If you have ever studied a foreign language, you know that special feeling: Just when you are about to give up on all those incomprehensible alien words, you spot one you recognize. Say you are studying German, and come across the word bald. Surely, you know this one. Finally, a friend! Don’t you feel betrayed when you find out that the German bald (= soon) does not mean the same as the English bald? Your friend turned out to be a false friend.
In linguistics, false friends are words that look similar, or even identical, but have different meanings. The morphological likeness tricks the unsuspecting language learner into assuming that their meaning is also similar or identical. Not so. False friends are treacherous and mischievous. They can lure you into socially uncomfortable situations involving outbursts of laughter (or worse) at your expense. For example, a German speaker inviting you on a Fahrt (= trip, journey) means no offense; nor does a speaker of Esperanto who greets you with the question: Kiel vi fartas? (= How are you?). Oh, and that visitor from Spain who complains of being muy constipado, well, actually he has a dreadful head cold, so I don’t think a laxative would help-but very kind of you to offer.
The situation can be extra tricky in the case of English and German, because both are descendants of the same proto-language, i.e. Proto-Germanic. As a result, English and German share a lot of cognates (words of the same etymological origin): apple and Apfel, bed and Bett, book and Buch, word and Wort, Father and Vater, fish and Fisch, dream and Traum are all true cognates. The downside to this is that the multitudes of cognates inadvertently provide the perfect camouflage for the significant number of false friends that lurk among them.
For your amusement, here is a sampler of false friends between English and German:
In German, also means “therefore”, and not “also”. As a particle, also can be used as a sentence filler. For instance, when a German speaker says “Also, gute Nacht”, she is not adding the goodnight part as an afterthought; she is simply saying “Goodnight then.”
However prodigiously gifted your offspring may be, if it is “ein braves Kind”, it is just “a good boy or girl”. No extraordinary acts of courage are alluded to here.
The German verb bekommen means “to get, to receive”; it does not mean “to become”.
The German adverb fast means “almost”; so fast nichts is not a quick nothing, but “hardly anything”. In German, the equivalent of the English “fast” is schnell. (A fast food restaurant is ein Schnellrestaurant, but fast food is das Fastfood.)
Don’t be surprised if your German guest recoils from a proffered Gift (= German for “poison”). Outsmart this venomous false friend by using the correct German word for “gift”, which is Geschenk.
In German, Kost is “food”, List is “ploy”, Mist is “manure”, and Rat is “advice”.
A German Rezept (prescription, recipe) is what you get from a doctor or a cook. If it is a receipt you want, you need to ask for a Quittung.
In German, Taste is a button, or a key on a keyboard. The English “taste” (in food or fashion) is rendered in German with Geschmack or Kostprobe.
In a German recounting of “Cinderella”, there is nothing magical about a Wand (= partition, wall). The fairy godmother used a Zauberstab (= magic wand) instead.
If the word Schmuck (= jewelry in German) happens to come up in relation to your upcoming birthday or anniversary or whatnot, don’t be a… schmo and take offense; be courteous, and thankful for the pricey gift.
Can you guess the meaning of the following phrases?
(No previous knowledge of German is necessary.)
What is vegetarische Kost?
What are rezeptfreie Medikamente?
What is die Backspace-Taste?