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In linguistics, false friends are words in different languages that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning. An example is the English embarrassed and the Spanish embarazada (which means pregnant), the word parents and the Portuguese parentes (which means relatives), or the word sensible, which means reasonable in English, but sensitive in French and Spanish.

The term originates from a book by French linguists describing the phenomenon, which was translated in 1928 and entitled, "false friend of a translator".

As well as producing completely false friends, the use of loanwords often results in the use of a word in a restricted context, which may then develop new meanings not found in the original language. For example, angst means "fear" in a general sense (as well as "anxiety") in German, but when it was borrowed into English in the context of psychology, its meaning was restricted to a particular type of fear described as "a neurotic feeling of anxiety and depression".[1] Also, gymnasium meant both 'a place of education' and 'a place for exercise' in Latin, but its meaning was restricted to the former in German and to the latter in English, making the expressions into false friends in those languages as well as in Greek, where it started out as 'a place for naked exercise'.[2]

Definition and origin

False friends, or bilingual homophones[3] are words in two or more languages that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning.[4][3]

The origin of the term is as a shortened version of the expression "false friend of a translator", the English translation of a French expression (French: faux amis du traducteur) introduced by linguists Maxime Kœssler and Jules Derocquigny in their 1928 book,[5] False Friends, or the Pitfalls of the English Vocabulary (Les Faux Amis ou les trahisons du vocabulaire anglais)[6] with a sequel, Autres Mots anglais perfides.


From the etymological point of view, false friends can be created in several ways.

If language A borrowed a word from language B, or both borrowed the word from a third language or inherited it from a common ancestor, and later the word shifted in meaning or acquired additional meanings in at least one of these languages, a native speaker of one language will face a false friend when learning the other. Sometimes, presumably both senses were present in the common ancestor language, but the cognate words got different restricted senses in Language A and Language B.

Actual, which in English is usually a synonym of real, has a different meaning in other European languages, in which it means 'current' or 'up-to-date', and has the logical derivative as a verb, meaning 'to make current' or 'to update'. Actualise (or 'actualize') in English means 'to make a reality of'.[7]

The word friend itself has cognates in the other Germanic languages; but the Scandinavian ones (like Swedish frände, Danish frænde) predominantly mean 'relative'. The original Proto-Germanic word meant simply 'someone whom one cares for' and could therefore refer to both a friend and a relative, but lost various degrees of the 'friend' sense in Scandinavian languages, while it mostly lost the sense of 'relative' in English. (The plural friends is still rarely used for "kinsfolk", as in the Scottish proverb Friends agree best at a distance, quoted in 1721.)

The Estonian and Finnish languages are closely related, which gives rise to false friends:[4]

Or Estonian vaimu (spirit; ghost) and Finnish vaimo (wife), ; or Estonian huvitav (interesting) and Finnish huvittava (amusing).[3]

A high level of lexical similarity exists between German and Dutch,[8] but shifts in meaning of words with a shared etymology have in some instances resulted in 'bi-directional false friends':[9][10]

In Belgium, similarities between Dutch and French words often lead to confusion when several different meanings of the same word are mixed up and thus mistranslated. In satirical sketch comedy Sois Belge et tais-toi!, performed by Joël Riguelle in 2009, the following examples are given:[11]

The Italian word confetti (sugared almonds) has acquired a new meaning in English, French and Dutch; in Italian, the corresponding word is coriandoli.[12]

English and Spanish, both of which have borrowed from Greek and Latin, have multiple false friends.

English and Japanese also have diverse false friends, many of them being wasei-eigo and gairaigo words.[13]

In Swedish, the word rolig means 'fun': ett roligt skämt ("a funny joke"), while in the closely related languages Danish and Norwegian it means 'calm' (as in "he was calm despite all the commotion around him"). However, the Swedish original meaning of 'calm' is retained in some related words such as ro, 'calmness', and orolig, 'worrisome, anxious', literally 'un-calm'.[14] The Danish and Norwegian word semester means term (as in school term), but the Swedish word semester means holiday. The Danish word frokost means lunch, the Norwegian word frokost means breakfast.

Pseudo-anglicisms are new words formed from English morphemes independently from an analogous English construct and with a different intended meaning.[15]

Japanese is replete with pseudo-anglicisms, known as wasei-eigo ("Japan-made English").

Semantic change

In bilingual situations, false friends often result in a semantic change—a real new meaning that is then commonly used in a language. For example, the Portuguese humoroso ('capricious') changed its referent in American Portuguese to 'humorous', owing to the English surface-cognate humorous.

Corn was originally the dominant type of grain in a region (indeed corn and grain are themselves cognates from the same Indo-European root). It means usually cereals in general in the British Isles, but has come to mean exclusively maize in North America.

The American Italian fattoria lost its original meaning 'farm' in favor of 'factory' owing to the phonetically similar surface-cognate English factory (cf. Standard Italian fabbrica 'factory'). Instead of the original fattoria, the phonetic adaptation American Italian farma became the new signifier for 'farm' (Weinreich 1963: 49; see "one-to-one correlation between signifiers and referents").

This phenomenon is analyzed by Ghil'ad Zuckermann as "(incestuous) phono-semantic matching".[16]

See also

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