Cognates

A student from a previous semester spotted an apparent contradiction in Module 11:

I am confused about some questions in module 11. In the Application portion - Understanding Structure # 7 notes the word "pouvoir" is linked to the word "power". # 8 notes the word "pouvait" is not a cognate or a borrowing. similarly, #2 and #13 use the word "connaître". In one it is linked to the word "connoisseur" and the other notes it is not a cognate or a borrowing. Can you help me to understand the differences here.

Now, if you don’t share this student’s confusion and think you can skip the explanation, you may want to jump ahead to a little self-testing quiz in part IV, B. Some of the questions are easy; some aren’t. If you don’t get them all right, be sure to come back to parts I through III.

I. Oops...

The object of the Tutorial is to show that French and English have an enormous amount of vocabulary in common and that knowing how to identify it can be a great help to understanding.

However, you’ve discovered some inconsistencies that slipped past us. As you say, connaître is listed as the source of the word “connoisseur” in one place and not in another.

We have to make a distinction here that may seem like something of a fine point. The true cognate is connaisseur (English has kept the old spelling of the word, although the modern French spelling is optional in English today). It’s formed from the verb connaître, which has not been borrowed into English. But we don’t see any point in quibbling; for our purposes — namely for the final exam — you can say that connaître is a cognate even though, strictly speaking, a cognate is derived from it.

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II. How to decide what is a cognate

Let’s take a simple example: at one point parlent is mentioned in the exercises as the source of the borrowings and derivations “parley,” “parlor” and “parliament,” etc. Now, it can be argued that the borrowings come from the infinitive, parler, but it hardly seems to matter; parlent and the other forms qualify as cognates for our purposes. By the same token, pouvoir is the word that has been borrowed into English as “power,” but pouvait and the like — which have not been borrowed — will also be accepted as cognates on the exam.

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III. What to make of it

Here’s a handy rule of thumb. It’s a corollary of the course’s “golden rule” that says to look for regular forms: Focus on the stem of the word rather than the ending.

If you think of it that way, it doesn’t matter whether the word is parler, parlent, parlez, parlaient or something else: the stem is parl-, and that’s what counts. Likewise, it’s the stem pouv- that’s important. If you say that pouvoir, pouvons, pouvait, etc. are cognates of “power,” you’ll get full credit.

A few people may already be thinking: “But other forms of pouvoir such as peux and pourrai don’t have the stem pouv-and they don’t give us any words in English, do they?” Well, no, they don’t. We’ll say it’s enough to know they are forms of pouvoir, which is a cognate.

Module 11 is intended to be practical: for the purposes of the exam, cognates are French words that have been borrowed in some form directly into English and are in current use.

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IV. Just for fun

A. About etymology:

Surprisingly few words are genuine neologisms; that is, nonsense syllables that someone thought up and that happened to catch on. “Gas” and “quiz” are all I can think of, offhand. However, “gas” (originally coined in Dutch) is said to be derived from the Greek “chaos,” and “quiz” is probably derived from “question.” In Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll coined a lot of words, but as Humpty Dumpty explains, they’re all combinations of words that already existed.

Etymology and genealogy are alike in some ways. If you go back enough generations, we’re all descended from the whole population and probably have a remote ancestor in common. It’s much the same with words.

Just a little note: we’re including as cognates the sub-category of “false cognates,” that is, words that have changed their meaning after being borrowed from French, such as “actual,” from actuel (present, current); “to attend,” from attendre (to await); “lunatic,” from lunatique (originally the same: “crazy,” but now it just means “moody”); and many others. They count as cognates.

B. A little quiz:

Here are a few pairs of words in English and French. Are they cognates? Reminder: It’s a mistake to assume that all French words have cognates in English; they don’t.

tennis — tennis Yes No     diet — diète Yes No   one — un Yes No
fish — poisson Yes No cat — chat Yes No mail — mail Yes No
I — je Yes No pendant — pendant Yes No main — main Yes No

This little quiz is just a guessing game; it’s not like anything you’ll see on the final. You don’t have to know any quaint etymologies, and you won’t have to guess at meanings: on the final exam you’ll select cognates from sentences you’ll have seen in the modules.

Don Webb
French Studies

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