cognate vocab as a measure of relatedness

Ross Clark (FOA DALSL) r.clark at
Wed Jun 12 05:05:03 UTC 2002

In the back of Samarin's book Field Linguistics, he gives parallel 100-item
lists in English, French, Spanish and German, which makes it fairly handy
for a quick computation. Using a generous definition of cognacy, I get

    English-German    75%
    English-French     36%

Given that 200-list figures are normally lower, this would be roughly
consistent with the numbers that Andy has quoted.
Note that the English-French cognates are almost all directly-inherited. The
only ones clearly resulting from ME borrowings are person/personne,
grease/graisse, mountain/montaigne and round/rond.

Ross Clark

-----Original Message-----
From: Andy Pawley [mailto:apawley at]
Sent: Wednesday, 12 June 2002 3:15 p.m.
Subject: Re: cognate vocab as a measure of relatedness

Re Adrian Clynes' question:

1) What percentage of basic vocabulary is cognate in English and German,
using (say) a 200-item Swadesh list?
2) Ditto, for English and French?

In his book A Course in Modern Linguistics Hockett (1958) says contemporary
English and German share approx. 59 percent cognates on the 200 meaning

I have an idea the figure for English and French is around 20-25 percent. As
I recall, figures for most of the Indo-European families are given in a book
on the lexicostatistics of IE languages by Isidore Dyen and Paul Black. I
forget the exact details but I think it was published in the 1970s.

Literary Dutch and German I believe have been scored at 84 per cent. That
reinforces David Mead's point about 60 to 90 percent being a grey area re
mutual intelligibility. Actually my experience is that mutual intellibility
is always pretty low if basic vocab. cognation is below 80 percent -- except
where speakers have had extensive exposure to each others' languages and are
therefore at least passively bilingual.  But obviously phonology plays a big

Andy Pawley

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