Loan words, calques, and cognates

· 7 min read
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Pack your rucksack, we are going on a hike, I've got a bad case of wanderlust. Also, bring your bandana, we'll be doing some yoga after having fries with ketchup.

How many loan words can you spot in the sentence above? Did you know that ketchup was a calque? What is a calque anyway? What about yoga, and bandana? Languages are filled with (un-)translated words from other languages. In this blog article, I will talk a bit more about loan words, loan translations, called calques, and cognates.

Loan words[1]

When a word from one language is incorporated as is into another language, it is called a loan word.

Some of the words I have listed in the initial sentence, e.g., wanderlust, and rucksack, are derived from the German language, others, like yoga, from Sanskrit.

Loan words can be found in almost every language. Sometimes words from Romance languages like French, or Spanish, enter Germanic languages, sometimes it's the other way round. This is also true for Slavic languages. The Russian word дача (dacha) is known, e.g., in German and English, but фильм (fil'm), or спорт (sport) derive from the English language.

A special case can occur when words are reborrowed, which is sometimes called Rückwanderer[12] (German loan word meaning a returning word). Take the French word tenez (second-person plural imperative of tenir, translates to "to hold"). The French word occurred in the English language as tennis. After a while, the word tennis was then integrated into the French language. The word came full circle. While this might not occur too often, it is still interesting to see how languages evolve and renew themselves over time.


Unlike loan words, calques are translated from one language to another. Contrary to usual localization efforts, a calque is translated word for word from one language into another. They are sometimes called loan translations.

While many are unfamiliar with the term calque, most have heard at least one before. Take the expression long time no see for example. It is derived from the Mandarin Chinese expression hǎojiǔ bùjiàn (pinyin form). Most people use the expression without giving it a second thought. When looking closer, however, the expression does seem a bit off.

Several other calques can be found within the English language, and even the term loan translation itself is a calque from the German word "Lehnübersetzung". By the way, this is also true for the term loan word, deriving from the German "Lehnwort".

Even the famous author J.R.R. Tolkien used a calque of the French cul-de-sac. Tolkien named the Baggins' Hobbit-hole Bag End, a literal translation of cul-de-sac and our title image.


Cognates are words that are derived from the same etymology, or origin. They can be divided into true and false cognates.

In addition to the pair, let's not overlook the occurrence of false friends, either, and discuss this troika below.

True cognates[6,7]

Probably the easiest type of cognate to explain is that of true cognates. True cognates share the same etymology and have the same meaning.

Let's look at the word father. Its roots can be traced back to Indo-European, and extrapolated to the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language. Since PIE is the unattested root for the Indo-European languages, some cognates should exist. Check the image below that shows different cognates for father in different Indo-European languages, which all root back to PIE.

Cognate example: father

False cognates[8,9,10]

False cognates seem to have the same origin or etymology, as they are similarly spelled and pronounced, and share the same meaning. In fact, however, they are not derived from the same root.

As an example, let's take a look at the English word much and the Spanish mucho (meaning "much" in English). While they are almost identically spelled, and also share the same meaning, their roots are completely different.

You can find the origins of the terms in the table below.

Term Origin
much (en) PIE: *meǵh₂- (“big, stour, great”)
mucho (es) PIE: *ml̥tos ("crumbled")

If you have already read our recent blog article about brand names and idioms, you also know about the pitfalls when engaging in a new market, such as the Chinese one. In the article, we explored how brand names were poorly translated, which led to a negative impact on the brand in the foreign market. As a positive example, KitKat used a false cognate in Japanese, Kitto katsu (きっと勝つ), which tells Japanese people about a sure win. As with the previous example much and mucho this word pair sounds similarly, but has different etymologies.

False friends[11]

False friends are spelled and, or pronounced similarly, but to not share the same meaning.

False friends can occur in different ways, such as:

  • Homonyms: Words that sound identical in two or more languages, but have a different meaning.

    English Meaning German Meaning
    brave (adjective) to not be afraid brav (adjective) to be well-behaved
    handy (adjective) useful Handy (noun) a cell phone/smartphone
    English Meaning Spanish Meaning
    exit (noun) a way out éxito (noun) success
    realize (verb) to become aware realizar (verb) to carry out something
  • Etymological: Words that share the same origin, but their meaning evolved differently over time. In theory, the words are still cognates, but the meaning in two or more languages differs.

    German Dutch English
    See mer lake
    Meer zee sea

After having read the article, you might wonder why I introduced you into this topic. So let's wrap it up and find a meaning behind it.

Every translators' enemy are false friends. The term itself is a loan translation of the French expression faux amis du traducteur which means false friend of a translator. The French expression was coined by Maxime Kœssler and Jules Derocquigny in 1928.

In this blog article, I wanted to point out the intricacies of loan words, and translations. Calques are sometimes not recognized as such, which can then lead to misunderstandings for, or alienation of, native speakers. In addition, I wanted to raise some awareness about the etymology of certain words, and how even homonyms can differ in meaning.

For your localization efforts, it is often advisable to add context to your text segments. Only by doing that, a smooth and quick translation workflow can be guaranteed. With LingoHub, you are able to add context descriptions to all your text segments if you want. In the very near future, you will even be able to add screenshots to them.

Stay tuned, and check out this sneak peek at multiple functions we will provide with the next LingoHub.

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[1] Loanword
[2] Calque
[3] List of Calques
[4] Cul-de-sac
[5] Cognate
[6] Etymology 'father'
[7] PIE
[8] Etymology 'much'
[9] Etymology 'mucho'
[10] False cognate
[11] False friend
[12] Reborrowing

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