False cognate

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False cognates are pairs of words in the same or different languages that are similar in form and meaning but have different roots. That is, they appear to be, or are sometimes considered, cognates, when in fact they are not.

Even if false cognates lack a common root, there may still be an indirect connection between them.

Contents

Phenomenon

As an example of false cognates, the word for "dog" in the Australian Aboriginal language Mbabaram happens to be dog, although there is no common ancestor or other connection between that language and English (the Mbabaram word evolved regularly from a protolinguistic form *gudaga). Similarly, in the Japanese language the word 'to occur' happens to be okoru (起こる).

The basic kinship terms mama and papa comprise a special case of false cognates (cf. !Kung ba, Chinese bàba, Persian baba, and French papa (all "dad"); or Navajo , Chinese māma, Swahili mama, Quechua mama, and English "mama"). The striking cross-linguistical similarities between these terms are thought to result from the nature of language acquisition (Jakobson 1962). According to Jakobson, these words are the first word-like sounds made by babbling babies; and parents tend to associate the first sound babies make with themselves. Thus, there is no need to ascribe the similarities to common ancestry. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that these terms are built up from speech sounds that are easiest to produce (bilabial nasals like m or stops like p and b along with the basic vowel a). However, variants do occur; for example, in Fijian, the word for "mother" is nana, and in proto-Old Japanese, the word for "mother" was *papa. Furthermore, the modern Japanese word for "father," chichi (父), is from older titi. In fact, in Japanese the child's initial mamma (まんま) is interpreted to mean "food". Similarly, in some Indian languages, such as Marathi, a child's articulation of "mum-mum" is interpreted to mean "food".

The term "false cognate" is sometimes misused to describe false friends. One difference between false cognates and false friends is that while false cognates mean roughly the same thing in two languages, false friends bear two distinct (sometimes even opposite) meanings. In fact, a pair of false friends may be true cognates (see false friends: causes).

A related phenomenon is the expressive loan, which looks like a native construction, but is not.

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