Given that I am interested in teaching English as a second and foreign language (ESL/EFL) and that I grew up bilingual in English and Spanish, I find the topic of cognates between English and Spanish very interesting and important. This paper will list some noun cognates but particularly address cognates between English and Spanish with Latin origin. It will be framed from a teaching/learning point of view, but the main focus will be on the linguistics of cognates between English and Spanish. Particularly, on the orthographic, phonological, and semantic factors of cognates. Moreover, it will touch on morphological factors of cognates and whether or not bilingual students’ semantic word knowledge in English and Spanish, allows them to access word meaning based on cognate knowledge.Order now
Prior to fully diving into the aforementioned factors, I consider it indispensable to provide some important historical information regarding the languages of English and Spanish. According to Lubiner & Hiebert (2011), English and Spanish share a common alphabet and 10,000-15,000 Latin-based cognates with similar orthography. Whitley (2002), adds to this information, as he mentions that English and Spanish share thousands of cognates and highlights that they often appear in academic texts. Garrison (1990), expands on this information and explains that English and Spanish cognates are erudite words of Latin origin, from which Spanish evolved, while the everyday words are of Germanic origin. It is safe to assume that based on what Bravo, Hiebert, & Pearson (2007) discuss in their chapter, the words that Garrison (1990) refers to as Germanic in origin, are English words. According to Bravo, Hiebert, & Pearson (2007), even though English has its linguistic roots in Germanic languages, it also borrowed from Romance languages. Therefore, English, like Spanish, has many Latin-based words. Stemming off of Latin and Germanic-based words, Lubiner & Hibert (2011), point out that Spanish Latin-based words are used for everyday communication purposes in Spanish, whereas English Latin-based words are often more sophisticated.
This means that the Latin-based words in English are not so much used for everyday communication purposes in English but can be found in academic texts. For example, the words construct and construir (in Spanish), are cognates from the Latin word construere. However, construir is more frequent in everyday communication in Spanish than construct in English. Lubiner & Hibert (2011) define this happening as an asymmetrical relationship between academic vocabulary words in English and Spanish. Moreover, Barber (2000), explains that some Latin-based words entered English via French and others entered directly into English during the Renaissance to meet demands for a scientific and literary register that the English language did not have. Given the history that the languages of English and Spanish share, particularly in regards to its roots, I find that Latin-based cognates deserve attention in studying and understanding the implications they have on vocabulary development especially for bilingual students.
It is important to point out that cognates are not just words that share meaning, but they are also words that share orthographic features. According to Lubiner & Hiebert (2011), the more similar the spelling of an English cognate is to its Spanish equivalent, the greater the degree of their orthographic relationship. In fact, Cristoffanini, Kirsner, & Milech (1986), categorized cognates into five groups based on their orthographic relationship. The categories included:
- orthographically identical cognates (i.e. reunion-reunion & festival-festival),
- common stem cognates (i.e. observation-observación & suction-succión),
- common stem cognates with regular suffix (i.e. cruelty-crueldad & hostility-hostilidad),
- common stem cognates with irregular suffixes (i.e. calamity-calumnia & itinerary-itinerario), and
- morphologically unrelated translations (i.e. bakery-panadería & sadness-tristeza).
Orthographically identical cognates are graphemically identical in their form, as the above examples given portray. Common stem cognates with regular suffix are orthographically identical except in their endings. Those ending in tion in English are identical to those ending in ción in Spanish. Common stem cognates are also orthographically identical except in their endings. Those ending in ty in English are identical to those ending in dad in Spanish. Common stem cognates with irregular suffixes are orthographically identical except for the last one-to-three letters. Morphologically unrelated translations are neither orthographic nor phonologically identical, their form is not related nor consistent whatsoever. Cristoffanini, Kirsner, & Milech’s (1986) categorization of cognates suggests that cognates should be classified with inflections and derivations rather than other, morphologically unrelated translations.
A greater degree of orthographic relationship amongst cognates or, in Nagy et. al.’s (1993) words, a “clear orthographic overlap” (i.e. animal-animal) is a key factor in bilingual (English-Spanish) speaking students’ ability to benefit from cognates and further develop their vocabulary knowledge. Dressler et. al., (2011) expand on orthographic overlap and explain that a property of cognates that facilitates recognition includes linguistic features of cognate pairs (i.e. dolar-dólar), such as the degree of structural overlap between them. This means that even the smallest spelling difference between cognates can negatively affect students’ ability to recognize cognates (i.e. English-Spanish cognate pairs). Similarly, it implies that the degree to which cognates are recognized by students depends on their orthographic similarity. Dressler et. al., (2011) identified cognate pairs ranging from progress-progreso & moment-momento to myth-mito to show extensive to little orthographic overlap and how it affects cognate recognition amongst students.
Another factor in bilingual speaking students’ ability to benefit from cognates and further develop their vocabulary knowledge is that of consonant doubling and vowel complexity. Consonant doubling is when consonants are more likely to double in English than in Spanish (i.e. accept-aceptar and intelligence-inteligencia). Vowel complexity is when vowels are more complex in English than in Spanish and often include letter shifts (i.e. fruit-fruta and group-grupo).
An additional example of letter shifts regards consonants. For example, in machinery, the ch shifts to qu in Spanish (i.e. maquinaria and chemical-química). The letter y, when used as a vowel in English, shifts to i in Spanish (i.e. in Spanish (i.e. style-estilo and cyle-ciclo). The consonant ph, in English, shifts to f, in Spanish (i.e. phse-fase and elephant-elefante). According to Lubiner & Hiebert (2011), the group of words that experience shifts, in English-Spanish cognates, are consonants and/or vowels, and pertain to the group of words that derived from Greek via Latin. Research on orthographical factors regarding cognates, concludes that “cognate relationships are explicitly coded within the orthographic system” (Bower et. al., 2000, p. 1292).
Just like there is orthographical overlap between cognates, there is phonological overlap and it too deserves attention, as it plays a key role in cognate identification. According to Carroll (1992), hearing a word in a second language automatically activates words in the first language that are acoustically similar. This implies that morphologically and semantic related cognates are phonologically similar. Therefore, Carroll explains that phonological correspondence influences cognate recognition amongst students. On the other hand, weak phonological correspondence obscures cognate recognition amongst students. It makes cognate pair recognition complicated and challenges students to easily transfer word meaning from one language to another. Kroll & de Groot (1997), noted that differing sound systems in the two languages can hinder cognate recognition specifically if inappropriate phonological representations are automatically activated in response to print. Similarly, Schwartz, Kroll, and Diaz (2007), noted that when cognates do not match orthographically and phonologically, cognate recognition is reduced.
According to Lubiner & Hibert (2011), weak phonological correspondence can be explained by two factors: (1) vowel pronunciation and (2) syllable stress. Basically, vowel pronunciation and syllable stress in Spanish do not correspond to that of English. For example, the cognates decide–decide portray how different vowel pronunciation creates weak phonological correspondence amongst cognate pairs. The way in which the vowels for the English each word are pronounced do not correspond with that of Spanish. In addition, the syllable stress for each word is located in different syllables. This serves to illustrate phonological differences amongst cognates and to highlight that even orthographically identical cognates can sounds complete different in the languages. Another example that proves the same point is that of nation-nación. These words are orthographically similar, but extremely different in vowel pronunciation and syllable stress. The final syllable is pronounced as in English and in Spanish. Such phonological complexity challenges students to identify morphological relationships amongst cognates and somehow hinders their ability to recognize cognates.
Semantic relatedness is a complex factor amongst cognates. One of the reasons being that of history. Lubiner & Hibert (2011), point out that although English and Spanish cognates share a Latin root, the languages have evolved over time and today, cognates no longer mean the same thing. For example, the cognate pair molest¬-molestar introduces pejoration, a result of the aforementioned. Molestar came from the Latin word molestare and kept its meaning in the Spanish language. However, molest came from French and diverged its meaning in the English language. In Spanish, molestar means to bother or annoy, while in English, molest has a sexual connotation. A semantic relationship can be established amongst cognate pairs, but it is crucial to be aware of the fact that they might not mean the same thing.
Some language teachers and/or learners might assign the term false cognate to the aforementioned case (i.e. molest-molestar). This being due to the fact that such term is often used to refer to words that look or sound alike but do not mean the same thing. However, Lubiner & Hibert (2011), make, what is to me, a new and extremely valuable point regarding the semantic relatedness of cognates. It being that, the term false cognate should only be used for words that have no semantic relationship/overlap (i.e. rope (a braided cord) ropa (clothes) & assist (help) – asistir (attend)). There is no semantic overlap between these words despite them being etymologically related. They share less than full meaning and therefore, as Lubiner & Hibert point out, should be labeled as partial-cognates. With this information, I agree with Lubiner & Hibert in that the degree of semantic relatedness amongst cognates should then be thought of as a continuum in which full-cognates share identical meanings in the languages (i.e. art-arte), partial-cognates share less than full meaning (i.e. molest-molestar), and false-cognates share no meaning (i.e. rope-ropa).
Another factor that adds to the complexity of semantic relatedness amongst cognates is that of polysemy. This means that there is more than one possible cognate match for cognates. According to Sales (1998-1999), linguists call the problem of more than one possible cognate match onomasiological multiplication. This problem extends to morphemes that have more than one possible match in the other language. For example, the morpheme vac in vacation might be correctly related to vacación but incorrectly related to vacante. Even though both words derive from the Latin root vacare (empty), vacation came into English from French, meaning free from an activity. What happened is that the meanings of the words spread so significantly, that there is no relatedness amongst the morphemes. They no longer carry related meaning, which results in false pairing (i.e. vacation-vacante).
Thankfully, however, Granger, 1993 & Moss, 1992, cited in Lubiner & Hiebert, 2011, state that, despite the problem posed by incomplete relatedness between cognates, studies show that more than 90% of Latin-based cognates (English-Spanish and English-French) are true-cognates. This means that they relate in form and meaning.
With cognate recognition, comes morphological knowledge. Whitley (2002) and Bravo, Hiebert, & Pearson (2007) define cognates as words that share similar meaning, spelling, and form across languages. In addition, Nagy et. al. (1993), highlight that cognate knowledge requires that of derivational morphology in both languages, in this case of English and Spanish. Factors such as command of suffixes and prefixes increase cognate knowledge amongst students.
Nash (1997), cited in Bravo, Hiebert, & Pearson (2007), grouped 20,000 English-Spanish words and classified cognates based on six different categories:
- No shared cognate,
- false cognate (i.e. globe-globo),
- Low-frequency English word – low-frequency Spanish word (i.e. organism/organism),
- High-frequency English word – low-frequency Spanish word (i.e. question-cuestión),
- High-frequency English word – high-frequency Spanish word (i.e. animal/animal), and
- Low-frequency English word – high-frequency Spanish word (i.e. frigid/frío).
Nash’s (1997) categorization of words were categorized in more than one topic and had many derivatives within that topic (i.e. decompose, decomposer, decomposition). 76% of the words were English-Spanish cognates. Moreover, these words were classified as academic register. Given this information, it is important to understand the word as whole. As Bravo, Hiebert, & Pearson (2007) point out, knowing a word well involves the combination of several different types of knowledge, such as its definition (literal and in context), its relationship to other words, its connotations in different contexts, and its transformation possibilities into other forms.
From a teaching/learning perspective, it is important to know prefixes and suffixes, the changes in sound and spelling often required to extract roots from derived words, and roots. According to Bravo, Hiebert, & Pearson (2007), the ability to extract roots from derived words can positively affect vocabulary development. Understanding of these, not memorizing, is a potential asset to vocabulary comprehension and language learning as a whole.
Cristoffanini, Kirsner, & Milech (1986), conducted two experiments to determine if:
- language is a critical feature governing lexical organization, and cognates may therefore be equated with morphologically unrelated translations, or
- language is not a critical feature governing lexical organization, but the boundaries between perceptual categories are determined by morphological considerations, and cognates may therefore be equated with intra-lingual variations, such as inflections and derivations.
Four different types of cognates were tested:
- orthographically identical cognates (i.e. reunion-reunión and festival-festival),
- regular cognates with tion-ción substitution (i.e. observation-observación and suction-succión),
- regular cognates with ty-dad substitution (i.e. cruelty-crueldad and hostility-hostilidad), and
- irregularly derived cognates (i.e. calamity-calumnia and itinerary-itinerario).
The results showed that morphology rather than language governs the boundaries between perceptual categories. Thus, cognates should be classified with inflections and derivations rather than other, morphologically unrelated translations. They used the cognate pair obedience-obediencia to prove that when lexical organization is governed by morphology rather than language, intra-lingual properties transcend. Consequently, the morphology instead of the language functions as a facilitator of cognate recognition.
In conclusion, it can be said that a vast majority of cognates in English and Spanish descend from Latin origin and that there is significant overlap amongst their orthographic, phonologic, semantic, and morphologic factors. The overlap between cognates can be viewed as a set of inter-related continua. According to Kieffer & Lesaux (2007), cognates range in each of the aforementioned factors from identical to very different. Therefore, a main takeaway from this paper, at least for me, is that bilingual students’ semantic word knowledge in English and Spanish does not overlap nearly as much as I expected.
Oller et. al. (2007), cited in Kieffer & Lesaux (2007), explain that one possible reason is due to the fact that English and Spanish bilinguals learn words uniquely in English or Spanish, rather than learning words for the same concept in both languages. Nevertheless, they may have easier access to semantic and morphologic dimensions of words they know in both languages. This is particularly beneficial to cognates, as they are most likely to be stored in a common lexicon (Cunningham & Graham, 2000).