Discovering Cognates: The Common Ground of English and Spanish Languages

The great benefit of learning Spanish as a native English speaker is the plethora of cognates that make the whole process much easier than, for example, learning Chinese.

Let’s get into what cognates are, some of the most useful and commonly used Spanish-English cognates, and general rules of thumb you can use to render cognates from English to Spanish.

What is a cognate?

According to Merriam-Webster, cognate as an adjective is defined as “of the same or similar nature: generically alike.” It also means, in the context of language, “related by descent from the same ancestral language.” As a noun, a cognate refers to one of a pair of words with a shared structure.

The ancestral language shared by English and Spanish in question here is Latin. Although English is best regarded as a Germanic language by linguists due to its similar grammatical and syntactical structure, it also contains many, many vocabulary terms sourced from Latin.

Spanish actually is a Latin-based, or “Romance,” language. Upwards of 75% of Spanish words have Latin roots, so it’s one of the most similar living languages to the dead language.

There are historical reasons for Spanish’s similarity to Latin, particularly the Roman conquest of the Iberian Peninsula thousands of years ago and its incorporation into the Roman Empire.

The bottom line is that English and Spanish share many words in common – otherwise known as “cognates.” As a result, if you are a native English speaker, you already know 1,000+ Spanish words, automatically!

As anyone who’s struggled with a new language can attest, that’s a huge head start on acquiring the Spanish language.

What are common cognates in English and Spanish?

Before we dive into some of the general rules of Spanish-English cognates, let’s take a small sample of the cognates shared by English and Spanish, via Real Fast Spanish:

  • Cáncer
  • Central
  • Conclusión
  • Disco
  • Horizontal
  • Mental
  • Regular
  • Social

… and many, many more.

Bear in mind that, although these words are spelled the same and have the same meaning in both Spanish and English, they are actually pronounced quite differently in many cases. For instance, en español, “social” (so-see-all) sounds quite different from the English pronunciation.

False cognates

No discussion of English-Spanish cognates is complete without a brief exploration of false cognates.

Sometimes, words appear to be shared between languages but it is actually a happy accident. These are called “false cognates,” defined by ThoughtCo. as “words that people commonly believe are related, but that linguistic examination reveals are unrelated and have no common origin.”

Examples of false Spanish-English cognates include “constestar,” meaning “to answer” in Spanish whereas “contest” in English is a synonym of “challenge,” and “molestar,” which simply means “to bother” in Spanish but which has sexual connotations in English.

It’s easy to get tripped up and assume these words, which sound so similar to ones in your native English, mean the same thing in Spanish. When in doubt, it’s always a good idea to look up new words’ definitions, even if you think they are cognates.

Cognates: a master hack for learning new Spanish words

Because of the largely shared vocabulary between these two European languages, you are automatically granted a huge vocabulary you can simply export to Spanish as a native English speaker. All you have to do for many words is slightly modify the ending.

That said, it’s important to remember that, just like in English, there are always exceptions to the rule. The following are basic, nearly universally applicable principles of English-to-Spanish translation, but they aren’t without exceptions.

That caveat aside, here are some handy rules of thumb that you’ll find immensely beneficial as you expand your Spanish vocabulary.

English-Spanish cognates changing ‘tion’ to ‘ción’

Several English words end in “tion” – a suffix that indicates the noun form of a verb. Spanish has the same form of nouns turned into verbs, except they end in “ción ” rather than “tion.”

So, “condition” in English becomes “condición” in Spanish, “nation” in English becomes “nación” in Spanish, and so on.

English-Spanish cognates adding an ‘o’

Many English words can be Spanish-ized by simply adding an o to the end. Examples include “organic” in English that becomes “orgánico” in Spanish, “domestic” in English that becomes “doméstico” in Spanish, and so forth.

English-Spanish cognates changing ‘ity’ to ‘idad’

Most English words that end in “ity” translate to something similar in Spanish, but with “idad” at the tail instead.

So “activity” in English is mirrored in Spanish by “actividad,” “university” is changed to “Universidad,” etc.

English-Spanish cognates changing ‘ist’ to ‘ista’

English words that end in “ist” – which indicates a person who does a specific thing – can often be changed to Spanish by simply adding an “a” to the end.

For instance, “artist” becomes “artista,” “terrorist” becomes “terrorista,” and so on.

English-Spanish cognates changing ‘phy’ to ‘fia’

English words that conclude with the suffix “phy” – which indicates the practice of a discipline – can often be switched with the ending of “fia” in Spanish.

So, “photography” in English becomes “fotografia” in Spanish (“ph” in English is always switched to “f” in such cases in Spanish), “geography” in English becomes “geografia” in Spanish, etc.

English-Spanish cognates changing ‘ous’ to ‘oso’

English adjectives that end in “ous,” which indicates that a noun has a particular quality, can often be translated to Spanish by removing the “ous” and replacing it with an “oso.”

For example, “delicious” in English becomes “delicioso” in Spanish, “nervous” in Spanish becomes “nervioso,” and so forth.

English-Spanish cognates changing ‘ct’ ending to ‘cto’

Several English words that end in “ct” can, as a general rule, be changed to Spanish by adding an “o” to the end.

So, “act” becomes “acto” in Spanish, “product” in English becomes “product,” and so on.

English-Spanish cognates changing ‘ic’ ending to ‘ico’

Adjectives, and sometimes nouns, that end in “ic” in English can be transformed into Spanish by adding an “o” to the end.

For example, “romantic” in English is rendered as “romántico” in Spanish, the English word “public” is “público” in Spanish, etc.

English-Spanish adverb cognates

Numerous Spanish-English cognates can be switched from English to Spanish by swapping an “ly” suffix in English with a “mente” suffix in Spanish.

For example, “basically” in English becomes “básicamente” in Spanish, “exactly” in English becomes “exactamente” in Spanish, etc.

Obviously, this is a lot of information to process in one sitting. But as you practice Spanish and begin to intuitively understand its internal logic at a deeper level, these principles will become more engrained. As a result, off-the-cuff translation and sussing out meaning from everyday conservations even if you don’t catch every word becomes easier.

50+ words that are the same in English & Spanish – YouTube

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Ben Bartee is a Bangkok-based American journalist, grant writer, political essayist, researcher, travel blogger, and amateur philosopher. Contact him on Linkedin and check out his portfolio.