistakes is part of the learning process."


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Making mistakes is part of the learning process

Going back to the definition of the word 'Insignificant', besides meaning too small to be important, it also means of no consequence, influence, or distinction. Right there, my dear members of the jury, it might seem as if the adjective ‘Insignificant’ might not fully apply to the concept of False Cognates because False Cognates do have a consequence and do represent an influence on both English Language Learning and Teaching.

BUT, that is a regrettable consequence and a shameful influence because the lack of research and the spreading of myths about these words have made the word Cognates a type of synonym to False Cognates in the minds of learners.

Real Cognates are many. False Cognates are few.
Real Cognates are thousands. False Cognates are a few hundreds.
Real Cognates see the glass half full. False Cognates see it half empty.
Real Cognates are frequently used. False Cognates are mostly infrequent.
Real Cognates are motivating. False Cognates produce uncertainty.
Real Cognates can be exploited from class 1.1. False Cognates must not be introduced as an obstacle.

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Believe it or not, the ‘joke’ about being embarrassed (similar to Spanish ‘embarazada’ = pregnant) is the flagship of False Cognates; it is the enemy to be defeated. Jokes like these have long promoted the aversion to cognates exploration and exploitation in general. We need to shed some light on this matter right away.

So, as my temporary conclusion, I have to say that since the definitions of ‘Insignificant’ provided by dictionaries in general do not specify if that consequence, influence, or distinction can or cannot be, should or should not be a positive or negative consequence, I’ll stick to my point; in terms of English Language Learning, both the number and impact of False Cognates in ELT is Insignificant! Let’s lay to rest the myths behind false cognates right now!

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