The vocabularies of English and Spanish share some similarities. This realization will become more and more evident as you surround yourself with both languages (by listening to music, watching movies, reading, or talking to other learners), so don’t worry if you hadn’t thought about it until just now. Nowadays, most shared words usually belong to the field of technology: words like selfie, laptop, tweet, post, and Google are part of non-English speakers’ daily vocabulary. This is due to globalization and the rise and popularity of social media. But what about words like photograph and fotografía? Postpone and posponer? or carpet in English and carpeta in Spanish? What are their similarities all about? Do all of these words share the same meaning? Let’s take a quick linguistics power class.
As for the first and second pairs of words, photograph/fotografía and postpone/posponer, these are what we call cognates. Cognates are words that share a similar spelling, pronunciation, and meaning. Cognates are proof of the fact that some languages are part of language families, and thus share some lexical, grammatical and phonetic features. Oftentimes, cognates sound far more formal (and classy) than other available synonyms. Let’s take, for instance, photograph and postpone. In everyday spoken English, the word photograph is much less common than the word picture or pic; same thing with postpone, which is much less common than the phrasal verb put off. However, in written English, the use of cognates that come from Greek or Latin adds to the perceived formality of language in use.
The first pair (carpet and carpeta) share a striking similarity both in terms of their spelling and pronunciation. However, the meaning of these two terms is completely different. When this happens, we are in the face of false cognates, that is, words that look and sound alike, but are not semantically equivalent. A carpet is a rug, something you might use to decorate your living room, a fuzzy piece of fabric that lays on the floor; a carpeta, on the other hand, is a folder, a sort of container for important documents, both digitally and physically.
Bear in mind that if we talk about numbers, chances are that when you find two words that are similar in English and Spanish, they are more likely to be cognates than false cognates. This is due to the fact that English has had a lot of Latin and French influence, which makes it have lots of romance loanwords which are obvious cognates. Spanish, on the other hand, has also had quite some Germanic influence during the early middle ages. Words like “guerra” (“war”, cognate to “war”) or “yelmo” (helm, cognate to… helm) are of Germanic origin.
How can we deal with cognates and false cognates?
False Cognates are often problematic for those who are writing in English. Their presence can prompt language learners to make mistakes that might seem elemental, especially for those of us who have spent years working with the language. As a way to help its users deal with these issues, Writebetter has various tools that make it easier to identify false cognates.
Writebetter allows its users to look up words in context. For instance, if we were to look up the word carpet, we would encounter the uses of the word carpet, both as an activity, carpet weaving, and as an adjective carpet sharks. The usefulness of these examples is in their ability to illustrate the semantic distance between this word and its false cognate carpeta.
Writebetter includes a dictionary, which allows its users to familiarize themselves with the definitions of words, as well as their possible grammatical functions. Take the word harm. Usually, we tend to classify words as either nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs. However, words are rarely part of just one single grammatical category. Although we could think of harm as just a verb, the reality is that the grammatical category of that word will change depending on the context. Harm can be both a verb (Sophie harmed her brother) and a noun (harm has been done to the whole family). This is useful, for one can know the definition of the word carpet, expressions related to it, as well as its different uses in the language (noun and verb).
As you can see, dealing with cognates and false cognates is not easy at the beginning, and this makes part of mastering a language. Just make sure you have good tools such as WriteBetter to explore all the meanings, contexts and grammatical forms of the words you are studying.