Consider this excerpt from this etymology of "lose":

Old English losian "be lost, perish," from los "destruction, loss," from Proto-Germanic * lausa- (cognates: Old Norse los "the breaking up of an army;" [...] ), from PIE root * leu- "to loosen, divide, cut apart, untie, separate" (cognates: Sanskrit lunati "cuts, cuts off," lavitram "sickle;" Greek lyein "to loosen, untie, slacken," lysus "a loosening;" Latin luere "to loose, release, atone for, expiate").

Among other things, this etymology claims that Sanskrit "lunati" and Proto-Germanic "* lausa" are cognate. Now, maybe it's the case that there are regular sound changes that could account for the fact that the words are phonetically different, but what bothers me is that "to cut off" is so distant from "to destroy, to lose" that I don't see why you would call these cognate at all, and any sound correspondences built partly on the assumption that they are would seem doubtful to me.

How semantically distant can words be and still be considered cognate, and what evidence is used to support the conclusion in such cases?

  • 1
    This is a very interesting question, and I look forward to reading the answers. The only quibble I have with is, to me, the connection between "to cut off" and "to lose" is immediate and obvious. I think there must be better examples of true semantic gulfs being lumped under "cognates".
    – Dan Bron
    Apr 5, 2016 at 22:42
  • I think that the answer comes from the fact that there was a metaphorical extension somewhere down the line. You can imagine a scenario in which "cutting off someone supplies to someone" (which would result in their destruction) could be reduced to the phrase "cutting someone off" which could be clipped further to "cut". This would account for the semantic change while phonological changes account for the change in form. It's the evolution part of language, it's how the same bones in our arm also became wings or fins.
    – Throsby
    Apr 7, 2016 at 4:08
  • You may assume that in etymologies that cover Latin, Greek, Sanskrit a lot of words that look similar are seen as cognates, as in the example given in your post. If you really study the Sanskrit version of the word in a big dictionary there is often cause for real doubt. So I would not take such PIE etymologies too seriously.
    – rogermue
    Apr 7, 2016 at 14:42
  • @Throsby I'm not asking by what mechanisms cognates might end up with very different meanings, I'm asking what evidence linguists then use to prove that they're cognates.
    – Jack M
    Apr 7, 2016 at 14:50
  • Usually, regular sound changes. Sometimes, unjustified guesswork. In this particular case you'd have to look into how the PIE root was reconstructed in the first place. Let me know if you find out! Apr 7, 2016 at 21:56

1 Answer 1


It is mainly the judgement of the compilers of such etymologies. When you read original work by great historical linguists, you will often find some hedging language when they are not sure, or even mentioning of seemingly related forms that they discard.

In the example that you cite, the semantic shifts are rather small and uncontroversial. Both "cut off" and "lose" share the notion of breaking a tie to something. Also, the sheer amount of data points from many languages gives additional support for the reconstruction.

  • 1
    Also it helps, if the shift or wide semantic field is visible in a single language at one time.
    – Eleshar
    Dec 19, 2016 at 21:57

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.