Saturday, 24 May 2008

On false friends

A correspondent writes to ask if I have written anything about 'false friends', and their role in language learning and teaching.

Just in case some readers of this blog haven't encountered the term, false friends are cases where a word in one language resembles a word in another, and a learner assumes that, because the two words look the same, they therefore mean the same. So, abusif in French doesn't mean 'abusive' (which would be injurieux) but 'incorrect, illegal, unauthorized, excessive...'

Linguists do routinely collect examples of false friends, and I'm no exception. But I've never written a book about them - unlike, say, Philip Thody and Howard Evans, who compiled an excellent collection of French/English 'faux amis' a few years ago - Faux Amis & Key Words (Athlone Press, 1985). The Munich-based English-teaching magazine Spotlight also regularly lists German false friends.

The nearest I've got to writing on this subject is in relation to Shakespeare. I used to do a column in the Times Educational Supplement called 'Will's Words', which was on Shakeapearean false friends. You can see many of these pieces on the Shakespeare's Words website ( I also discuss them in my recent Think on my Words: Exploring Shakespeare's Language (CUP 2008).

I'm no methodologist, so I don't have anything really to say about how best to incorporate false friends into language teaching. But they certainly should receive a special focus, at some point, for they are among the easiest errors to make, both in production and comprehension. I think time spent on assimilating false friends is time well spent, especially as some of them are very frequent (French demander comes to mind - meaning 'ask' not 'demand'). And it would certainly save a lot of Shakespearean misinterpretation if people took the trouble to learn the commonest false friends in Early Modern English - such as naughty and merely.


Subash said...

Hello Sir,
Thanks for an interesting and informative post. I have question on a subject similar to this.
Do we have a separate word for describing similar sounding words in different languages but have different meanings?
Before I explain with an example, sorry for not being able to get a more decent example.
In Swedish 'oath-'a means eight.
(My swedish isn't that great, so have tried to spell in English itself.)
A similar sounding word in my mother tongue-Tamil means the f*** word;-)

It used to be so funny when we go to buy Digital8 handycam cassettes.

Do we have a phrase or word to describe these similar sounding words but with varying meaning?

DC said...

Well I would say that these are also false friends. There can be orthographic false friends and phonetic false friends. You've got a nice example of the latter. I don't know of any special term for these.

olivervoigt said...

Thanks a lot for an interesting post.

I would add a third category: Semantic false friends, assuming they are the ones most difficult to grasp or acquire and which you also pointed at in your post:

demander (french) = fragen (german) but not to demand (english)

And additionally there is something like "false false friends" which are then in fact "true friends" :-)

Fascinating topic I guess, hope there will be more linguistics and methodological material on this available soon.

DC said...

All false friends are semantic, by definition, so I'm not sure there's much to be gained by trying to set up a separate category to handle specially difficult cases. I've no idea how one would set about grading false friends in terms of difficulty.

olivervoigt said...

Oh yes, right, I totally agree. I did not mean to set up a separate third category because as you pointed out false friends always differ semantically.

I wonder whether we could call phonetically similar words/false friends (cf. subash's example) 'homophones'?

DC said...

Yes, it' s possible. A false friend is simply a misleading parallel, and the two words don't have to look or sound identical (as with English sympathy and French sympathique). It's therefore useful to have terms which identify cases where the two words do look identical, as in these examples from Hartmann and James's Dictionary of Lexicography: English gift 'present' and German gift 'poison'. These are interlingual homographs. Similarly, English man 'male' and Persian /man/ 'I' are interlingual homophones.

It's important to include the word 'interlingual', as the two words may not be exactly the same, as they would within a single language. In fact, because of pronunciation differences between the languages, there will often be some sort of phonetic difference. And even the graphic forms may differ - as in the German example, where gift, being a noun, would usually be written Gift.

R N B said...

Sorry for late comment, but I just stumbled here, and I won't include a link to my own blog as it's bad form, but this really happened:

In French [I think] a consumer is a consommateur and to consume is consommer ... We work with the London office of an international marketing agency. Leaving the agency today is a young lady from France, and her leaving drinks are this evening. In the note she sent out yesterday inviting us to them, she mentioned the alcohol and encouraged us all to "consummate" in moderation ...

dvd said...

Anyone learning a foreign language soon becomes aware of false friends-those words that look alike in both the languages. One of the most obvious false friends in English for anyone learning it is actual.
Friends Dating