It could easily be my own bias but I feel like false cognates are suspiciously common. Do similar meanings tend to acquire similar sounds in language evolution? Have there been any studies whether false cognates are, for example, more frequent than chance?

I thought maybe using similar sounds in words with a shared connotation makes the language processing easier.

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    Onomatopoeia may lead to false cognates, I suppose. But are false cognates really that common? Most word pairs, by far, are not. You may be a victim of the frequency illusion.
    – Keelan
    Commented Aug 14, 2020 at 8:22
  • @Keelan Thanks, I couldn't find name of the bias myself. :) I think it is something worth examining, though.
    – Probably
    Commented Aug 14, 2020 at 10:24

2 Answers 2


It depends what you mean by "tend to create".

For one, there are certain words that do tend to be the same across unrelated languages—for external reasons.

  • English boom and Ancient Greek bómbos look very similar, because they're both imitating the same sound.
  • Quite a lot of languages have a word for "mother" that sounds like mama, because /m/ and /a/ are generally the first sounds babies are able to produce.
  • Language contact can cause previously-unrelated words to become more similar over time, like how native English island gained an S by comparison with the unrelated French borrowing isle.

You ask specifically, though, if false cognates are "more frequent than chance". And while I don't know of any studies specifically on this topic, I suspect the answer is no.

In other words, languages do tend to have very large numbers of false cognates! But the frequency is pretty close to what we'd expect just due to random chance. Humans just have a tendency to focus on the similarities and overlook the differences, and to underestimate just how many words a language has. Mark Rosenfelder does some analysis on this (in the context of evaluating claims that languages are related) and predicts several hundred false cognates between any two random languages.

I'm not sure if any formal studies have been done on this, and if you're interested, it might be a good area to research: take corpora for various different languages, find a good measure of similarity, and see how often false cognates appear. But my prediction is that the rate will be very similar to what you'd expect from random chance.

  • Either you took a long while to write this or you simply ignored user6726's trivial stipulation that languages don't, but people do have false cognates. There might be cases of so called false cognates that have lexicalized through conversion within a language and might therefore be difficult to recognize. There might be a relatively big number of undetected cases (e.g. like very unlikely from *likaz "body"?). For a stupid example consider show and baby shower; cognate? Better examples exist to be found under the verbiage 'by influence of' and similar (e.g. most and utmost).
    – vectory
    Commented Aug 15, 2020 at 11:47
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    @vectory why always so polemical?
    – Keelan
    Commented Aug 15, 2020 at 14:01
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    @vectory Once again, I have no idea what you're trying to say here. What does bulimia have to do with the answer (or the comments)? I freely admit I don't know Mbabaram, but I trust the other linguists who have studied it and say that there's no relation between it and English (such as Dixon).
    – Draconis
    Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 0:04
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    @Draconis polemic ~ bulimic: anytime I see a link to zompist posted, I will throw up. It's result, p=0.5 means you really don't know. It's not p=0 after all. The numbers might be chosen on purpose, or he was accurately emulating somebody who really doesn't know. That's actually amazing, but awfully low on stochastic, and awfully long fwiw. The argument rests on the assumption that, if any language looks related to any other under the given assumptions, this must be obviously not true. Many people will agree, this is not what they bargained for. But you well know theories that do bargain.
    – vectory
    Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 19:15
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    @vectory I still have no idea what you're trying to say. What does "actually amazing, but awfully low on stochastic" mean? What are "theories that do bargain"?
    – Draconis
    Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 19:21

Languages don't create false cognates, people do. After you filter out the many words like mamma and pappa or titi and dudu which have naturalistic explanations, and non-genetic cognates (loanwords), you get a small set of words that some people think are historically related because of similarity of sound and meaning, the two best known examples being bad (English and Persian) and dog (English and Mbabaram). Creation of a false cognate requires three things: knowledge of two or more languages, a burning desire to find patterns, and less that perfect knowledge of the relevant facts. The latter two are easy to come by, and the former is not particularly scarce, although the number of English-Chukchi false cognates may be zero because few people know both languages and therefore are unlikely to conjure up a connection between some two words.

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