We’ve all been there: when learning a foreign language, one of the most common mistakes come from the ever-so-tricky false cognates. Cognates are words that have a similar etymological origin and, therefore, both sound alike and have similar meanings. Yet, false cognates—commonly called “false friends”—are trickier, because they are words that sound (and might be spelled) very similarly, but have completely different meanings.
Gift means poison in German
These false cognates can originate some very strange situations, and cause some trouble to even the most advanced language students. A common example is the verb bekommen in German, which means “to get.” When speaking English, some Germans might translate bekommen as the false cognate to become. So, when they want to order a salad at the restaurant, those who know little English might let the phrase “I become a salad” slip out.
Portuguese speakers—even those with very advanced English—have trouble with “push” and “pull,” and often do the exact opposite when faced with doors with these words. This is because, in Portuguese, puxe (which is pronounced almost exactly the same as “push”) actually means “pull.” You can imagine what a confusion that creates.
Incidents with false cognates tend to be more frequent with languages with similar etymological origin, since they have so many true cognates. This is the case, for instance, of Portuguese and Spanish. For instance, pegar in Portuguese means “to get”—so, it would be considered normal to ask the nanny to “ir pegar o bebê” (to go get the baby). In Spanish, however, pegar (written and spoken in virtually identically) means to hit or physically abuse; as you could imagine, a Spanish-speaking maid would probably get the wrong message from the phrase.
In French sans préservatives means without condoms. Image by 130 cartons à London
Worse of all are when the words have similar meanings, but with positive or negative feelings attached to it. For instance, both in Romanian and in Polish the word trup means body, but while in the first language it refers to the body of a living being, in the second it is used as “corpse.” The same goes for the English ordinary and the Spanish ordinário—both mean “common,” but the Spanish word means a bad kind of common, and could be much better translated as “vulgar.”
Things get even stranger when you have three languages—and, therefore, three false cognates—involved. I use to know a musician that lived some time in the Amazon Forest, teaching violin to children on the frontier between Brazil and Colombia. He was from Washington D.C., United States, and therefore was fluent in English—however, he spoke very little Portuguese, and barely any Spanish.
Embarazada means pregnant in Spanish
One day, he was late for his classes because he failed to wake up on time, and wanted to tell his students he was embarrassed. Arriving first at a class full of Portuguese-speaking Brazilians, he stated that he was embaraçado for being late. In Portuguese, although the word can also mean “embarrassed,” it is hardly ever used with that meaning—it most commonly means “tangled.” So the students understood he meant he had got “tangled up” with other appointments, and took this as a good enough excuse.
The next class was with Spanish-speaking Colombians, and he decided to once more say he was embaraçado for being late, as it had worked well before. Yet, in Spanish, embarazado has a completely different meaning: it means “pregnant.” After some minutes of silence, the students broke out in wild laughter—and it took him some weeks, and a lot of embarrassment, to understand what had happened.