Is there a term for words that are spelled identically in a foreign language and have the same meaning (regardless of whether they sound the same)?

  • Who exactly would have need of such a word? Would it make any difference if they sounded the same too? Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 2:06
  • A software developer trying to solve one of the hardest problem in all of software development: naming things..
    – glebm
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 2:10
  • It does not matter if they sound the same
    – glebm
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 2:10
  • What about if one one the languages doesn't normally use the English alphabet? Does Peking count? What about Beijing? Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 2:15
  • 1
    While learning swedish, I had a list of "false friends" - words that spelled and often sounded the same, but meant (slightly) different things. The words meaning the same thing usually are the "same word", often loanwords in at least one, sometimes both of the languages. Those sometimes sound different, because the speakers from the loaning language not necessarily know the language they loaned the word from (in swedish often the word develops a different spelling over time, but there are some still spelled like the original, but sounding different).
    – skymningen
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 6:40

3 Answers 3


The closest I believe is "cognate" (from Merriam-Webster Online ):
a: related by descent from the same ancestral language
b: of a word or morpheme : related by derivation, borrowing, or descent

However, translators must beware of cognates, because the meaning and usage often varies in subtle ways between languages. For instance, "mist" in German" is what farmers put on the field at night, causing a steam (ie a 'mist') to appear above the field the next morning that obscures sight.

  • 6
    Usually, cognate means words of shared etymology, but not necessarily spelled, pronounced, or used in the same way. As Wikipedia says, a typical example is English starve and Dutch sterven or German sterben ("to die"). In OP's case I'd be inclined to just say they are the same word. Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 3:42
  • As I noted, there is apparently no term closer to his intended meaning than 'cognate'. Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 3:44
  • 1
    Note however the phrase "exact cognate" which seems to narrow the meaning much closer to what the Question asks.
    – hardmath
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 3:54
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers It is true that it refers to words of "shared etymology," but note that words of unshared etymology that sound similar or are spelled the same with different meanings are often called "false cognates." (Point being that cognate is still used) Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 4:30


In the above wikipedia article are a list of French words which have retained their original meaning and spelling. As far as I could tell, a single word or expression meaning unmodified foreign words (my definition) which have been adopted into the English language, does not exist.

(Emphasis mine)

This article, however, covers words and phrases that generally entered the lexicon later, [...] As such, they have not lost their character as Gallicisms, or words that seem unmistakably foreign and "French" to an English speaker. The phrases are given as used in English, and may seem correct modern French to English speakers, but may not be recognized as such by French speakers as many of them are now defunct or have drifted in meaning. A general rule is that, if the word or phrase retains French diacritics or is usually printed in italics, it has retained its French identity.

A similar list exists for Italian words and phrases, again these words retain their "ethnical" spelling and meaning however, their pronunciation may differ from that of Italian.

On a side note, Loanwords or its equivalent expression lexical borrowing, expresses the concept of foreign words which were adopted and manipulated in the past and today appear and sound native-like. For example the English adjective, handy, was loaned to the German language but means mobile phone consequently "Handy" is a German noun.


In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, (Edition 2010) David Crystal. The author states on p302

When languages have been shown to have a common ancestor, they are said to be cognate.

The clearest cases are those where the parent language is known to exist. For example, on the basis of the various words for 'father' in the Romance languages, it is possible to see how they all derived from the Latin word pater.


Italian padre; Spanish padre; French père; Portuguese pai; Catalan pare.

on p340, Crystal talks about language changes; sound, grammatical, and semantic. Under the heading of New words and old he makes the following remarks:

In most languages the vast majority of new words are in fact borrowings from other languages [...] Borrowing proceeds in all directions, Weekend and parking have been borrowed by French from English; chic and savoir-faire have been borrowed by English from French. Some languages have borrowed so extensively that native words are in a minority

In nowhere (could I find) does the esteemed author, David Crystal, mention a linguistic word, phrase or term which means native and foreign words having the same meaning and spelling.

  • I believe the only realistic term the OP could use is "borrowed foreign words" but that does not guarantee its spelling is identical to its "parent" language.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 6:40
  • Careful, "handy" is a (slang) noun in English, too. "Give me a handy" or "How much for a handy?" would get a very different reaction in some places ... (Although, to go way too far with this - I bet they cover a similar price range.)
    – hunter2
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 7:37
  • "Some languages have borrowed so extensively that native words are in a minority" Interesting, although it sounds like a stretch. Does he say which?
    – hunter2
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 7:39
  • Not in that specific page/section/chapter, he doesn't. It's quite a hefty volume so there might be references elsewhere.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 7:41
  • @hunter2 I've never heard of that expression handy being used that way before. (But I have a good idea what it means!)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 7:43

"Homograph" (almost, sorta) means what you want - two words that are spelled the same. As a comment points out, you should be careful of words that look the same but have different meanings - what another comment calls "false friends". "Homograph" does not specifically denote words from different languages, although that may be a finer distinction than you're inclined to make.

Related (but not what you are seeking): "Homonym" is a more commonly used word which, I think, also indicates that the words are pronounced the same. To round it out, "Homophone" would be 'sound-alike'.

More detail in the question would be nice, but I think (from a comment) might also end with "this is a discussion for Programmers.SE or its chat room".

  • homographs plural Each of two or more words spelled the same but not necessarily pronounced the same and having different meanings and origins (e.g., bow1 and bow2)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 7:51
  • 1
    OP specifically asks for: words that are spelled identically in a foreign language and have the same meaning. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_homographs
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 7:57
  • However, on reflection the words are useful to know and the OP might find them "handy" in the future.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 8:05
  • Changed my downvote
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 8:14
  • @Mari-LouA Thanks. I appreciate that you left a comment with it, and I think that my changes based on your comments improved the answer. The system works! (sometimes ...)
    – hunter2
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 8:38

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.