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Friday, 18 May 2012

Beware of false friends!

No, I don't mean people who were supposed to be our friends, but really weren't. I mean linguistic false friends. These are words that sound the same in two different languages, but they mean different things. You can find them in all languages, even if they are as far apart as Polish and English. For example, the word "conductor" has many meanings. It can mean ticket inspector. Same in Polish. However, in English it can also mean "concertmaster". This meaning is not present in Polish, we say "dyrygent" instead. In funniest cases, some words can mean something neutral in one language, and something very vulgar and obscene in the other. The most typical example is the word "curve", or the German: "Kurve". A similar word is a common swearword in Polish. 

However, I think this happens a lot with languages that are close to each other. I have a Russian friend who was very shocked to find that I call my daughter "żabka" (little frog). For me this is a very cute name for a very cute girl. Also, I think that little babies look like frogs, like very cute little frogs. But in Russian, it means "toad". My friend said to me: “But you say it with so much love, I can't actually believe you're calling her a toad." I explained, and she understood. 

With German and Dutch, it's similar. Some examples of this are actually very funny. Take, for example, the Dutch word "huren". See, sometimes Dutch words are like German words, and sometimes they are like English words. "Huren" is related to the English word "to hire". But in German, the same word (as a noun), means "prostitutes". So if you're German, and you're visiting the Netherlands, you might be surprised. And you might think that the Dutch really are tolerant.

A German lady from my playgroup told me the story of how her husband helped a lady pick up her keys that she had dropped in the supermarket. He fetched the keys, smiled, and said: "dat is niet zo slim”. But that poor pady was offended because while in German the word "schlimm" means "bad" (as in: "This is not so bad"), in Dutch "slim" means "clever". So what the man actually said to her was: "this was not so clever". No wonder the lady was offended. I am aware of the differences in Dutch and German, I still have to stop and think a while when I hear the nannies call Klara “een slimme meisje”. 

The book "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", describes the possibility of getting a simultaneous translation of any language by using a Babel Fish. The Babel fish, as weird as it is, seems pretty useful. But it can cause problems, too: "The reason the Earth has been shunned for so long is also due to a language problem. On Earth, Belgium refers to a small country. Throughout the rest of the galaxy, Belgium is the most unspeakably rude word there is." Why Belgium? I don't know. But I can't help but wonder about what this might say about the Netherlands.

So, beware of false friends - Linguistic, and human ones alike. 
But maybe you have some more funny examples to share? 

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  1. It probably doesn't help that a lot of dutch people have a bit of a blind spot regarding the use of cultural and linguistic idiom when translating into a foreign language. Literal translation can lead to a complete breakdown in communication and a rather confused foreigner wondering how the poor dutchie managed to break his wooden shoes while not wearing any. :-)

    1. This is a very good point! Another thing I am struggling with in the Dutch language is is the word order within a sentence, in German all auxilliary verbs go at the end of the sentence, while in Dutch it's the normal verbs that do... After my Dutch classes I would go back home, and talk to my husband in German, sometimes using the Dutch word order. Other than that, knowing German is extremely helpful.

  2. There are loads of faux amis between English and French but I'm having trouble thinking of them right now! Of course there's the difference in meaning of the words 'actual' and 'eventual' in English compared to the other languages I speak. I also remember one case of an English couple selling their home-made jams and pickles (i.e. preserves) in France and labeling them 'préservatif', which is French for 'condom'.

    1. This is a good one, Paul! Actually, it's the same in Polish-I still have to chuckle when I read labels stating that those jams don't contain "additives and preservatives". Which is a good thing :D. If you can think of any false friends, please share them here!

  3. I'm having trouble thinking of some more even though I know that there are loads; I'll have to ask my mum! One think that interests me is how some words (to me) don't at all convey the 'feeling' of the concept they represent and in fact convey quite the opposite feeling! For example, to me 'mooi' sounds quite ugly while 'lelijk' sounds quite nice (maybe because it sounds like 'lily'). Also I think that 'Schmuck' is a terrible word for jewellery (probably because it sounds like 'muck'). Do you get the same 'feelings' from these words?

    1. Sometimes, I do. Maybe not with "mooi" and "lelijk" (although "mooi" sounds nice - as opposed to pretty or beautiful, "lelijk" doesn't sound ugly). I think my father uses the example of the word "hygiene" to prove your point. It's an ugly word, it sounds a little bit like "hyena". There is a Polish word that sounds awesome but is actually pretty vulgar- it means: "f-ing great"! If it wasn't vulgar, I'd use it all the time!


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