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Why Does English Share So Many Cognates With Spanish?

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English History

You may know that English is considered a Germanic language and is similar to languages like German and Dutch. While Spanish is considered a Romance language and is similar to French, Italian, or Portuguese. These designations refer to the fact that English and Spanish have different roots. English, along with German and Dutch, descended largely from languages spoken in Northern Europe as early as 500 BCE, while Spanish, along with the other Romance languages, descends mostly from Latin.

However, as you’ve been learning Spanish (or any other Romance language), you’ve probably noticed that there are a lot of words that are very similar if not exactly the same between English and Spanish. For example, the word professional in English is profesional in Spanish. Even the English word cognate when translated into Spanish is cognado.

So how did this happen?

Borrowing Words

Over time, languages have had to expand as humans have needed new words to describe new things that they’ve found and discovered. For example, when Spanish explorers arrived in Central and South America, there were new crops that did not exist in Europe. Instead of creating completely new Spanish words, they just brought existing native words into Spanish. This happened with the Spanish word aguacate, which means avocado, which originally came from the Nahuatl word, ahuakatl. Avocados don’t grow in Europe and previously did not exist anywhere in Afro-Eurasia, so Spaniards didn’t need a word for it.

This process is especially apparent in words that describe more recent inventions. For example, the word email in English is just email in Spanish (despite what the Royal Academy of Spanish will tell you). Sometimes, these words also get changed to better suit the target language, such as googlear in Spanish.

So what about words for things that weren’t found or discovered, like professional or angel? How did those end up being cognates? The answer is that they were borrowed from French and Latin respectively, but to understand how and why they were borrowed, we have to understand a bit of the history of the English language.

The Romans and the Anglo-Saxons

From about 55 BCE to about 400 CE, Great Britain was part of the Roman Empire following the Roman conquest of the island during the Gallic Wars. And while you’re probably thinking that this is when the majority of Latin loanwords entered English, you would be wrong. At the time, the island of Great Britain was inhabited by several Celtic tribes, who spoke Celtic languages and not English. Likewise, there is little evidence that these tribes spoke much Latin, as it was largely reserved for the occupying Romans, who represented the upper class and the government.

However, throughout this period, the island was subject to fairly consistent attempted invasions by Germanic tribes. These tribes were unsuccessful in conquering the island while the Romans were there but managed to conquer parts of the island after the last Roman legions had left in about 450 CE. The primary groups that had managed to conquer the island were the Jutes, the Angles, and the Saxons. As these groups merged into one civilization, commonly called the Anglo-Saxons, the languages they spoke, along with possibly other Germanic tribes, started to form the basis of Old English.

Latin had already been a huge influence on their languages since the Germanic tribes occupied parts of continental Europe, namely what is now Denmark and northern Germany, that were part of the Roman empire. These groups largely connected to their Roman counterparts through trade and battle, so many of the words that were brought from Latin into English at this time are words that are common in those situations. However, while words that were borrowed into Germanic languages before the invasion of Great Britain do have Latin roots, many of them have diverged in meaning or spelling so much as to not be cognates. For example, the English word wine is thought to come from the Latin word vinum. If you squint hard enough, you can probably see the connection between the words vino and wine, but it’s a stretch to say that they’re cognates. Likewise, English ended up with words like table, which derives at least partially from the Latin word tabla, has a meaning that has diverged from its Latin (and now Spanish) counterpart meaning board, plank, or slab.

After the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Great Britain, missionaries from the European continent began to bring Christianity to the island. This introduced many words that previously had no translation in Old English, and it’s from this period that we get English words like angel, altar, and hymn, which all have cognates in Spanish. Hundreds of new Latin loanwords were introduced into English during this period; however, perhaps the biggest influence of Romance languages on English was yet to come.

The Norman Conquest of Great Britain

In the early 11th Century CE, England was organized into a number of powerful districts that were each ruled by an Earl and united under a ruling monarch. Edward the Confessor was crowned the King of England upon the death of his half-brother Harthacnut. Edward had been raised in exile in Normandy, an area along the English channel in what is now France, but was brought back to England by his half-brother as Harthacnut had intended for Edward to become his heir.

The Normans (the name of the people living in Normandy) were not particularly popular in England at the time, and Edward’s ties to them created a tense situation in England. Edward had been appointing a number of Norman people to key posts in his Court, which led the King of Normandy and Edward’s second cousin, William the Great, to believe that he was the heir apparent to the English throne.

The Earls of England, particularly Godwin of Wessex, had a different idea and raised an army to (unsuccessfully) challenge Edward. This reaction led to Godwin’s son, Harold, being crowned the King of England upon Edward’s death. William the Great, whose aspirations likely included expanding his empire to include England, was not pleased with this and decided that the only option that he had left was to invade England and take it from Harold by force.

So in 1066, that’s exactly what he did. Within a month of landing on the shores of England, William had defeated and killed Harold in battle and become the King of England, though it would be a few more years before all the English resistance had been defeated.

The Influence of the Normans in Great Britain

As the victors of the invasion, the Normans established themselves as the ruling class in English society. Unlike the peasantry who spoke English, the Norman aristocracy spoke French. Even as the French aristocracy intermarried with the English, the social divide between French as an upper class language and English as a lower class language continued for about 150 years. Because French was the language of the government and aristocracy, a number of words pertaining to government came to English from French, such as noble (noble in Spanish), soldier (soldado in Spanish), and justice (justicia in Spanish). As well as words pertaining to artistic and literary works, such as story (historia in Spanish) and art (arte in Spanish).

This also led to a very interesting phenomenon where English borrowed words from French where English already had a word. As English developed, there was a tendency for the original Old English word to take on a negative or informal connotation while the French-derived synonym tended to take on a more positive or formal connotation. Examples of this include stench vs aroma, hearty vs cordial, or pretty vs beautiful. In each case, you can see where the word derived from Old English is either negative (stench) or less formal (hearty and pretty) whereas the French-derived word tends to be more positive (aroma) or formal (cordial and beautiful). Interestingly, adjectives that come from French use a different construction for augmentation than do the ones from English. For example, someone can be prettier than someone else, but they are more beautiful than someone else. All adjectives with French origin use “more than” to denote a greater intensity, while the English ones use “-er” to denote it. While experts debate how much of French grammar influenced English grammar, this grammatical construction directly mirrors French (and Spanish) grammar.

Likewise, words for livestock come from the English words, such as cow or swine, whereas the words for the corresponding food come from French, such as beef or pork.

This period of direct French influence of English lasted for about 500 years until the 16th century CE. Gradually over this period, English became dominant in England over French as institutions such as courts and universities began to prefer English over French.

Over the next 500 years, English began to develop more independently of French, but it still retains a huge number of vocabulary words from this time period. Moreover, since Spanish is also very closely related to French, these words have become cognates between English and Spanish and are often a lifesaver for English-speaking Spanish students.