Learning the Greek alphabet

As I said in my discussion of different scripts, the Hellenic languages use the Greek alphabet. Here it is. I’m afraid the table is a little complicated, because (a) each letter has a name, which it’s useful to know, and (b) there are some differences in pronunciation between Ancient Greek (which is still a language that people want to learn today), and Modern Greek. To try and keep it simple, I have only mentioned those that are not as they seem to an English speaker (Ancient Greek), or, in Modern Greek, those that vary from their Ancient sounds.

  Name Transcription Ancient Greek pronunciation Modern Greek pronunciation
Α α alpha a short as in await or cup, or long as in father as in father
Β β beta b   v as in vote
Γ γ gamma g as in get, but sometimes like sing y as in yellow
Δ δ delta d   th as in then
Ε ε epsilon e short e, as in set  
Ζ ζ zeta z as in wisdom z as in zoo
Η η eta (long e) e long e, as in hair i as in machine
Θ θ theta th t as in top th as in thin
Ι ι iota i short, as in hit  
Κ κ kappa k    
Λ λ lambda l    
Μ μ mu m    
Ν ν nu n    
Ξ ξ xi ks    
Ο ο omicron o short as in pot  
Π π pi p    
Ρ ρ rho r trilled  
Σ ς sigma s    
Τ τ tau t    
Υ υ upsilon u or y short as in French lune, or long as in French ruse  
Φ φ phi ph as in pot f as in five
Χ χ chi (kh) ch as in cat ch as in loch or Bach
Ψ ψ psi ps both pronounced, as in lips  
Ω ω omega (long o) ô as in saw short o, as in soft


Here are some visual mnemonics to help you learn all this. Note that these mnemonic cards include a keyword to help you remember the name of the letter, and another one to help you remember how it’s pronounced.

mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


tags strategies: 

Learning the Russian alphabet

As I said in my discussion of different scripts, Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Here it is:

А  а   a

Б  б   b

В  в   v

Г  г   g

Д  д   d

Е  е   ye

Ё  ё   yo

Ж  ж   zh

З  з   z

И  и   i

Й  й   y

К  к   c

Л  л   l

М  м   m

Н  н   n

О  о   o

П  п   p

Р  р   r

С  с   s

Т  т   t

У  у   u

Ф  ф   f

Х  х   kh

Ц  ц   ts

Ч  ч   ch

Ш  ш   sh

Щ  щ   sh (softer)

Ъ  ъ   hard sign

Ы  ы   y

Ь  ь   soft sign

Э  э   e

Ю  ю   yu

Я  я   ya

In my workbook for the Russian script, I use several strategies to help learners achieve mastery quickly and thoroughly. These strategies include:

  • grouping
  • visual mnemonics
  • test questions to help you practice
  • vocabulary lists for further practice.

These vocab lists appear for each group of letters, so you can practice on words that only use the letters you have learned. To make them easier to read (and also, beneficially, remember), the words are mostly cognate with English words (my Indo-European Cognate Dictionary was invaluable for that).

Some of the visual mnemonics are ‘cards’ for each letter. Here they are:


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


mnemonic card


tags strategies: 

Learning a different script

Learning a new language is made considerably more difficult if that language is written in an unfamiliar script. For some, indeed, that proves too massive a hurdle, and they give up the attempt.

Scripts, like languages, also vary considerably in difficulty. There are two main reasons for this. One is the number of characters to learn, and here an alphabetic script (like the Roman one we’re using now) has a big advantage. The marvellous wealth of the English language is available using only 26 letters! Most alphabets come in at somewhere around this number (although the largest, Khmer, is 74).

A syllabic system, on the other hand, ranges from around 50 to several hundred! Japanese hiragana, for example, contains 75.

Japanese is a very interesting example, because it has three scripts in use: two syllabic and one logographic. The logographic, which is called kanji, derives from the Chinese. Logographic scripts contain thousands of characters. The Japanese Ministry of Education prescribes a ‘basic’ 1,850 as most essential for everyday use.

It’s not surprising that mastery of two syllabic scripts and nearly 2,000 kanji proves a stumbling block for many students of the language!

The second reason for the great variation in script difficulty is the complexity of the characters. While some logographic characters can be as simple as Roman letters, these are few. Most are complex, some bewilderingly so.

If you want to learn a language that uses a script different to your own, you will find it much easier if you concentrate on the script as a separate issue (don’t simply struggle through trying to learn the language and script at the same time). You want to get your familiarity with the script to something approaching automaticity — that is, you don’t need to think about what the letter is, you just know it. The only way that’s going to happen is through practice.

Of course you get practice if you work on the language and script at the same time, but the problem is that the practice is not concentrated enough to speed your progress. You will actually save time (and make it more likely that you’ll continue with the language), if you master the script swiftly, through concentrated practice. (These remarks refer only to alphabetic or syllabic scripts, which have a more limited number of characters — whatever you do, you’re not going to master a logographic system swiftly!)

As always, though, your need for practice will be reduced if you can make the letters more memorable.

Within the Indo-European language family, there are essentially 5 scripts in use. The most common is the Roman script, which is what English uses. The Hellenic languages use (of course) the Greek alphabet. Russian and many other Slavic languages use the Cyrillic alphabet. Sanskrit and Hindi (and many other Indian languages) use Devanagari. Persian is written in the Persian alphabet, which is a modified Arabic script. Pashto, similarly, is written in its own modified Arabic script.

I have produced a short workbook for the Russian script, which uses grouping and visual mnemonics to make the letters more memorable, test questions to help you practice the letters, and vocabulary lists for further practice. The vocab lists appear for each group of letters, so you can practice on words that only use the letters you have learned. They also use words that are mostly cognate with English words (my Indo-European Cognate Dictionary was invaluable for that), or are otherwise easy to remember. Thus you can not only practice your letters, but also pick up some few hundreds of words as well.

I’ve put up a page with the Russian alphabet and some of these visual mnemonics.

You can also see a page with the Greek alphabet and some visual mnemonics (I’m working on a workbook for this alphabet).

tags strategies: 

Using cognates to learn Italian vocabulary

In my article on using cognates to help you learn vocabulary in another language, I gave the example of trying to learn the German word for important, ‘wichtig’, and how there’s no hook there to help you remember it (which is why so many of us fall back on rote repetition to try to hammer vocabulary into our heads). However, I pointed out, if you knew that wichtig descends from a root that also produced weigh, weight, and weighty, you could reframe the translation as wichtig = weighty, important, and now you have your meaningful connection.

Such connections don’t do away entirely with the need to practice, but they do mean that much less practice is required. You just have to focus on that meaningful connection.

Let’s have a look at that in action.

A list of the 1,000 most commonly spoken Italian words, generated from subtitles of movies and television series, includes 475 nouns plus 17 numbers (cardinal and ordinal, so I’ve put them in a separate category).

I have classified all 475 nouns into groups based on the available meaningful connections for an English speaker learning Italian:

  • 208 are very easy, meaning they’re very close to their English counterparts (Group 1)

  • 54 are still fairly easy, being cognate with their English counterparts, and similar enough if you’re looking for it (Group 2)

  • 101 are harder to see, but are still cognate (Group 3)

  • 77 are still cognate, but more difficult (Group 4)

  • 23 have cognates, but with obscure words or common French or Spanish words, or the similarity is much less evident (Group 5)

  • 12, and only 12, are unrelated, and thus require a mnemonic connection (Group 6)

Of the 17 numbers, all are cognate, and most of them quite obviously so.

In other words, about 94% of this group have some meaningful connection with an English word. I will agree that the nouns and numbers are far more likely to be cognate than other parts of speech, but still, this is impressive.

I am working on a workbook that will expand on these, and contain all the top 1000 words. In the meantime, I hope the following lists of these nouns and numbers are useful.

Here are the numbers that appear in the list:

uno, one

due, two — think duo, dual

tre, three — also cognate with tri-, as in triangle, trio, tripod

quattro, four — think of quadruple, quadrilateral, quadruped, square

cinque, five — cognate with five, but this is not very obvious; also cognate with quinquennial and quinate, and of course French cinq

sei, six — cognate, but you do have to focus on the first part of ‘six’!

sette, seven — cognate but it may help to think of September (which used to the 7th month, before the Romans reformed the calendar by popping in what would become July and August), also septenarian and septuagenarian; also French sept

otto, eight — think octagon, octopus, octave

nove, nine — French neuf, English November (same reason: it started off as the 9th month), novena

dieci, ten — cognate with decimal, and French dix

venti, twenty — okay, there are words in English cognate with this, but they’re pretty rare; still, if you drop the initial t, the words become much more similar

cento, hundred — cognate with cent, century

migliaia, thousand — think of millimeter, millisecond, etc

milione, million

primo, first — think of primary

secondo, second

terzo, third


Ok, let’s look at the nouns. First, the ones that are very similar to their English counterparts:

Group 1

abilità, skill, ability

accordo, accord, agreement, chord (mus.)

animale, animal

appartamento, apartment, flat

area, area

arte, art

atomo, atom

atto, act

auto, car (automobile)

banca, bank

banda, band

bar, bar

base, base

bit, bit

blocco, block

bordo, edge, border

campo, field, camp

capitale, capital

capitano, captain

carattere, character

caso, case

causa, cause

cella, cell

cent, cent

centro, center

città, city, town

classe, class

colonia, colony

colonna, column

colore, color

commercio, trade, commerce

condizione, condition

consonante, consonant

continente, continent

controllo, control

copia, copy

corda, rope, cord

corrente, current

corso, course

costa, coast

costo, cost

cotone, cotton

cuoco, cook

cura, care, treatment, cure

danza, dance

decimale, decimal

deserto, desert

difficoltà, trouble, difficulty

discussioni, discussion, argument

divisione, division

dizionario, dictionary

dollaro, dollar

effetto, effect

elemento, element

energia, energy

esempio, example

esercizio, exercise

esperienza, experience

esperimento, experiment

est, east

evento, event

famiglia, family

fatto, fact

feltro, felt

fico, fig

fiera, fair, exhibition

figura, figure

finale, final

finitura, finish

foresta, forest

forma, form, shape

forza, force, strength

frase, sentence, phrase

frazione, fraction

frutta, fruit

gas, gas

gatto, cat

giardino, garden

gruppo, group

idea, idea

industria, industry

insetto, insect

interesse, interest

lettera, letter

liquido, liquid

linea, line

livello, level

log, log

lotto, lot

macchina, machine

magnete, magnet

mais, maize, corn

mappa, map

marchio, mark

massa, mass

materia, matter

materiale, material

melodia, melody

messaggio, message

modello, model, pattern

motivo, reason, motive

metallo, metal

metodo, method

minuto, minute

molecola, molecule

momento, moment

montagna, mountain

monte, mount, mountain

moto, motion

motore, engine, motor

musica, music

natura, nature

nazione, nation

nome, name

nord, north

nota, note

numerale, numeral

numero, number

oceano, ocean

offerta, offer

oggetto, object

olio, oil

ora, hour

ordine, order

organo, organ

pagina, page

palla, ball

papà, dad

paragrafo, paragraph

parte, part

partito, party

pausa, pause, break

periodo, period

persona, person

persone, people

pistola, gun

porto, port

posa, pose

posizione, position

possibilità, possibility, chance

pratica, practice

presente, present

problema, problem

processo, process

prodotto, product

proprietà, property

punto, point

quarto di gallone, quart

quota, share, portion, quota

quoziente, quotient

radio, radio

record, record

regione, region

resto, rest

risultato, result

rock, rock

rosa, rose

sale, salt

scala, scale

scienza, science

scuola, school

segmento, segment

segno, sign — also signal

senso, sense

sistema, system

sezione, section

sillaba, syllable

simbolo, symbol

soluzione, solution

sorpresa, surprise

sostanza, substance

spazio, space

stato, state

stazione, station

storia, story, history

strada, street, road

stringa, string

strumento, instrument, tool

studente, student

studio, study

successo, success

sud, south

suffisso, suffix

supporto, support

tavolo, table

team, team

temperatura, temperature

termine, term

test, test

tipo, type

tono, tone

totale, total

treno, train

triangolo, triangle

tubo, tube

turno, turn

ufficio, office

umano, human

unità, unit, unity

uso, use

valle, valley

valore, value

vapore, steam, vapor / vapour

velocità, speed, velocity

verbo, verb

vigore, force, vigor / vigour

villaggio, village

visita, visit

vittoria, win, victory


Group 2

the fairly easy nouns (but you may have to work a little to see the connection)

acqua, water — aqua, aquatic

amico, friend — amicable, Spanish amigo

angolo, corner — angle

anno, year — annual

amore, love — amorous, French amour

bambino, child, baby

barca, boat — barge, barque

bellezza, beauty — belle (the belle of the ball)

bevanda, drink — beverage

cane, dog — canine

carne, meat — carnivore

casa, home, house — well-known in English from the Spanish casa; also cognate with French chez (to, at), as in chez moi (at my house)

cavallo, horse — cavalry

cielo, sky — ceiling

collo, neck — collar

corpo, body — corpse

cravatta, tie — cravat

denti, teeth — dental, dentist

dimensione, size — dimension

discorso, speech, discourse

donna, woman — madonna, dame

erba, grass — herb

fine, end — final, also French fin

fratello, brother — fraternal, fraternity

libro, book — library

lingua, language — cognates, also linguistics, lingo

luna, moon — lunar

madre, mother — cognates, also maternal, maternity

mano, hand — manuscript (written by hand), also French main, Spanish mano

mare, sea — marine, maritime

mente, mind — cognates, also mental

meraviglia, wonder — marvel, marvellous

mercato, market — cognates, also merchant, mercantile

morte, death — mortal, mortality

naso, nose — cognates, also nasal

nave, ship — nautical, navy, navigate

pneumatico, tyre / tire — pneumatic tyre

poesia, poem — also poetry, poetic

posto, place, spot — post, position

potenza, power — potent

regola, rule — cognates, also regulate, regular

risposta, answer — response, riposte

salto, jump — saltatory, saltation, also French sauter

sangue, blood — sanguinary, sanguine, exsanguinate, also French sang, Spanish sangre

signora, lady — cognate with senior, sire

sole, sun — solar

stella, star — stellar

terra, land, earth, ground — terrestrial, also French terre

tratto, stretch (of road, river, land) — tract

uomo, man — human

vento, wind — cognates, also ventilate

vista, view, sight — vista

vita, life — vital


Group 3

Here are the words that are cognate, but less obviously so:

alimentazione, supply, feed, diet — alimentary (canal), alimentation

anello, ring — annulus, annular.

aria, air — aura, air, aerate, aerial

avviso, notice, advice, advertisement

calore, heat — calorie, calorific

campana, bell — is in fact the word for a church bell in English, but this is not a well-known word! also cognate with campanology, the study of bells

canzone, song — chant, French chanson

capelli, hair — capillary (because capillary veins are as fine as hair)

capo, chief — capo (come into English through the portrayals of the mafia), capital, per capita

cappello, hat — cap

coda, tail — coda, caudal, caudate.

copertura, cover — cover, covert

desiderio, wish — desire

dito, finger — digit

divertimento, fun — diversion

fattoria, farm — factor (meaning someone who acts as a business agent, especially a manager of a landed estate)

ferro, iron — ferric, meaning related to iron; also French fer

ferrovia, railway — ‘iron way’, A railway is an iron way, ferric via

fila, row — file (in the sense of people in a row, moving ‘in file’)

finestra, window —  defenestrate, also French fenêtre, Spanish fenestra, German Fenster

fiore, flower — floral, flower; also Spanish flor, French fleur

flusso, flow — cognate with flux (when something’s in flux, it’s still in flow)

foglio, sheet, leaf — folio, foliate, exfoliate

fondo, bottom — fundamental, profound.

genitore, parent — progenitor, genitive

gioia, joy

giorno, day — journal, also French jour, journée

grado, degree, level, grade — grade, gradient

grafico, chart — graph, graphic

guerra, war — guerilla, also French guerre

immagine, picture — image, imagine

impianto, plant — implant, plant

isola, island — isle, isolated

lago, lake — lagoon

lato, side — lateral (relating to the side), quadrilateral (four-sided)

latte, milk — latte (milky coffee), lactose, lactating

lavaggio, wash — lave, lavatory, launder

lavoro, work, job — labour/labor

libbra, pound — this is why the abbreviation for pound is lb. (from Latin libra), also French livre, Spanish libra, and the zodiac sign Libra

luce, light — lux, lucent, translucent

lunghezza, length — from lungo, meaning long

maschi, men — macho, masculine

mattina, morning — matins (an early morning church service), also French matin

medico, doctor — medic, medical

mese, month — cognate with menses, trimester (3 months), semester (six months); also Spanish mes and French mois

mezzogiorno, noon — break it down into mezzo-giorno = mid-day

miglio, mile — cognates, and related to migliaia, thousand, from the Roman mile being 1000 paces

miniera, mine — cognates

modo, manner, way — mode

mondo, world — mundane (worldly, belonging to the world), also French monde, Spanish mundo

muro, wall — mural, immured

nascita, birth — nascent, renaissance

negozio, store, shop — negotiate

nemico, enemy — inimical, enemy

notte, night — nocturnal, and indeed night

nube, cloud — nebula, nebulous

onda, wave — undulate

oro, gold — auric, French or

orologio, watch, clock — horology

ossigeno, oxygen — cognates

osso, bone — ossify

ovest, west — cognates, also French ouest, Spanish oeste

padre, father — padre, pater, paternal, paternity

pane, bread — French pain, as in pain au chocolat; also Spanish pan

passo, step — pace

pensiero, thought — pensive, also French penser

pensione, board — pension

pesce, fish — Pisces, piscatory, also Spanish pez, and French poisson

pezzo, piece — cognates (also, you can think of a piece of pizza!)

pianeta, planet — cognates

piano, plane, plan, floor — cognates

piazza, square, plaza — plaza

piede, foot — pedal, pedestrian, also French pied, Spanish pie

piedi, feet — as before

pista, track — French piste, as in the English expression "off piste"

porta, door — portal, also French porte

primavera, spring — prima is cognate with primary (1st) and vera with vernal (relating to spring)

prossimo, neighbor — proximal, proximate

radice, root — radish

re, king — rex

riva, shore — river

rotolo, roll — rotate, roll

ruota, wheel — rotate, rota

sedia, chair — sedan chair, sedentary

sedile, seat — ditto

seme, seed — semen

soggetto, subject — cognates

soldato, soldier — cognates

soldi, money — solid, an old coin called the solidus, also French sol, sou

sorella, sister — sorority, also French sœur, Spanish sor

speranza, hope — esperance, desperate (out of hope), also Spanish esperanza, French espérer

spettacolo, show — spectacle

suolo, soil — cognate with French sol, Spanish suelo

suono, sound — cognates, also French son, Spanish son, sueno

superficie, surface — superficial

uovo, egg — ovary, also French œuf, Spanish huevo

viaggio, trip — voyage

vocale, vowel — vocal (because vowels are voiced by the vocal cords with little restriction on them, in an open way)

voce, voice — cognates

volontà, will — voluntary

zucchero, sugar — cognates



Group 4

harder cognates, where the links are more obscure:

acciaio, steel — the common root means sharp; cognate with acid, acerbic, acrimony

ala, wing — cognate with alar, agile, axle

albero, tree — cognate with arbor, arboreal, arboretum, also French arbre

azienda, company — cognate with hacienda

bastone, stick — cognate with bâton

caccia, hunt — cognate with catch

camera, room — used in the expression in camera, and cognate with bicameral, chamber, cabaret

camion, truck — comes from French camion, which has passed the word into many languages, including English; may derive from chemin, meaning way, path (see Spanish camino)

cappotto, coat — cognate with cape

carica, charge (as in attack), load — cognates, also car, chariot (think of a chariot charge and a car's load)

carta, paper — cognate with card, chart

cerchio, circle — cognates, also circus

chiamata, call — cognate with claim, declaim, proclaim

chiave, key — cognate with clavis, clavichord, clavicle, clef

collina, hill — cognates, also column, colliculus (anatomical term)

colpo, blow — cognate with the English/French word coup (coup de foudre, coup d'état, coup de grâce)

coppia, pair — cognate with couple; could also think of copied

cosa, thing — cognate with cause, also French chose

cuore, heart — cognate with core, accord, also French cœur

domanda, question, request, demand — cognate with demand

estate, summer — cognate with estivate/aestivate, estival/aestival, also French été

età, age — cognate with eternal, eon

figlio, son — cognate with filial, also French fils

filo, wire — cognate with filament, file

fiume, river — cognate with fluvial, flume, fluent, fluid

folla, crowd — cognate with full, folk, also French foule

fornitura, supply — cognate with furniture, furnish

foro, hole — cognate with door, forum, forensic

fretta, hurry — cognate with Fr frit, meaning fried (as in pommes frites), and indeed English fry, fried

fuoco, fire — cognate with focus (think of the hearth historically being the focus of the home or room)

gamba, leg — cognate with gambol, and French jambe

gamma, range — cognate with gamut, and of course the Greek letter gamma (but this doesn't point to the meaning in the same way)

ghiaccio, ice — cognate with glacier, and French glace (ice, ice cream)

gioco, game — cognate with joke, juggle, also French jeu, Spanish juego

giro, ride, tour, turn — cognate with gyrate

grido, cry — may be cognate with cry, also Spanish gritar

inverno, winter — cognate with hibernate, also French hiver

lattina, can, tin (diminutive of latta, meaning the same thing) — cognate with lath, lattice (all to do with being thin, narrow)

legge, law — cognate with legal

legno, wood — cognate with ligneous, lignite

letto, bed — cognate with litter (think of the litter used for carrying the sick or wounded, not trash), also French lit

lotta, fight, struggle — cognate with lock, locket, through a root meaning to bend, twist; also French lutte, Spanish lucha

mela, apple — cognate with melon

metà, half — cognate with median, mediate

moglie, wife — cognate with moll, mollify, Molly

neve, snow — cognate with Nevada, névé, nival, and indeed snow; also French neige, Spanish nieve

occhio, eye — cognate with ocular, oculist, monocle, and indeed eye; also Spanish ojo

orecchio, ear — cognate with aural, auricular, ear, also ‎French oreille

paese, country — cognate with peace, also French pays, Spanish país

parola, word — cognate with palaver, parole, parlay, parable, also Spanish palabra

paura, fear — cognate with French peur (also quite similar to fear)

pece, pitch — cognates

pelle, skin — cognate with pelt, pellagra, film

pericolo, danger, peril

peso, weight — cognate with suspend, pound, expense, pensive

piega, crease, fold, pleat — cognate with pleat, replica, duplicate

pietra, stone — cognate with petrify (literally, turn to stone), also French pierre, Spanish piedra

pulcino, chick — cognate with pullet, also French poulet, poule

punteggio, score — may be cognate with point (as in score a point)

rabbia, anger, rabies — cognate with rabies, rage

raccolto, crop — cognate with recollect, collect

raggio, radius, spoke — cognate with radius

ramo, branch — cognate with root, ramus, ramification (branching)

ricerca, search, research —  cognates, also French chercher (Cherchez la femme!)

richiesta, claim, request, demand — cognate with require, request

rumore, noise — cognate with rumour

schiavo, slave — cognates

secolo, century — secular (from the Latin saeculum meaning generation, century, and also worldly), also French siècle, Spanish siglo

sega, saw — cognate with saw, dissect, secant, segment (notice the cutting theme)

sonno, sleep — cognate with somnolent

sostantivo, noun — cognate with substantive, with core of word (stant) cognate with stand; think of a noun as a substantive thing that stands, that is, a concrete object

spalla, shoulder — cognate with spatula, spatulate (think of the broad, flat nature of the shoulder blade), epaulettes, also Spanish espalda

tempo, weather — cognate with tempo, tempest, also French temps, Spanish tiempo

vece, stead, place (as in, in my place, in my stead) — cognate with vice versa, vice (meaning in place of, subordinate to), also week, vicissitude, vicar

vela, sail — cognate with veil, velum (a thin membrane like a veil)

vestito, dress — cognate with vestiment, vest, divest

vetro, glass — cognate with vitreous, vitrify, also French verre, vitre, and Spanish vidrio


Group 5

Those with with the hardest connections:

anatra, duck — cognate with an obscure English word, anatine, also German Ente

bisogno, need — cognate with French besoin; a possible keyword for those unfamiliar with this word is bison

bocca, mouth — another obscure cognate: buccal (relating to the cheek), also French bouche (as in Fermez la bouche!)

braccio, arm, branch — cognate with brachial; not cognate with branch, but similarity useful

bugia, lie — cognate with boast

cambiamento, a change, shift, turn — cognate with change, although not very obvious; perhaps clearer if you know that cambiamento derives from cambiare, to change, and the English comes from French changier

guscio, shell — may be cognate with cyst

pioggia, rain — cognate with pluvial, flood, float, also French pluie

pipistrello, bat — used to be vipistrello, which makes the link to cognates vespers (evening prayers) and western (where the sun sets) more obvious

pollice, inch, thumb — cognate with obscure word pollical (of the thumb), also French pouce (thumb, inch)

ruscello, stream — cognate with rivulet, also French ruisseau (but may be easier to go with a keyword: the rushing stream)

sabbia, sand — cognates from a root meaning to pour, also French sable

salita, climb — cognate with saltatory, saltation, also French sauter

scarpa, shoe — cognate with sharp, derives from Gothic word meaning sharp object with pointed ends, because shoes had a pointed end?

sentiero, path — cognate with French sentier, Spanish sendero; apparently not cognate with send, sent, but PIE root word *sent- meant to go, to travel, so could be considered so

sera, evening — here's an obscure cognate that some might know: serotine (a bat); more familiarly probably: French soir (as in bonsoir), and Spanish sera

settimana, week — cognate with September, through the sept=7 connection; also French semaine, Spanish semana

slittamento, slip, sliding — not cognate, but similarity sufficient for imagining so

sorriso, smile — cognate with risible (laughable) and riant (laughing); sorriso derives from Latin sub-rideo (below a laugh, as it were); also cognate with French sourire, souriant

stagione, season — cognate with station, also Spanish estación

taglio, cut — cognate with tagliatelle, intaglio

testa, head — cognate with French tête, Spanish testa

uccello, bird — cognate with avian, aviary, also French oiseau


Group 6

Those with no connections. These are the ones for which a mnemonic link is recommended, and I’ve provided some suggestions:

cantiere, shipyard, building site — canter into the yard

cibo, food — chip (actually cognate with ciborium, a receptacle for communion wafers, if you happen to know it; also Spanish cebo)

elenco, list — elect to the list

gara, race — cheer the race

mucca, cow — moo cow

partita, (sports) match, game — participate in the game (actually cognate with a musical term in English, if you happen to know it)

ragazza, girl / ragazzo, boy — ragged urchin

scatola, box — casket

scheda, card — the schedule is written on the card

se stesso, self — stetson

tuta, suit (sweatsuit, tracksuit, overalls) — tutu

volto, face — think of the expression volte face



tags strategies: 

Using cognates for language learning

Vocabulary is a sticking point for many language learners. That’s because words have a certain arbitrary quality that makes them hard to memorize. There are two strategies which are very effective with this task: the keyword mnemonic, and retrieval practice. I have written about these extensively in my books Mnemonics for Study, and How to learn: The 10 principles of effective revision & practice. But you need thousands of words to have any degree of fluency, and you’ll be much quicker to reach that level if you don’t have to apply these strategies to all words. Which is where we come to the relative ease of learning different languages. One of the main factors determining the ease or difficulty of mastering another language is the degree to which it shares vocabulary with the language(s) you know.

If you’ve done any study of a language related to your own, you’ll know about cognates. They’re the words that are easiest to learn because they’re similar to the words you already know, because they’re descended from the same root word. So, for example, ‘important’ is cognate with:

  • French important
  • Spanish importante
  • Portuguese importante
  • Italian importante
  • Romanian important

That’s a very obvious set! The reason is that these are all Romance languages — they descend from Latin. In this case, from Latin importans. Clearly, if you were learning the word in any of these languages, you wouldn’t even bother ‘learning’ it.

While English has much in common with the Romance languages, because of its extensive borrowing from French after the Norman Invasion (and also because of the strong influence of Latin, being the language of the Church and scholars for so many centuries), it is at heart a Germanic language. Let’s have a look at the Germanic words for this term:

  • German wichtig
  • Frisian wichtich
  • Norwegian viktig
  • Swedish viktig
  • Danish vigtig
  • Icelandic mikilvægt

This last one is less clearly part of the set, but you can see the relationship if you separate it into mikil-vægt.

All this appears completely unrelated to English, but in fact there is a relationship. Another word for important is weighty, and indeed, ‘weight’ and ‘weighty’ are cognate with these Germanic words, as is Dutch wichtig (meaning bulky), and German Gewicht (weight).

If you were learning German, and simply tried to memorize ‘wichtig = important’, there’s nothing to hook onto for your memory. However, if instead you were to think of it as ‘wichtig = weighty, important’, the new word becomes much easier to remember.

(A side-note for those interested in this sort of thing: the Germanic set are descended from the Proto-Indo-European word *weǵh-, while the Romance set are descended from *per-; intriguingly, both words have similar meanings of to bring, to transport, to carry forth.)

Let’s have a look at a fuller cognate cluster (this is a truncated set of the one appearing in the Indo-European Cognate Dictionary; for a full example of a cognate cluster, see my blog post). This is the cluster descending from the Proto-Indo-European word for hundred:



Germanic: hundred (Eng); hundred (OE); hûndert (Fris); honderd (Dut); Hundert (Ger); hundrað (Norse); hundre (Nor); hundra (Swe); hundrede (Dan); hundrað (Ice)

Celtic: cant (Wel); céad (Iri)

Italic: centum, centuria, centēnārius (Lat);

cent, centurie, centenaire (Fr);

cento, centuria (Ital);

cien, ciento, centuria, centenario (Sp);

cem, cento, centúria (Port);

cent, centurie (Rom)

Derivatives: cent, centimeter/centimetre, century, centennial, centenary, percentage (Eng);

centi-, centimeter (Dut); Zenturie, Zentner (Ger); centimeter (Nor); centimeter (Swe); centi-, centimeter (Dan);

κεντηνάριον (kentēnárion) (AnGk); центу́рия (centúrija) (Rus); qind, njëqind (Alb)

Hellenic: ἑκατόν (hekatón) (AnGk); εκατό (ekató) (Gk)

Derivatives: hecato- (Eng)

Slavic: сто (sto) (Rus); sto (Pol); sto (Cz); sto (Slo); сто (sto) (Mace)

Baltic: šim̃tas (Lith); simts (Latv)

Indo-Iranian: शत (śatá), शतम् (śatam) (Sans); सौ (sau) (Hin); سل‏ (səl) (Pash); صد‏ (sad) (Pers)

It is not in any way obvious that hundred and cent are related (except in meaning), but two patterns make the relationship clearer.

First of all, there’s a fundamental distinction between the ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ branches of the Indo-European tree, that’s expressed as the kentum-satem divide. This reflects the fact that most of the Western languages have a word for hundred that begins with a hard k sound, like Latin centum, while in the Eastern languages, the word for hundred begins with a soft s sound, as in the Sanskrit word satem. This distinction between a hard k and a soft s sound is thought to reflect a very early split in the Proto-Indo-European tribes, as some headed west and others east. Note how that Western-Eastern divide plays out in the branches:

Western (kentum): Celtic, Germanic, Italic, Greek, Anatolian

Eastern (satem): Balto-Slavic, Armenian, Albanian, Indo-Iranian

The second pattern is that in the Germanic languages, as Grimm’s laws describe, k becomes h, and t becomes d. So, *ḱm̥tóm becomes (eventually) hundred.

These patterns are why English has hundred, while words relating to hundred are based on cent (from Latin) or (more academically) hecato (from Ancient Greek).

This cluster can be used by anyone learning a language represented in the cluster, if they already know another of the languages in the cluster. For more examples of cognates specific to English and another language in the Indo-European family, see these:

Using cognates to learn Italian vocabulary

(more to follow)

tags strategies: 

Spanish Pegwords

Find out about the pegword mnemonic

Here are pegwords I've thought up in the Spanish language.

As with the original example, let's try it out with our cranial nerves.

En español, los nervios craneales son:

  1. olfatorio
  2. óptico
  3. motor ocular comun
  4. troclear
  5. trigémino
  6. abducens
  7. facial
  8. auditivo
  9. glosofaríngeo
  10. neumogástrico
  11. accesorio
  12. hipogloso

Each mnemonic image contains the pegword image plus something to denote the cranial nerve. In some cases, that can be very simple. But if the name of the nerve is less obvious, there will be items that refer to the function of the nerve and ones that provide keywords to the name. Such keywords are written in bold.

1 es el vino y nervio craneal 1 es olfatorio — una botella de vino que se vierte en un orificio nasal:

mnemonic image

2 es un oso y nervio craneal 2 es óptico — el oso usa una lupa para leer el periódico:

mnemonic image

3  es un tren y nervio craneal 3 es motor ocular comun — grandes gafas de protección en el motociclista que salta el tren:

mnemonic image

4 es un cuadro y nervio craneal 4 es troclear — imagina trocear la imagen del ojo

mnemonic image

5 es un banco y nervio craneal 5 es trigémino — relacionado con la mandíbula, por lo que tres gemas caen de una mandíbula en el banco:

mnemonic image

6 es el maíz y nervio craneal 6 es abducens — su ojo cayó sobre el maíz tirado en el adoquín

mnemonic image

7 es un diente y nervio craneal 7 es facial — nuestro diente feliz rebotando de una boca en una cara sonriente:

mnemonic image

8  es un ojo y nervio craneal 8 es auditivo — un ojo entre dos orejas:

mnemonic image

9 es un nave y nervio craneal 9 es glosofaríngeo — se relaciona con la garganta, por lo que aquí un hombre está a punto de tragar la nave espacial, mientras que un faraón escribe una glosa

mnemonic image

10 es un pez y nervio craneal 10 es neumogástrico — pez saltando a traves de un neumático

mnemonic image

11 es un guante y nervio craneal 11 es accesorio — se relaciona con la cabeza, entonces un guante y una cabeza encogida en una bolsa (un accesorio)

mnemonic image

12 es un coche y nervio craneal 12 es hipogloso — en relación con la lengua, por lo que un hipodérmico adormece la lengua cuando un automóvil pasa sobre ella

mnemonic image

tags strategies: 

Interested in language?

Here's the reason I haven't been updating my website or sending out my newsletter for a long time — I've been working on a dictionary. The Indo-European Cognate Dictionary, to be precise. It's out now, and I'm really excited about it. Excited that it's done, excited than I now have a physical copy that I can use myself, excited because — hey, I've written a dictionary! It weighs in at 545 pages, and it's available in the usual digital formats, except Kindle.

tags strategies: 

Proto-Indo-European language

  • Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the ultimate ancestor of many European and Indian languages.
  • Recognizing the relatedness of words in different languages can give you a boost in memorizing them.
  • My Indo-European Cognate Dictionary gathers words from 32 languages into cognate clusters that show related words.

The Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) is the ultimate ancestor of many European and Indian languages. The word "proto" indicates it was spoken thousands of years in the past and we have no direct record of it. What we do have is the clear evidence in its descendant languages, from the consistent patterns in the way their words vary,  that there was such an ancestor. Following these patterns, scholars have deduced a quite extensive vocabulary — but they are still reconstructed, not ‘real’ words. We can never know exactly how these words were pronounced, or precisely how they were used. Conventionally, therefore, such words are written with a preceding asterisk.

Here is a list of the living branches of the Indo-European language tree (the languages covered in my Indo-European Cognate Dictionary are given in bold print):

Celtic: Breton, Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic (in order of number of speakers)


West Germanic: English, Old English, Frisian, Dutch, German

North Germanic: Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Norse (in order of number of speakers)

Italic: Latin and its descendants: French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian

Greek (Ancient, Modern)


Baltic: Lithuanian, Latvian


Western: Polish, Czech, Slovak, Sorbian / Lusatian

Southern: Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, Slovene, Bulgarian

Eastern: Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian



Iranian: Persian, Tajik, Pashto, Baluchi, Kurdish, Ossete

Indic / Indo-Aryan: Sanskrit, Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, Nepali, Sinhala, Urdu, Romani

Linguistic laws

Here are some of the patterns that scholars have observed. These have become complicated over the years as linguists explain variations, but the initial discovery was very simple and easy to describe. So, bearing in mind that these ‘rules’ don’t apply all the time, and there are a number of principles that describe variations to these rules, and other patterns, here are the main linguistic patterns relating to Germanic languages. These were first realized by Jacob Grimm (yes, one of the Grimm brothers, of fairy tale fame) in 1822. Grimm spotted that a p at the beginning of a word in Sanskrit, Latin, or Greek, consistently becomes f in Germanic languages. He went on to observe nine such patterns, which collectively are known as Grimm’s law:

p → fbook cover

d → t

k → h

t → th

b → p

g → k

bh → b

dh → d

gh → g

Here are examples of these in action:

Latin pater is English father  (p → f; t → th)

French pied is English foot (p → f; d → t)

Latin caput is Old English hafud (k → h; p → f), meaning head

Latin tres is English three (t → th)

Lithuanian dubus (from PIE *dʰewb-) is English deep (b → p)

Latin genus (race) and English kin are cognate (g → k), as is Latin ager (field) and English acre

PIE *bʰeh2go- becomes beech in English, but that same bh sound becomes f in Latin and Greek, hence fāgus and  φηγός ‎(phēgós)

similarly, PIE *bʰréh2tēr is brother in English, but frater in Latin and φράτηρ ‎(phrátēr) in Greek

PIE *dʰugh2tḗr becomes daughter; PIE *dʰwer- becomes door

PIE *ǵʰer- becomes garden and garth in English, but hortus and χόρτος ‎(khórtos) in Latin and Greek

It’s also worth noting that there’s a fundamental distinction between the ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ branches of the Indo-European tree, that’s expressed as the kentum-satem divide. This reflects the fact that most of the Western languages have a word for hundred that begins with a hard k sound, like Latin centum (in the Germanic languages, as Grimm’s law describes, this k becomes h, hence our hundred). In the Eastern languages, the word for hundred begins with a soft s sound, as in the Sanskrit word satem. This distinction between a hard k and a soft s sound is thought to reflect a very early split in the Proto-Indo-European tribes, as some headed west and others east. Note how that Western-Eastern divide plays out in the branches:

Western (kentum): Celtic, Germanic, Italic, Greek, Anatolian

Eastern (satem): Balto-Slavic, Armenian, Albanian, Indo-Iranian

Having talked about changes, I should note that, notwithstanding the thousands of years that have passed, the occasional PIE word has been retained almost unchanged to the present day (and personally, I find that quite exciting to see!). Daughter (*dʰugh2tḗr) and *new (new) are excellent examples of this.

Relevance to language learning

It's said that you need around 2000 words to be usefully fluent in a language (this is a ballpark figure, and obviously depends on the language and what you need it for). Learning this number of words is the reason why most people fail at learning another language. But here's the thing — people often think it's all about memorization, and it isn't. Even though vocab learning would seem to be a prime example of information that just needs to be hammered into your brain using brute force, rather than building understanding, there is in fact a role for understanding, for natural connections with information you already know well.

How easy a language is to learn is partly down to the number of shared cognates — Spanish, for example, is one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn, because there's a huge number of words that are very very similar. But not all cognates are obvious to the untutored eye. Some need a bit more knowledge before they become clear. If you can learn to see those natural connections, you won't need to apply more difficult strategies.

In my cognate dictionary, I have collected 40,000 words from 32 Indo-European languages into 430 cognate clusters, in order to help you increase the number of words you can learn through natural connections.

tags strategies: 

Building Cognitive Reserve

  • Both age-related cognitive decline and brain damage like Alzheimer's can be countered by high levels of cognitive reserve.
  • Cognitive reserve is built throughout your life, but it's never too late to make a difference.
  • You can build cognitive reserve through active learning, intellectual work, being actively bi- or multi-lingual, or regularly engaging in mentally stimulating activities.
  • To maintain (or grow) cognitive abilities, it's important both to resist the brain's tendency to shrink (brain atrophy) , and to keep it flexible (neuroplasticity).
  • Brains shrink with disuse, and grow with use.
  • Brains stay plastic through change — in activities, in strategies, in perspective.

Brain autopsies have revealed that a significant number of people die with Alzheimer’s disease evident in their brain, although in life their cognition wasn’t obviously impaired. From this, the idea of a “cognitive reserve” has arisen — the idea that brains with a higher level of neuroplasticity can continue to work apparently normally in the presence of (sometimes quite extensive) brain damage.

A comprehensive review of the research into cognitive reserve, involving 29,000 individuals across 22 studies, concluded that complex mental activity across people’s lives almost halves the risk of dementia. Encouragingly, all the studies also agreed that it was never too late to build cognitive reserve.

As you might expect, the more years of education, the greater the cognitive reserve. But education isn’t the only means of building cognitive reserve. Basically, anything that’s mentally challenging is likely to build reserve. Research supports the following as builders of cognitive reserve:

  • Education
  • Occupational complexity
  • Bilingualism
  • Social engagement
  • Regular cognitive activities, such as reading, writing, attending lectures, doing word games or puzzles, playing games such as bridge or chess.

Will cognitive reserve stop me getting Alzheimer's?

This is not to say that the highly educated will never get Alzheimer’s! Obviously they do. In fact, once those with a high level of cognitive reserve begin to show signs of the disease, they are likely to decline faster. This isn’t surprising when you consider it, because the physical damage is so much greater by the time it becomes observable in behavior.

The point of having cognitive reserve is not to prevent Alzheimer’s, in the sense of “it’ll never happen”. When we talk about “preventing” Alzheimer’s, we're really talking about delaying it. The trick is to delay it so much that you're dead before it happens!

So, cognitive reserve is desirable because it protects you against the damage that may be occurring in your brain. If you’re lucky, it’ll protect you long enough to see you through your life.

Brains are plastic, all through life

Cognitive reserve is weighted toward the past — how much you’ve built up over your lifetime — but you shouldn’t ever forget that it’s an ongoing issue. If you stop all activities that reinforce neuroplasticity, your brain is likely to enter a downward spiral, with physical deterioration resulting from and feeding into a deterioration in your motor,sensory, and cognitive systems.

As the popular mantra has it: Use it or lose it.

It’s the opposite face of expertise. You know how top musicians continue to practice everyday. Although they have tens of thousands of hours of practice under their belt, although they have reached the highest level of performance, they cannot afford to stop. This isn’t simply about improving; this is about maintaining their level of expertise. As soon as you stop, your performance starts to deteriorate.

Of course, if an expert stops working in her area of expertise, she will still maintain abilities that are far and above ‘normal’. But the point is that you can’t maintain the same level of performance without working at it.

This is true at every level. If you haven’t ridden a bike for twenty years, you’re not going to leap on it and be as good as you were thirty years ago. If you haven’t spoken your native language in twenty years, you’re not going to suddenly get into a conversation in it with all the fluency you once had.

If you stop paying attention to taste, your appreciation of taste will dull (you’re not interested, why should your brain bother putting energy into it?). If you stop trying to distinguish what people are saying, you’ll become less able to distinguish words. If you stop walking outside the house, you’ll become less capable of movement. If you stop thinking, you’ll become less able to think.

If you just do the same things over and over again, giving your brain no reason to make or reinforce or prune connections, then it won’t bother doing any of that. Why should it? Brains are energy-hounds. If you don’t want to expend the energy making it work, it’s going to sit back and let itself shrink.

Maintaining cognitive abilities as you age begins with attitude

Recent evidence suggests that being cognitively active in middle and old age may help you develop new networks when existing networks start to fail. This is consistent with evidence that older adults who maintain their cognitive abilities do so by developing new strategies that involve different regions.

In other words, if you start to have difficulties with anything, your best strategy is not to give up, but to actively explore new ways of doing it.

So, we should be aiming for two things in preventing cognitive decline. The first is in ‘growing’ brain tissue: making new neurons, and new connections. This is to counteract the shrinkage (brain atrophy) that tends to occur with age.

The second concerns flexibility. Retaining the brain’s plasticity is a vital part of fighting cognitive decline, even more vital, perhaps, than retaining brain tissue. To keep this plasticity, we need to keep the brain changing.

Here’s a question we don’t yet know the answer to: how much age-related cognitive decline is down to people steadily experiencing fewer and fewer novel events, learning less, thinking fewer new thoughts?

But we do know it matters.

What activities help build cognitive reserve?

Research hasn't systematically compared different activities to find out which are better, but the general message is that any activity that engages your mind is good. But the degree of challenge does make a difference.

One small study involving older adults found that those who randomly put in a "high-challenge" group showed significantly more cognitive improvement and more efficient brain activity, compared to those assigned to the "low-challenge" group. Moreover, even among the high-challenge group, those who spent more time on the activities showed the greatest improvements.

The high-challenge spent at least 15 hours a week for 14 weeks learning progressively more difficult skills in digital photography, quilting, or a combination of both. The low-challenge group met to socialize and engage in activities related to subjects such as travel and cooking. A control group engaged in low-demand cognitive tasks such as listening to music, playing simple games, or watching classic movies.

tags strategies: 

tags memworks: 


Subscribe to bilingualism