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Patterns of Similarity and Difference in Spanish and English

Languages Etymologically Related

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One key to expanding your Spanish vocabulary quickly, especially when you're new to the language, is learning to recognize the word patterns seen in many English-Spanish cognates. In a sense, English and Spanish as languages are cousins, as they have a common ancestor, known as Indo-European. And sometimes, English and Spanish can seem even closer than cousins, because English has adopted many words from French, which might be seen as a sister language to Spanish.

As you learn the following word patterns, remember that in some cases the meanings of the words have changed over the centuries. Sometimes the English and Spanish meanings can overlap; for example, while a discusión in Spanish can refer to a discussion, it often refers to an argument. And an argumento in Spanish can refer to the plot of the story. Words that are alike or similar in the two languages but have different meanings are known as false friends.

As you learn Spanish, here are some of the more common patterns of similarity you'll come across:

Words that end in "-tion" in English often end in -cion in Spanish:

  • nation, nación
  • station, estación
  • fraction, fracción
  • publication, publicación

Many English words that have a "ph" in them have an f in the Spanish version:

  • photo, foto
  • metamorphosis, metamorfosis
  • graph, gráfica

Words that end in "-ty" in English often end in -dad in Spanish:

  • fidelity, fidelidad
  • felicity, felicidad
  • faculty, facultad
  • liberty, libertad
  • authority, autoridad

A few words in English that have a "th" in them have a Spanish equivalent with a t:

  • empathy, empatía
  • theater, teatro
  • theory, teoría

Adverbs that end in "-ly" in English sometimes have a Spanish equivalent ending in -mente:

  • rapidly, rápidamente
  • profusely, profusamente
  • prudently, prudentemente

Some words that begin with an "s" followed by a consonant in English start with an es in Spanish:

  • stereo, estéreo
  • special, especial
  • snob, esnob

Some English words that have double letters have a Spanish equivalent without the letter doubled (although words with "rr" may have an rr equivalent in Spanish, as in "correspond," corresponder):

  • difficulty, dificultad
  • essence, esencia
  • collaborate, colaborar
  • common, común

Names of occupations that end in "-ist" in English sometimes have a Spanish equivalent ending in -ista (although other endings also are used):

  • dentist, dentista
  • artist, artista
  • phlebotomist, flebotomista

Names of fields of study that end in "-ology" often have a Spanish cognate ending in -ología:

  • geology, geología
  • ecology, ecología
  • archaeology, arqueología

Adjectives that end in "-ous" may have a Spanish equivalent ending in -oso:

  • famous, famoso
  • nervous, nervioso
  • precious, precioso

Words ending in -cy often have an equivalent ending in -cia:

  • democracy, democracia
  • redundancy, redundancia
  • clemency, clemencia

Many of the common prefixes are the same or similar in the two languages. Prefixes used in the following words make far from a complete list:

  • antipathy, antipatía
  • bilingual, bilingüe
  • counterattack, contraataque
  • contend, contender
  • disobedience, desobediencia
  • polygamy, poligamia
  • prefix, prefijo
  • supermarket, supermercado
  • unilateral, unilateral
English words ending in "-ism" often have an equivalent ending in -ismo:
  • communism, comunismo
  • capitalism, capitalismo
  • atheism, ateísmo

Despite the numerous similarities between English and Spanish, you're probably best off to avoid coining Spanish words — not all words work in the above way, and you may find yourself in an embarrassing situation. You're a bit safer following these patterns in reverse, however (because you'll know if the resulting English word doesn't make sense), and using these patterns as a reminder. As you learn Spanish, you'll also come across numerous other word patterns, some of them more subtle than those above.

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