What is a False Friend? How are they built and how to avoid them?

September 11, 2020

Have you ever felt that a word of another language, say, French, Spanish or German, means the same thing as an English word just because they sound similar? Well, sometimes two languages indeed share similarly-sounded words that share the same meaning, like the words ‘police’ in English and ‘polis’ in Malay which both mean the police. This poses one of the most important problems for translators when translating these words.

However, this is not always the case. Some words, although they share similar pronunciation, mean differently. The word ‘ambulance’ in English, for instance, is not of the same meaning with the word ‘Ambulanz’ in German although both sound similar. The first word refers to a vehicle that picks up patients to the hospital while the latter refers to an emergency room.

This is what we call ‘false friends’ or ‘faux amis’ in French.

In linguistics, false friends refer to a condition where two words or different languages do not share the same meaning even though they sound similar. This situation is mostly experienced by linguistic students who learn new languages or foreign tourists who come to a new country where a foreign language is spoken.

What is a False Friend? How are they built and how to avoid them?

How Are False Friends Formed? The origin of False Friends

It is interesting to find out how false friends could be formed. There are indeed several theories that try to explain this phenomenon. These are the 2 main theories that try to explain how false friends are built:

1. Both words belong from the same Source Language

One of them believes that the words were originated from the same source language but got treated differently in different locations. Surely, local cultures and wisdom would have changed the meaning of each word. This is why they have different meanings.

2. Pronunciation started to look alike

Another theory believes that these words came from different source languages but started to be pronounced similarly over time due to social conditions and historical events . The local culture indeed plays the most significant role in transforming the words. The lifestyle of local people affects their comprehension as it affects the way they pronounce words and communicate with each other.

What is a False Friend? How are they built and how to avoid them?

Common False Friend Examples

Gift in English vs Gift in German

There are many examples of false friends that occur between language pairs. In English, for instance, the word ‘gift’ refers to something pleasant that someone gives to others as a token of affection. However, in German the same word -with the same writing and pronunciation- means poison.

Brand in English vs Brand in German

Another example from this language pair would be ‘brand’. In English, it refers to the label or identity of products, but in German it means fire.

Car in English vs Car in French

In English-French language pairing, some false friend cases also occur. The word ‘car’, for instance, refers to a vehicle that people use for transportation in English, while in French it is used to explain the reason for doing something.

Car in English vs Car in French

Another example would be the word ‘pain’, which means something unpleasant in English but refers to bread in French.

There are many other examples of false friends that could be found in other language pairings, but at least it could be concluded that in some cases, these words only share the same pronunciation, which could only be an issue in verbal communication. However, in some other cases, both words are written the same, too. This of course also adds equal challenges to written communication, like having the right mindset will be required to master language learning fast.

What is a False Friend? How are they built and how to avoid them?

How to Prevent an Awkward Moment Caused by False Friends?

Considering how different they could be, it would be quite problematic for an English-speaking person to casually tell his German friend that he plans on giving her a gift. While he is trying to be showing his affection, she would feel uneasy or even threatened by him. This is why a complete understanding of what false friends are –as well as recognizing the list of words that are categorized as such- is highly important.

Several tips can be considered to prevent any awkward moment caused by false friends.

  1. Learn about the local language

It is important to learn about the local language intensively before going to a new place where a different language is spoken. This includes being aware of the possibilities of false friends between our home language and the local language.

  1. Be careful with communication with foreingers

It is best not to use any word that we are unsure of its meaning at all rather than deciding to use it anyway. We need to be careful when communicating with foreigners. Moreover, it is their language that we are using after all. In some traditions and cultures, communication might be a vital or even sacred thing. Thus, any misunderstanding while communicating might not be tolerated.

  1. Practice using local languaje

Make sure that we have practiced using the local language well enough before actually using it to communicate with local people. It is even better if we could find a local person who is willing to become our practicing partner.

Those tips may come in handy, especially when you plan on traveling somewhere. They help to ensure you effectively communicate with others in your destination. Hopefully, this article helps you understand what false friends are and how to deal with them.

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