True friends, false friends

A visitor to my blog has suggested the topic of ‘false friends’ to me, adding that she would like me to present it unterhaltsam (in an entertaining way). OK, so here goes.

Every foreign language student is familiar with the term ‘false friend’, which is used to refer to any word in a given language which sounds just like a word in another one but has a completely different meaning. These false friends treacherously strive to lure us into saying things we never intended to. In some cases the effect may be hilarious, in others dangerous, potentially disastrous.

German learners sooner or later discover that the two verbs ‘to become’ and ‘bekommen’ have different meanings, although they are derived from the same Germanic root. ‘Bekommen’ is ‘to receive’ in English. They will also find out that if  you’re expected at ‘half eight’, you’re expected at 8.30, not an hour earlier, since ‘half eight’ is short for ‘half past eight’.

There is, however, a subgroup of these ‘false friends’ formed by words that are especially insidious because they denote the opposite of a particular word or expression in one’s own language. Every German learner of Italian (or vice versa) knows that the pair ‘caldo’ – ‘kalt’ is a good example. ‘Caldo’ (Latin: ‘calidus’) is ‘hot’, ‘kalt’ (Latin: ‘gelidus’) is ‘cold‘ in English.

Other examples of dangerous adjectives: German ‘brav’ is an adjective that serves to describe children or pets as well-behaved or docile. Spanish ‘bravo’ is the exact opposite. If “Juan tiene un perro bravo“, he has got a dog that is wild; a ‘toro bravo’ is an untamed bull; a ‘costa brava‘ is a ‘rugged coast‘. The English adjective ‘feisty‘ means ‘strong’, ‘dynamic’, ‘resolute’. If a German is ‘feist’, they are fat and immobile. (The diphthong [aɪ] is the same in the two words.)

If something is ‘pathetisch’, it is exaggerated, declamatory, a mere exercise in rhetoric. In Spanish, by contrast, ‘patético’ means something like ‘deeply felt and, therefore, deeply moving’: ”Me emocionó su patética mirada’“: “I was moved by the heart-rending look in his/her eyes.“ French ‘pathétique’ has a similar meaning: “Qui émeut fortement“ (Larousse). Spanish newspaper El País (17 Oct 2012) about singer Maria Callas: “No era la voz más bella, ni la más potente, pero sí la más estimada. Eso solo pasa con los mitos. María Callas fue ‘la voz más patética’, la que supo sacar la mayor expresividad a las notas.“

Spanish learners of Italian (or vice versa) must be careful to note the difference between ‘salire’ and ‘salir’. Italian ‘salire’ is ‘to climb’. It is, for example, used to indicate where to get on a bus. Spanish ‘salir’ is ‘to leave’, ‘to depart’, ‘to get out/ to get off’.

If an Italian friend cheerfully tells you he’s on his way to the ‘casa di tolleranza‘, you might admire his ethics, without exactly knowing what he’s on about. In fact a ‘casa di tolleranza‘ is a brothel – a place which welcomes both tolerant and intolerant customers as long as they pay the accurate price.

Similarly, a native speaker of English who expects a present when coming across the German word ‘Gift’ is in for a nasty surprise, since the English word for ‘Gift’ is ‘poison’.

Sometimes similar semantic problems arise in one and the same language.

In Britain, ‘to table something’ means to present something for discussion: “The question was tabled in Parliament.“ If an idea or proposal is tabled in the US, it is not presented for discussion but left to be discussed at a later date.

Learners of classical Greek tend to be baffled by the verb εἴργω, which can mean both ‘to include’ and ‘to exclude’, depending on the context. “σάκκεσι ἔρχατο“ (Homer, Ilias): does that mean “they were enclosed by [the enemies’] shields“ or “they were kept away by the shields“?

A curiosity: ‘if not’. “John: I’m a good tennis player, if not a great one.“ Is he a great tennis player or isn’t he? – “A great novel, if not the greatest, by this author.“ Is it definitely not the greatest or is it (perhaps) the greatest?

It is best to paraphrase sentences like these. “A great novel, though not (German: ‘wenn auch nicht’) the greatest by the author“ or “a great novel, perhaps (German: ‘wenn nicht sogar’) the greatest by this author.“

Finally, don’t forget: ‘False friends’ are a problem, but bad friends are a curse.