What comes to your mind when you hear or see the word phonics? For me, and I expect for others in my advanced age group, it conjures a grade school classroom where phonics was a subject — along with science, English, arithmetic, etc. In phonics you learned to "sound out" words. Phonics was in its heyday then — in the early 1960s, in the wake of the influential 1955 book Why Johnny Can't Read, which criticized the low rate of literacy in the United States and advocated more use of phonics in the classroom.

Even though English is a language not ideally suited to phonics, it had value then and still has today for teaching children to associate letters and combinations of letters with particular sounds. I've never quite left phonics behind, and lately I've been thinking about it in relation to words that jump borders, from one language to another. Such words are often related in ways that their spelling doesn't suggest. For such words, the sonic aspect of phonics is often a much more reliable method for discovering word connections than the orthographic one. To put it another way, sounds — sometimes changing in predictable ways — tend to survive the migration to another language more dependably than letters do.

Let's start with an example from two unrelated languages: English and Arabic. They are in different families, and Arabic has many sounds (I reckon a dozen) that have no English equivalents. Because of this, it's not surprising that Arabic words that make their way into English, whether directly or via other languages, are represented by a variety of spellings that may conceal their common origins. Case in point: Luxor (site of Theban ruins in Egypt) and Alcazar (Moorish fortress in Spain).

Believe it or not, these two English have a common Arabic root, القصر, "the palace," a word in which three of the four consonants have no exact equivalent in English (the R is close, except that Arabic rolls it Rs). You can listen to the Arabic word here, on Google Translate, if you click the speaker icon.

Could you possibly guess that these two words have a common source? Maybe. First, let's throw out the vowels (rather as our fellow VT contributor Nancy Friedman recently did!). Their job in Arabic is to signal nuance rather than core in different meanings; it's the consonants that tell you what a word's foundation is. Now, close your eyes as you say these two words — Luxor and Alcazar — aloud to yourself and feel what your tongue and vocal cords are doing. Not much difference, right? If you concentrate on how these two words sound and feel to you (as opposed to how they look in English), you will come a lot closer to guessing that they are related.

Language contact is the method by which words jump an international or linguistic border. I explored this a bit last year in talking about how English words creep into other languages and what they sound or look like when they get there. If you want to amuse yourself for a few minutes, go back to Google Translate and look at the graphic representations of the English word Wi-Fi in various languages that don't use the Roman alphabet (say, for example, Korean, Urdu, and Greek). You're not going to be able to "sound out" the word by looking at it without some knowledge of the other language's writing system, but if you click on the speaker icon on the translation side, you probably won't have any doubts about what word you're hearing.

English is not a required partner in such interlinguistic transliterations, of course. It happens wherever languages come into contact. Moroccan Arabic, for example, is full of borrowings from both Spanish and French, owing to the historical connections of Morocco with Spain and France. You don't need much of an ear to spot many of these: week is semana (from Spanish) in Moroccan Arabic. Kitchen is kusina (same source). Somewhat more challenging is tobis (bus, from French autobus).

What do you suppose aksida means in Moroccan Arabic? If you guessed accident, you guessed right. It's the same word in French and English, but pronounced /ak.si.dɑ̃/ in French. Would you guess it if you saw or heard the plural first? You might if you follow the golden rule of ignoring vowels. In Moroccan it's akasid.

The game is much easier between languages more closely related, especially if they use the same alphabet. In these cases, both the sound and the spelling of the words comes to your aid. English speakers who study German (or vice versa) cotton on pretty quickly to the systematic sound changes between these two languages that enable them to make good guesses about cross-linguistic "cousins". Still, there are a few challenges, which are admirably laid out in the exercises about German-English cognates here. See how you do with them, using the feel test.

If you've studied French you have probably already been alerted to the clever wheeze that enables you to spot a possible English cognate when you see the circumflex (ˆ) accent. It means an "s" was once there in the French word. Knowing this fact can supercharge your French-English cognate recognition algorithm, as you can sound out a handful of French words (adding an s after the circumflexed vowel) and land on their English equivalents:

bête > beast
château > castle
fête > feast
forêt > forest
hôpital > hospital
hôtel, hôte > hostel, host
île > isle

A grounding or even a smattering of knowledge in Latin enables you to readily spot cognates among Romance languages. There are easy ones, like bread, which is pain/pane/pão/pâine/pan in French/Italian/Portuguese/Romanian/Spanish, all from Latin panis.  A bit more challenging is one like water, which is eau/acqua/água/apă/agua in those same languages, all from Latin aqua. Here the consonant sounds (rather than their written representation) are more helpful, and where it makes sense not to throw out the vowels entirely. If you don't have that grounding or smattering in Latin, you can do yourself a big favor by studying a bit of it: Knowing some Latin (and some phonics, of course) can enable you to buy up to five words for the price of one!

After all this I'm a bit chagrined to say that my latest cognate Aha! moment came not from the reliable sounding-out methods noted above, but rather from a dictionary. There's an unusual mountain that I drive by frequently. Its name is Huerfano (pronounced, roughly, WHERE-fan-o), a name given it long ago by early Spanish settlers.

This small mountain sits all by itself (underlined words are hints) on a plain just west of Interstate 25, south of Pueblo, Colorado. The name is shared by a nearby river, and also by the county that the little mountain rises in. But what does it mean?

I hope you'll get it by sounding it out, even though I didn't. It's orphan.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Friday February 5th, 1:32 PM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
Sound resemblances help us trace connections not only between languages of our time but between our present language and its distant past. Think of the numbers "eleven" and "twelve" and imagine someone a thousand years ago counting potatoes. He could match a potato with each finger until he got to ten. Then he said he had one left: ein-lif in Old High German, or end-leofan in Old English. If he had two extra potatoes, he said (in Old German) twa-lif or (in Old Frisian) twe-lef. These languages were all regional variants, and we've kept their traces in our present counting system.
Friday February 5th, 6:03 PM
Comment by: Juan Jose Hartlohner (Madrid Spain)
Once I heard that the problem in English is not how words are pronounced, but why are they written the way they are. In most other languages words are exactly read the way they are written, and vice versa.
Note: It's "where-fa-no".
Saturday February 6th, 8:31 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Good observation, Jan, and it points up the fact that you don't need whole words to spot relatedness. There are the sets of related "two" words that I wrote about last year (two, twelve, twenty, twin, twain, twice, twill, along with duo, dual, deuce, duel, double, dozen, duplicity, duple, duplex, and dyad) that all give away their relatedness in the basis of a couple of letters.

Juan: correct on the difficulties of English spelling. All attempts to reform it have failed, however, except for the few minor differences between British and American English. And of course you're right on the syllabification of huerfano. I thought English speakers would get closer to the correct pronunciation of the middle vowel if they saw "fan" than if they saw "fa". Thank you.
Saturday February 6th, 2:00 PM
Comment by: Juan Jose Hartlohner (Madrid Spain)
Thanks for tour comments, Orin.
The word in Spanish is written as "huérfano". It comes from Latin orphănus, and Greek orphanós.
This time, English is closer to the original spelling.
As you know, the letter "H" in Spanish is silent and mute, not like in Anglo-Saxon languages. A good example are my Christian names and my German surname all three start the same: hu, ho, ha. In Spanish "J" has a similar sound to "H" in English and German.

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