An Introduction to German Cognates

Cognates are words in different languages that look alike, sound alike and have the same (or similar) meaning.

They’re a powerful force in the galaxy of language!

Learning to differentiate, understand and implement the Kognat diversifies and advances your vocabulary, adds insight to word structure and helps in deciphering phonetics. Honest, you’ll see an overall improvement to your deutsch in general.

Patience have Padawan, cognate Jedi, in time, you may be.


What the Varp’s a Cognate? Explaining the Types

… it was like, help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.

That’s what Princess Leia said when asked what a cognate is.

We hear and see cognates all the time in our cosmopolitan society. From scratch, and with little effort, you could learn parts of a related language easily. In fact, you already know more German than you think if you look from a cognate point of view.

Defined & Definiert

A cognate, (urverwandt = old, origin-related) or Kognat (which, my friends, is a cognate!) are words, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines:

Descended from the same original language; of the same linguistic family. Of words: Coming naturally from the same root, or representing the same original word, with differences due to subsequent separate phonetic development.

In our case, similar words drawn from the roots of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) languages and—where English originates—Proto-German. Don’t confuse cognates with loanwords (Fremdwörter) though, as they are instead words from a foreign tongue that are borrowed with little or no modification.

As you may imagine, this can be a complicated subject. But, hey, don’t lose your lightsaber trying to totally comprehend it. Unless of course you want to deepen linguistic understanding and get the etymology down—if that’s the case: May the force be with you!

The Cognate Galaxy

If cognates are the Republic-minded Rebel Alliance (the good guys) then “false friends” are the sinister, dark-side shrouded Empire. The thing is, if you walk into the Mos Eisley Cantina on Tatooine, you’re bound to come across cognate forms of different persuasions—like false cognates, doublets or calques. Without attracting the attention of drunk aliens, bounty hunters or storm troopers, I’ll explain.

  • Cognate: A great example is the word Vater (father). The German and English words look similar, are pronounced similarly and have the same meaning. These are the kind of cognates you want to take notice of. Why? They’re direct and easy to identify. Why else? Because durch (through), for example, is also a cognate, but you wouldn’t know it unless you knew the phonetic change characteristics of cognates. See why we don’t really need those ones?
  • False Cognate: Words in the same or different language with similar forms and meanings but different root origins. Beware, young Skywalker, these are unrelated, although they appear to be and are often considered to be cognates. For instance, the word “ask” in English and “aska” in Jaqaru look similar and mean the same thing, yet have totally unrelated roots.
    Never underestimate the power of the dark side, however. False cognates are frequently confused with our real villains—false friends.
  • False Friends: Pairs of words or phrases in two languages that look and/or sound similar, but in reality have significantly different meanings. These are the darkest Sith lords as they’ll deceive and mislead you into thinking they’re the same! It’s like this: The German word Wand isn’t a magic artifact. It actually means “wall.” A Brand in German is not a household name, but instead it means “fire.” Get the gist? Using false friends without knowing could put you on the wrong side of the force!
  • Doublet: Pairs of words that are cognates within a single language. Doublets sometimes have similar meanings and look similar—but sometimes they don’t! Like ward/guard in English or Korn/Kern (grain/seed) in German.
  • Calque: A word or phrase formed through translation from another language. Calques are frequently formed of compounds from a source language. For example, German Weltanschauung turns into English “worldview” or English “skyscraper” to German Wolkenkratzer. They may also consist of phraseological or idiomatic translations like “the early bird catches the worm” becoming Der frühe Vogel fängt den Wurm.

The Cognates to Use

So you’re off to Dagobah to start training with Yoda? While learning the ways of a cognate Jedi, it’s imperative to know the varying cognate forms mentioned. But for mastering comprehension and usage in your German training? Frankly, these aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Better to utilize only the straightforward, super similar type of cognates and get a grip on false friends.

Already know you that which you need, mmm? Now your training continues. Step forward, Padawan.

Padawan Training: Cognate Learning and Usage

“Do, or do not. There is no try.”

That’s Yoda on focus and learning.

German from Scratch

What if C3PO and his protocol droid mastery of 6 million languages wasn’t around? Well, cognates allow you to understand some German with absolutely no prior knowledge of the language. That’s great news for basic level speakers and Padawans interested in possibly learning a new language. After all, our alphabets are, besides a few characters, the same. English stems from German—you could read more than you think!

Training Droids

Training to be a Jedi means lots of X-Winging it through the galaxy, running through swamps, learning to levitate, lightsaber play and listening to endless bits of wisdom from ghost masters in bad grammar—training exercises! It should be clear by now how cognates can help your German. But what kind of training droids can you use? Here’s a couple models that should help:

  • Watch your favorite “Star Wars” episode in German with English subtitles, taking note of the cognates—you’ll be surprised!
  • Start compiling your own list of cognates and false friends. There are many lists online like this, or this to start with.
  • Start a cognate identifying session at your next German Stammtisch gathering.
  • Can’t get enough Krieg der Sterne? Try a nifty nerd site auf deutsch.

It’s also really helpful to watch or listen to anything, for that matter: Watch German movies, listen to German music or use a program like FluentU and keep an eye (and an ear) out for cognates.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

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Of course, there’s another thing worth covering to help you on your way. Using the force of knowing the basics of the so-called consonant shift (which has nothing to do with hyperspace) will give you a definite edge. Let me explain…

The Jedi Grimm

A long time ago, in a galaxy…well, right here, the brothers Grimm (hands down language Jedi!) gave us more than just the fairy tale. They spoke several languages—essential to gather European folk tales—and made some great contributions to linguistics. Namely, Grimm’s Law, purporting the consonant shift within PIE languages. Okay, there’s way more to the law, but for us only the consonant sound shift between German and English is relevant.

Learning, or at least referring to a consonant shift graph—like this one from—will greatly help young Padawans recognize cognates and improve vocabulary.

Using the Force: Cognates in Practice

Totally! I used to bull’s-eye Womp Rats in my T-16 back home…

Luke Skywalker comparing the ease of cognate use to another casual activity.

Okay, young Skywalker, put that seriousness aside. It’s not as if they’re going to rebuild the Death Star or something! Your training should also be fun—try these 16 random cognate word pairs inspired by my “Krieg der Sterne” Zeitgeist = “Star Wars” spirit of the age!

Galaxis — Galaxy

Imperium — Empire

Rebellen — Rebels

Prinzessen — Princess

Planeten — Planets

Allianz — Alliance

Klone — Clones

Meister — Master

Agenten — Agents

Senat — Senate

Basis — Base

Exil — Exile

Loyalität — Loyalty

Or try these cognate calques:

Sternschiff — Starship

Sturmtruppen — Stormtroopers

Lichtschwert — Lightsaber

Fun with False Friends!

False friends, like any dark side influence can get you into trouble, or at best, laughed at. Imagine this dozen used in context!

Ass — ace

bald — soon

Bad — bath

Kaution — deposit

die — the

dick — fat

Fahrt — trip

Gift — poison

herb — harsh

Mist — manure

prägnant — prominent

sensible — sensitive

Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the force. So I hope you’ve been able to use it training with cognates…meditate on this I will.

And One More Thing...

Want to know the key to learning German effectively?

It's using the right content and tools, like FluentU has to offer! Browse hundreds of videos, take endless quizzes and master the German language faster than you've ever imagine!


Watching a fun video, but having trouble understanding it? FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive subtitles.


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The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you're learning, and gives you extra practice with difficult words. It'll even remind you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned.

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