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Watch Out for False Friends… When Learning a Foreign Language!

This is not another article about how to recognize and deal with fake friends in your life. Here, we’ll talk about a different kind of struggle. Anyone who learns a foreign language needs to watch out for so-called false friends. No, they are not people who try to sabotage your effort by giving harmful advice. Let’s just say for now that they cannot be treated lightly and can cause very serious problems in communicationIn this article, we’ll get into some details about this phenomenon and find false friends in various languages.

Having read this article, you’ll know:

  • The Definition of the term “false friends”.
  • When it first appeared in linguistics.
  • How false friends are created.
  • Some popular examples of false friends.

The definition of the term “false friends”

False friends can be simply described as words from various languages that are very similar in sound and spelling, but very different in meaningWe’ve mentioned before that they can cause very serious problems in communication. To illustrate this, let’s look at the expression čerstvé pečivo in the Czech language. There, it means fresh bread. However, there’s also a very similar phrase in Polish: czerstwe pieczywo, but there it means something vastly different — the bread is stale. See how careful you need to be? You probably do. So let’s now get into some linguistics.  

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Origins of the term

This term “false friends” was first introduced by Maxime Koessler and Jules Derocquigny in their 1928 book called Les Faux Amis, ou les Trahisons du Vocabulaire Anglais (which translates as False Friends, or the Betrayals of English Vocabulary). The term appears as faux amis du traducteur (false friend of a translator). However, it is its shortened version that gained popularity and became an official term used in linguistics.

The definition of the term “false friends”.

How are false friends created?

False friends, also known as bilingual homophones, can be created in various ways. They can appear, for instance, as a result of shared etymology. If, let’s say, 3 languages inherited a word from a common ancestor and its meaning changed over time in at least one of them, we will face a false friend (being a native speaker of either one of the 2 remaining languages, of course).

Shared etymology is an important factor in the creation of “false friends”.

To illustrate the above, let’s take a closer look at the word friend itself. We know what it means in English, and we know that the German equivalent freund has the same meaning. But in Danish (frænde) and Swedish (frände) it means a relative All these words were inherited from a Proto-Germanic ancestor that roughly means someone that you care for. However, the English and German versions have lost the “relative” part of the meaning along the way. What’s more, false friends may also be the result of homonymy. In linguistics, homonyms are words that have the same spelling, irrespective of their pronunciation (homographs), or share the same pronunciation, regardless of spelling (homophones). Homonyms can also be both homographs and homophones.

 Homonyms as an important factor in creating “false friends”.

To illustrate this, let’s take a look at the Scandinavian word
rolig. In Swedish, it means fun, but in Danish and Norwegian — calm. Another example is semester, which in Danish and Norwegian means a school term, but in Swedish — holidays. The latter case is especially interesting because of how distant the meanings actually are! Another linguistic phenomenon that may result in false friends is called pseudo-anglicism. These are new words created from English morphemes that may appear to be English, but in fact, do not exist in this language’s vocabulary. An example of such may be the Japanese word salaryman (サラリーマン), which signifies an office worker. Even more, the word Pokémon (ポケモン) is also a pseudo-anglicism and means a pocket monster.  However, when it comes to specific examples of false friends, let’s take a closer look at the Polish word dres (a tracksuit). It is derived from the English dress or which, as a noun, means “complete style of clothing” and as a verb — to put clothes on (Free Dictionary). We can see the connection between the meanings of both Polish and English words.

Examples of false friends in various languages.

Examples of false friends in various languages

Let’s now focus on some popular examples of false friends. First, we’ll take a look at French and English.  

French and English

The word affair in English means a romance. However, there is a very similar word in French, affaire, which signifies something completely different — a business or a matter to attend to. Another instance of false friends may be actually and actuellement. In English, it means in fact, but the French word signifies right now More words that are similar in sound and different in meaning are to attend and attendre. The first one means to be present at an event, and the latter — to wait. There’s also a significant difference in the meaning of caution and French caution. The English word means carefulness or awareness, however, the French version of this homograph signifies bail or guarantee.

Word 1

Language

Meaning

Word 2

Language

Meaning

​Affair English Romance Affaire French Business or a matter
​Actually English In fact Actuellement French Now
​To attend English Be present at an event Attendre French To wait
​To bless English ​Praise / honour / consecrate Blesser French To injure / hurt / wound
​ Caution English ​ Carefulness / awarness Caution French Bail or guarantee
Chips English Fries Chips French Crisps
To charge English Ask for a fee Charger French To load
Cave English

A natural underground cavity

Cave French Cellar
Race English Competition Race French Breed (animals)
Patron English Sponsor Patron French Boss
To rest English Relax / Pause Rester French To stay / To remain
Competition English Opponent Compétition French Tournament
Dramatic English Spectacular Dramatique French Terrible / Tragic
Library English A facility containing
collections of books
Librairie French Bookstore

 

Spanish and English

Let’s move on to Spanish and English. The Spanish word abogado is very similar to the English avocado, but doesn’t signify this delicious fruit. It actually means a lawyer Another example of false friends in Spanish and English may be the word campo. It is very similar to the English word camp, but in the first language, it means a countryside or a field. Other two similar words in these languages are also despertar and desperate – in Spanish, it means to wake up

Word 1

Language

Meaning

Word 2

Language

Meaning

Avocado English A vegetable Abogado Spanish Lawyer
Bomber English One who uses a bomb Bombero Spanish Firefighter
Camp English Bivouac Campo Spanish Countryside
Current English Actual Corriente Spanish Stream
Actually English In reality Actualmente Spanish Currently
Carpet English Rug Carpeta Spanish Folder
Desperate English Hopeless Despertar Spanish To wake up
College English University Colegio Spanish High School
Exit English Way out Éxito Spanish Success
Embarassed English A feeling Embarazada Spanish Pregnant

 

German and English

Last but not least, let’s take a look at false friends in German and English. The words bald and bald are homographs, but their meanings are vastly different. In the first language, it means soon. A pair of popular false friends is become and bekommen. The latter actually means to get. Also and also are homographs, but the German word signifies therefore More examples of false friends in German and English are brave and brav (courageous and well-behaved), chef and chef (cook and boss), as well as fast and fast (quick and almost).

Word 1

Language

Meaning

Word 2

Language

Meaning

Bald English Hairless Bald German Soon
Become English Will be Bekommen German Get
Also English Too Also German Therefore
Apart English Not together Apart German Fancy, interesting
Art English Fine art Art German Species, a kind of
Billion English Billion Billion German Trillion
Brave English Courageous Brav German Well-behaved
Brief English Short Brief German Letter
Chef English Cook Chef German Boss
Dose English Amount Dose German A can
Fast English Quick Fast German Almost
Gym(nasium) English Sport facility Gymnasium German High School
Happen English Take place Happen German A bite
Hell English Opposite of heaven Hell German Bright

 

 False friends — Summary.

Miscellaneous

Polish and English

Word 1

Language

Meaning

Word 2

Language

Meaning

Actually English Indeed Aktualnie Polish Currently
Accord English Agreement Akord Polish Chord
Bark English Woof or speak angrily Bark Polish Part of a body
Hen English Animal Hen Polish Far away
Blanket English Comforter Blankiet Polish Blank form
Car English Automobile Car Polish Imperial ruler
Cap English Head cover Cap Polish Male of goat or sheep
Brat English Naughty child Brat Polish Brother
Fart English Break-wind Fart Polish Luck
Hurt English Harm Hurt Polish Wholesale

 

Czech and English

Word 1

Language

Meaning

Word 2

Language

Meaning

Action English Activity Akce Czech Event, Promotion
Brigade English An army unit Brigáda Czech Part time job
Chef English Cook Séf Czech Boss

 

Hungarian and English

Word 1

Language

Meaning

Word 2

Language

Meaning

Chair English Szék Cser Hungarian Beech tree
Look English Nézd Lyuk Hungarian Hole
Link English Kapcsolat Link Hungarian Negligent
Ad English Hirdetés Ad Hungarian Take
Many English Sok Menni Hungarian Go
Wear English Viselet Ver Hungarian Hit
Coach English Edző Kocs Hungarian Village
Less English Kevésbé Lesz Hungarian Will be
Let English Hagyni Lett Hungarian Latvian
Level English Szint Levél Hungarian Brief
Wise English Bölcs Víz Hungarian Water

 

Italian and English

Word 1

Language

Meaning

Word 2

Language

Meaning

Argument English Argument Argomento Italian Topic
Library English Library Libreria Italian Bookshop
Parents English Parents Parenti Italian Relatives
Camera English Camera Camera Italian Room
Confidence English Confidence Confidenza Italian Intimacy, familiarity, closeness
Editor English Editor Editore Italian Publisher
Estate English Estate Estate Italian Summer
Novel English Novel Novella Italian Short story
Romance English Romance Romanzo Italian Novel
Patent English Patent Patente Italian Driving license
Annoy English Annoy Annoiare Italian Bore / get bored
Actually English Actually Attualmente Italian Currently

 

Romanian and English

=

Word 1

Language

Meaning

Word 2

Language

Meaning

Crap English Excrement Crap Romanian Carp fish
Jar English Glass recipient Jar Romanian Burning coal or wood
Ban English Interdiction Ban Romanian Money, Coin
Bucket English Receptacle Buchet Romanian Flower bouquet
Fabric English Cloth Fabrică Romanian Factory
Pregnant English Being with child Pregnant Romanian That stands out, Noticeable
Sever English To split, cut in half Sever Romanian Harsh, Strict
Advertisment English Ad, Commercial Avertisment Romanian Warning
Camera English Photo camera Cameră Romanian Room
Magazine English Publication Magazin Romanian Store, Shop
Parcel English Package Parcelă Romanian A piece of land
Far English At distance Far Romanian Lighthouse
Hat English Cap Cap Romanian Head
Chin English Body part Chin Romanian Torment
Comma English Punctuation mark Comă Romanian Coma, To be in a coma
Cutie English Pretty Cutie Romanian Box
Glass English Material or bottle or recipient to drink Glas Romanian Voice
Rest English Sleep, relax Rest Romanian Money received as change

 

Slovak and English

Word 1

English

Meaning

Word 2

Language

Meaning

Action English Measure Akcia Slovak Event, Promotion
Brigade English Unit Brigáda Slovak Part time job
Chef English Cook Séf Slovak Boss
Concrete English A building material Konkrétny Slovak Particular
Evidence English Proof Evidencia Slovak Register
Gym(nasium) English A room or building equipped for gymnastics Gymnázium Slovak High School US / Grammar School UK
Host English Proprietor Hosť Slovak Guest
List English A file with index List Slovak Letter, Leaf
Maturity English Adulthood Maturity Slovak School leaving exam
Plot English Story Plot Slovak Fence
Step English Tread Step Slovak Tap dance
Invalid English Not valid Invalid Slovak Disabled person
Smoking English Verb form of smoke Smoking Slovak Tuxedo
Reproduction English Duplication Reproduktor Slovak Speaker
Rifle English Gun Rifle Slovak Jeans
Grapes English Small vune fruit Grep Slovak Grapefruit

 


False friends — Summary 

Now, you know what false friends are and that they cause problems when learning foreign languages. If we just assume a meaning of a false friend, we may embarrass ourselves when speaking a foreign language. So, it is crucial to check the meaning of each and every word that we stumble across when learning a foreign language. However, if you don’t feel like doing it, you can always use Vasco Translator device Thanks to its cutting-edge features, you will understand as many as 108 languages all around the world. However, with Vasco, you also have the option to learn foreign languages. Choose from 28 different tongues and study vocabulary along with pronunciation. False friends won’t cause you trouble anymore!

In a nutshell:

False friends are words from various languages that are very similar in sound and spelling, but very different in meaning. They can cause very serious problems in communication. The term “false friends” was first introduced by Maxime Koessler and Jules Derocquigny in their 1928 book called Les Faux Amis, ou les Trahisons du Vocabulaire Anglais (which translates as False Friends, or the Betrayals of English Vocabulary). False friends are created in various ways. They can appear, for instance, as a result of shared etymology. If, let’s say, 3 languages inherited a word from a common ancestor and its meaning changed over time in at least one of them, we will face a false friend (being a native speaker of either one of the 2 remaining languages, of course).

FAQ:

What are false friends?

False friends are words from various languages that are very similar in sound and spelling, but very different in meaning.

How are false friends created?

False friends are created in various ways, such as a result of shared etymology or pseudo-anglicism.

What are some popular examples of false friends?

Some popular examples of false friends include “affair” in English and “affaire” in French, as well as “bald” in German and “bald” in English.

See also:

Robert Faber

Robert is an avid traveler and a fan of new technologies. He can cook well, but never has enough time to do so and he ends up complaining about most meals. A regular at the gym.