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Foreign Words You Already Know: 5 English Language Cognates

Even if you’re not bilingual, you likely have a much more robust foreign-language vocabulary than you think. That’s because many words in other languages – especially the Germanic and Romance languages – have twins in English. Sometimes they’re fraternal, and sometimes they’re identical, depending on spelling and pronunciation. But one thing’s for sure: there are a lot of them.

There are essentially two different ways in which a word becomes a duplicate across languages. Some words – called loanwords – are borrowed from one language and used by another. For example, Spanish-speakers use the English words bowl, piercing, and sandwich, and English-speakers use the Spanish words canyon, vanilla, and mosquito.

Other word duplicates share an ancestral root from which the modern languages to which they pertain branched off. These are known as cognates. Although English is considered a Germanic language, English-language cognates are often of Latin origin. This is true because, starting around the time that Britain was converted to Christianity – during the 9th century – Latin played a large role in shaping the English language.

Take a moment to learn five of these cognates below, and you’ll be further ahead on your language-learning journey.


Work those abs! The word abdominals originated from the Latin medical term abdominalis, which means it actually has a cognate in most of the romance languages, since they’re all Latin-based. But, just to give you a feel for what some of these cognates look like, in Spanish, the plural is written abdominales; in Italian, it’s addominali; and in French, it becomes abdominaux.


Animal is a cognate in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French. You’ll have to alter the spelling just a smidge for the Italian – animale. That same spelling is also used for the French feminine form. The word animal is of Latin origin, and it originally meant, a “being which breathes” or a “living being.”


You can travel with a musical partner and be considered a duo in many countries around the world. Amazingly, this word means the same thing in Albanian, Bosnian, Catalan, Corsican, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Filipino, French, and more. Duo derives from the Latin word for “two,” so it’s only a true cognate across languages that are Latin-based or whose development was heavily influenced by Latin, as in the case of English. In some languages, duo may have been borrowed more recently from a Latin-based language, which would make it a loanword.


This word may seem particularly relevant to our contemporary era, but it dates back to the Medieval Latin word instantem. Instant is a cognate into Spanish, French, and other Latin-based languages, though it becomes instante in Spanish. In all three languages listed, it can be employed as a noun or adjective, though its adjective form changes to instantáneo (similar to instantaneous) in Spanish, and instatané in French.


If you want to tell another side of a story, you can provide your version of events in French just as you can in English. In Italian, you’ll alter the word slightly to versione; in Spanish, it becomes versión. As is the case with so many other cognates, these examples all descent from a Medieval Latin root – in this case versionem, which signified “a turning” or “a translation.”

ALTA Language Services’ translation team can help you create new “versions” of texts in a wide variety of languages. Contact ALTA for any of your translation needs. We also offer language testing, language training, and more.

About the Author:
Danielle Martin has taught multiple subjects to students in three different states. She previously spent time as a literary agent’s assistant and video editor. Danielle writes about education, health, and lifestyle topics, and she also enjoys writing fiction.

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