Spanish Cognates, False Cognates And How To Tell Them Apart

Just because two words look alike doesn’t mean they have the same definition.
August 21, 2020
Spanish Cognates, False Cognates And How To Tell Them Apart

When you’re learning a new language, cognates can feel like a life preserver. In a sea of unfamiliar vocab, these familiar-looking words will help you stay afloat. Spanish in particular seems to have an abundance of words with a resemblance to their English counterparts. It’s even an ill-advised joke to tack -o or -a on to the end of an English word in the hopes it will have a Spanish cognate. But we should advise you to never actually try that when speaking to someone in Spanish, because it can come across as a bit rude. Instead, do your best to learn which words are actually Spanish cognates and false cognates (also called false friends). We’ll get you started with these helpful lists.

Spanish Cognates

There are a lot of Spanish cognates. Probably thousands. Here’s a sampling of some of the most common you’ll run into, but this list is very far from comprehensive.

English Spanish
no no
the problem el problema
the hotel el hotel
the error el error
describe describir
the automobile el automóvil
basic básico
the airport el aeropuerto
person la persona
the menu el menú
national nacional
total total
favorite favorito (masc.), favorita (fem.)
interesting interesante
the doctor el doctor (masc.), la doctora (fem.)
the radio el radio
simple simple
the metal el metal
the occasion el occasión
the vegetable el vegetal

Spanish False Cognates

Spanish Word  What It Looks Like What It Really Means
el campo the camp the field
embarazado embarrassed pregnant
la carpeta the carpet the folder
el preservativo the preservative the condom
la sopa the soap the soup
la ropa the rope the clothes
chillar to chill to shriek
largo large long
enviar to envy to send
la injuria the injury the insult
el costumbre the costume the habit
el éxito the exit the success
el pie the pie the foot
atender to attend to assist
la librería the library the bookstore
el pariente the parent the relative
remover to remove to stir
recordar to record to remember
bizarro bizarre brave
la fábrica the fabric the factory

Is There Any Way To Recognize False Cognates Automatically?

We wish there were some magic way to tell the difference between real and false cognates, but there is sadly no trick to it. The best you can hope for is that the context clues tip you off as to when a word doesn’t mean what you think it means.

That doesn’t mean cognates are entirely random, though. They occur because both Spanish and English derive a lot of words from Latin. Spanish is a direct descendant of Latin, and English just came into contact with the Latin language so much that it borrowed a lot of vocabulary. If you’ve ever studied Latin intensively, it can make learning Spanish a lot easier (and the cognates will make plenty more sense). Of course, it’s not exactly a “shortcut” if you have to learn a whole other language to understand Spanish better.

None of this means that cognates aren’t helpful. It’s really a numbers game: there’s an estimate that about 90 percent of Spanish words that look like English words are indeed cognates. And even when you do look at the false cognates listed above, they’re often not entirely unrelated. Confusing librería for “library” when it really means “bookstore” might cause a brief miscommunication, but it’s not like libraries and bookstores are completely different things. If you see a Spanish word and think you know what it means, there’s a pretty fair chance that you’ll be right.

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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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