Doublet (linguistics)

Doublet (linguistics)

In etymology, two or more words in the same language are called doublets or etymological twins (or possibly triplets, etc.) when they have different phonological forms but the same etymological root. Often, but not always, the variants have entered the language through different routes. Because the relationship between words that have the same root and the same meaning is fairly obvious, the term is mostly used to characterize pairs of words that have diverged in meaning.

For example English pyre and fire are doublets. Subtle differences in the resulting modern words contribute to the richness of the English language, as indicated by the doublets frail and fragile (which share the Latin root, fragilis): one might refer to a fragile tea cup and a frail old woman, but frail tea cup and fragile old woman are uncommon.

Another example of nearly synonymous doublets is aperture and overture (the commonality behind the meanings is "opening"), but doublets may develop divergent meanings, such as the opposite words, host and guest from the same PIE root, which occur as a doublet in Latin and then Old French hospes, before having been borrowed into English. Doublets also vary with respect to how far their forms have diverged. For example, the resemblance between levy and levee is obvious, whereas the connection between sovereign and soprano is harder to guess synchronically from the forms of the words alone.

Etymological twins are often a result of chronologically separate borrowing from a source language. In the case of English, this usually means once from French during the Norman invasion, and again later, after the word had evolved separately in French. An example of this is warranty and guarantee. Another possibility is borrowing from both a language and its daughter language (usually Latin and some other Romance language – see Latin influence in English).

Alternatively, a word may be inherited from a parent language, and a cognate borrowed from a separate sister language – in English this means one word inherited from a Germanic source, with a Latinate cognate term borrowed from Latin or a Romance language. In English this is most common with words which can be traced back to Indo-European languages, such as the Romance "beef" and the Germanic "cow", which in many cases actually do share the same proto-Indo-European root. However, in some cases the branching is more recent, dating only to proto-Germanic, not to PIE – many words of Germanic origin occur in French and other Latinate languages, and hence in some cases were both inherited by English (from proto-Germanic) and borrowed from French or another source – see List of English Latinates of Germanic origin. The forward linguistic path also reflects cultural and historical transactions; often the name of an animal comes from Germanic while the name of its cooked meat comes from Romance. Since English is unusual in that it borrowed heavily from two distinct branches of the same language family tree – Germanic and Latinate/Romance – it has a relatively high number of this latter type of etymological twin. See list of Germanic and Latinate equivalents in English for further examples and discussion.


Examples in English

Examples in English include:

  • shadow, shade and shed (all three from Old English sceadu "shadow, shade")
  • stand, stay, state, status and static (native, Middle French, Latin (twice) and Ancient Greek via Latin, from the same Indo-European root)
  • chief and chef (both from French at different times)
  • secure and sure (from Latin, the latter via French)
  • plant and clan (from Latin, the latter via Old Irish)
  • right, rich, raj, regalia, reign, royal and real (from Germanic, Celtic, Sanskrit, Latin, French (twice) and Portuguese cognates, respectively)
  • carton and cartoon, both ultimately the augmentative of Latin carta
  • ward and guard (from Norman, the latter via French, both from Germanic); also warden and guardian.
  • chrism, creme and grime (the first two from French, in the 14th and 19th centuries, respectively, the last from Germanic)
  • cow and beef (from Proto-Indo-European; the former through Germanic – i.e. natively via Old English – the latter through Latin via French)
  • wheel, whorl, cyclone, cycle, circle and chakra (Germanic twice, Greek, Greek via Latin, Latin via French, and Sanskrit)
  • frenetic and frantic (both from Greek, via Old French and Latin)
  • cave and cavern (from Latin 'cavus', via French and Germanic languages respectively)
  • price, prize, praise, pry (a lever) and prix (all from French, some diverged in English)
  • corn, kernel and grain (all ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *grnóm, the first two natively via Proto-Germanic (g → k), the last via Latin, borrowed from Old French)
  • pique, pike (weapon) – both from Middle French pique
  • mister, master, meister, maestro, Mistral (the name of a Mediterranean wind), magistrate are all ultimately derived from Latin magister, which means greater.

Norman vs. Modern French

Many words of French origin were borrowed twice or more. Most frequently, the first borrowing occurred shortly after the Normans took over England following the Battle of Hastings, while the second borrowing may have come into English during the sixteenth to nineteenth century, when France was at the height of its power and international influence. Notice that there are multiple doublets caused by the w → g sound change in French, which happened well after the Norman conquest. Several of these examples also reflect changes in French after the Norman period which caused the possible environments of [s] to be greatly reduced.

Norman Modern
car chariot
castle chateau
catch chase
cattle chattel
convey convoy
paste pate or pâté
feast fete or fête
hostel hotel
pocket pouch
glamour grammar
reward regard
wallop gallop
warden guardian
wardrobe garderobe
warranty guarantee
wile, wily guile

Examples in Chinese

Derivative cognates are a classification of Chinese characters which have similar meanings and often the same etymological root, but which have diverged in pronunciation and meaning. An example is the doublet and . At one time they were pronounced similarly and meant "old (person)." Now is pronounced /lɑʊ̯˨˩˦/ in Standard Mandarin and mainly means "old" and is pronounced /kʰɑʊ̯˨˩˦/ and mainly means "examine."

Differing literary and colloquial readings of certain Chinese characters are common doublets in many Chinese languages and the reading distinctions for certain phonetic features often typify a dialect group. Literary readings are usually used in formal loan words or names, when reading aloud and in formal settings, while colloquial readings are usually used in vernacular speech. For a given Chinese language, colloquial readings typically reflect native phonology, while literary readings typically originate from other Chinese languages, typically more prestigious varieties. Sometimes literary and colloquial readings of the same character have different meanings. For example, in Cantonese, the character can have the colloquial pronunciation /pʰɛŋ˨˩/ which means "inexpensive," or the literary pronunciation /pʰɪŋ˨˩/ which means "flat."

Examples in Polish


  • (o-) pierdolić (fuck, babble, condemn, vulgar language), (o-) pierdzielić (babble, condemn, informal language)—cognate to Russian определять (determine)
  • Bogdan, Bohdan (first names)


  • upiór , wąpierz, wampir (English vampire; detailed out in Polish Wikipedia entry on etymology of wampir)
  • szczać (piss, gross wording), sikać (spout, plain, informal wording), siusiać (pee, childish, polite euphemism; however one could argue the latter being simply an irregular diminutive derivation from the former)
  • magister, majster, mistrz—from German Meister, Dutch meester, and from Latin magister; cognate to Italian maestro, English master, mister

See also

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