Issue 7 |

Semantic false friends

by on June 13, 2016

Think of that one friend—your best friend, perhaps—whom you know very well. Now, picture a scenario where you bump into your best friend in another country, quite unexpectedly, but that person doesn’t recognise you, speak your language, nor does he/she exhibit the same mannerisms that you have become familiar with—quite the freaky doppelgänger that nightmares are made of. You are left confused, with nary an idea of who you just encountered. This occurrence, in the field of linguistics, is known as encountering false friends.

False friends occur when words in two particular languages resemble each other either in sound or appearance, but possess significant differences in meaning. There are several reasons why false friends happen, including etymology, homonyms, homoglyphs (typography characters that resemble each other), and pseudo-anglicisms (words in other languages borrowed from English that are not readily recognised or understood by native speakers).

When would you meet false friends? If a language borrows a word from another language or if a word later experiences a shift or addition in meaning, a speaker of one of the languages might face an instance of false friend when learning the other. An example would be how the French word avertissement and the Romanian word avertisment resemble the English word ‘advertisement’, but possess different meanings: both the former actually mean ‘warning’, whereas the latter refers to a promotional text for display. All three words come from Latin, wherein advertere, which means ‘turn towards’, got adopted in Old French as advertir and later changed to advertiss–. While these three instances share the root meaning of wanting to call to attention something, the word in late Middle English took on a more positive connotation as a form of announcement. Indeed, words across languages may often share only a partial overlap in meaning, and this complicates attempts at comprehending a word.

This phenomenon of false friends can occur across several languages, regardless of writing systems or origins, and certainly beyond the English language. An example of this can be found in Chinese and Japanese: In Chinese, 怪我 (pronounced guai4 wo3 in Mandarin) would mean ‘blame me’, but as Japanese Kanji characters (pronounced kega), it signifies ‘injury’. They do share an overlap in meaning, but are used in entirely different contexts.

Even in dissimilar writing systems, like in English and Japanese, words may exist as false friends in terms of homonymy, where words sound similar but mean different things. One of these reasons could be loanwords from a different language (e.g. Japanese loaning from English to substitute words), although they could have entirely different meanings. An example, カンニング (pronounced kanningu), while audibly resembling ‘cunning’ in English, means cheating in an exam. Aside from them being loanwords, other reasons for such occurrences of false friends can include a slight shift in pronunciation in one language over time or the chance convergence of words that look or are pronounced in the same way despite being of different origins. Homoglyphs and pseudo-anglicisms account as other reasons, with homoglyphs mostly occurring by coincidence (e.g. Latin P is written like the Greek rho, but the latter is pronounced [r]) and pseudo-anglicisms resulting from an adoption of morpheme parts formed independently with a different intended meaning (e.g. Oldtimer in German and Dutch refers to an ‘old car’ or ‘antique aircraft’ instead of an ‘elderly person’).

While a shared etymology aids very much in understanding and in making intelligent guesses about a new language, false friends, more often than not, pose the possibility of unwarranted embarrassing situations. It’s like waving hi to someone whom you think is a friend on the streets and, after a weird look’s been shot your way, realising you’ve been waving to a complete stranger. Words don’t necessarily match across languages and we have to tread carefully when loaning words from our native languages to communicate with foreigners.

False friends can also happen when learners of a new language encounter new words that strongly resemble words in their native language. This causes the learner to identify words wrongly, and hence they find it harder to differentiate words based on meaning. This is called a linguistic interference. As such, language teachers aware of the students’ native language backgrounds tend to compile lists of false friends in order to help in their students’ learning.

These somewhat ‘foes’ of linguistics can even be a source of miscommunication between speakers of different dialects of the same language. For instance, both American and British English speakers speak standard versions of English, but there are words between them that may bear different meanings. Consequently, problems in communication may arise and even result in disagreements or embarrassment when social or cultural contexts are not laid out.

One really unfortunate scenario could pertain to when one of the false friends happen to fall in the explicit or derogatory territory. A word such as ‘fag’ is an offensive American English term insulting to homosexuals, but in British English, it is used in reference to a ‘cigarette’. ‘Bras’, in English referring to brassieres can also be easily mistaken in French when a person is referencing the arm body part, or in Danish, when someone talks about low quality trash.

Many psychological studies have also been conducted on this phenomenon, with a focus on lexical priming (e.g. how we expect ‘cookies’ and ‘milk’, or ‘peanut butter’ and ‘jelly’ to appear together)—the process of expecting certain words to occur with specific others based on frequency. In an experiment where words of a certain topical group appear, the sudden insertion of a false friend can slow down the thought process. In the use of false friends, psycholinguists are able to draw inferences in how people process languages and the effects of bilingualism on learning languages.

Words are profoundly dynamic, and while they usually diverge in etymology, there are unusual cases of them converging as well as bearing coincidental visual or audible similarities to words in other languages. There can even be the peculiar case of semantic change as a result of false friends, whereby meanings in a language are added or changed to include the meaning of their corresponding false friend. In Portuguese, for example, humoroso, meaning ‘capricious’, came to accept ‘humorous’ as one of its definitions over time. Similarly, for the Italian word fattoria, which initially meant ‘farm’, the original definition was set aside in favour of the English phonetic false friend ‘factory’, exhibiting how false friends can influence how languages pan out.

False friends also become a point of consideration in the production of media in unfamiliar territory, as different cultural contexts may cause some words or phrases to be misconstrued in another language. In 2009, Nutricia, a Dutch company focusing on nutrition, released a signboard that read, “Mama, die, die, die… Alsjeblieft”, which really means “Mommy, (I want) that one, that one, that one. Please.” Of course, taking this through any English context, this line would have left many stumped at the choice of words.

We can see that, just like how we have a tendency to take things at face value, there is always a need to be cautious with familiarity.

To bilinguals and language learners alike, false friends may not necessarily be the best resource to help you guess a word’s definition. While they are helpful (to some extent) in making sense of shared etymology, they are best adhered to in the same way we think of friendship and enmity—“keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer”.


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