A Bit Of An Explanation

I am not a professional. Not anywhere near it. But I like to think that some little observations I have about language and the social construction of it are worthwhile.

Some of these notes were originally written for acquaintances with no linguistic experience whatsoever, so please be patient through the explanations of basic concepts, and the simplistic tone.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Don't Be Pregnant, Everyone Makes Mistakes! The Ever-Glorious False Friend

            If you’ve spent a lot of time on the internet, you’ve probably heard the humorous story about some poor, non-native speaker of Spanish who tries to say he is “embarrassed” about something to someone. He assumes the word “embarazado” has the meaning – after all, it looks just like “embarrassed”! But nope, he ended up telling some confused Spanish-speaker that he was “Pregnant about this incident.”
            The linguistic term for this is false cognate, or false friend. (Some people like to play it fancy and use the French faux amis.) It describes a word that either looks or sounds similar to a word in another language, but means something completely different. False friends are hard to overcome, especially if the language you’re learning is related to your native language – after all, Spanish shares so many similar words with English, it’s logical to assume that a shared root will equal a similar meaning. But it’s deadly if used wrong – usually leading to some profanity or another, though I won’t discuss those here. (I know, I know, disappointing. There’s always the internet, my friend.)
            Sometimes false friends come about between languages of a shared origin, but gradually develop independent meanings. Sometimes, the languages are completely unrelated, and that’s where the really different false friends start coming about.
            I had been thinking in Finnish for a little while, when I passed by a world map. I tried to see if I could remember all the continents (I never said I had a good memory – or skill at geography). Checking to make sure I had things right I scanned the map – and was confused – why was the map calling the large continent next to Europe a “thing”? Then I realized – I was thinking about the Finnish word “asia” – “thing”, or “matter”.
            Also in Finnish, students might want to look out before they start talking about their pet “kaniini”. Despite its similarities to “canine”, it means “rabbit”. Don’t use the Hungarian “fog” when talking about the weather – it’s “tooth”. One of my favorite false friends is between those two languages. Finnish: “Vesi” = “Water”. Hungarian: “Vese” = “Kidney”. (I can imagine the restaurant order now: “I don’t want any wine, but could I have a glass of kidney?”)*
            False friends can be annoying when learning. One of the most pesky for me comes in quite a common word – “the”. In English, the definite article is “the” and the indefinite is “a” (or “an”). However, in Hungarian, “a” (or “az” before a word beginning with a vowel, like our “an”) is the definite article. So, “a macska” = “the cat”. (“A cat” is either “egy macska” or simply “macska”.) Switching the two around in my head is most annoying when translating from Hungarian into English.
           In related languages, there isn't an easy way to tell exactly how false friends come about. But one thing's for sure - no one should be discouraged by them. Don't be pregnant when you ask for a glass of kidney!

(*For reference, this only works if the speaker hasn't heard the word spoken aloud, only seen it in writing. Vesi = VEH-see, Vese = VEH-sheh.)

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