Sunday, 4 November 2012

Italian vs English: 'False Friends'


Why is 'ciao' so deceptive and sneaky? 
Why do sensible Italians cry so easily?
Why are all Italian children interrogated at school for hours on end? 

Intrigued? Hopefully by the end of this post, you'll be able to feel pretty smug with your new collection of snippets which you can casually sprinkle into general conversation with your friends. 

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So what is a 'false friend?' Well, linguistically speaking a 'false friend' is a pair of words that may look very similar and appear to be related but in fact have a different meaning or a completely different root and have nothing to do with each other. False Friends usually result in confusion such as the high likelihood that an Italian would describe the following object 'A Morbid Cake.'


Photo: Panforte via leragazze.wordpress.com

Now for an English person, this cake doesn't look very morbid. After all, there's no blood, gore or risk of death. Instead, the phrase 'morbid cake' would probably conjure up this sort of image



This confusion can be explained by putting this pair of false friends side by side:

            MORBID             
           MORBIDO           

While morbid means gruesome, gloomy or deadly in English, in Italian 'morbido' simply means soft or pliable. So a cake described as 'morbido' is likely to be soft, gooey and yummy rather than covered in sugared skulls or marzipan gravestones! Or in a perfect world, a 'morbid cake' would look like these cupcakes - morbid and morbido! 


Photo: Cake via @knitticrafty
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Here are some common examples of false friends in daily life. 

Everyday I hear at least one student say 'I need to cancel my answers' or a child asks me, 'teacher, shall I cancel the board?' I've become so used to this word being used that sometimes if I'm in a rush I momentarily forget and say, 'yes, cancel the board' before I correct myself.


             CANCEL              
        CANCELLARE        


The problem here is that the English cancel and Italian cancellare both have the same meaning. They both mean to delete or to erase.  The difficulty for Italians though is that English people don't just use 'cancel,' we also use three synonyms for specific situations. We use the verb 'erase' for removing information or pencil marks, we use 'rub out' for removing pen, pencil or chalk from surfaces and we use 'delete' in the context of removing information on a computer. But for Italians all of these concepts are encapsulated by the word 'cancellare' and so this complicates matters. 

Another really common pair of false friends is:

             CONTROL               
         CONTROLLARE        

While in English 'control' is associated with imposing power on something, the Italian 'controllare' means to check or to look over something. So when an Italian says, 'I must control my answers' they are just being conscientious and not power-hungry! 
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But why is there such confusion with words ending in -are?

The reason is that so many words in Italian can be easily transformed into English words if you simply remove the 'are' suffix. So if Italians find themselves in a pickle over a word, they'll often be sneaky and try their luck by removing the end of the word. I'm guilty of the same sneakiness in reverse as I usually just add 'are' to English verbs in the hope that they mean something in Italian.

Either this trick results in a word that doesn't exist or you strike lucky and find the right word. More often than not though, it just creates complications and means that Italian and English words become confused or warped into a strange Italian-English hybrid which ends up confusing everyone.


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Onto the next common false friend pairing. This pair is an example of words which are very close to each other but at some point there was a slight shift in meaning by the time it reached the English language.

            SENSIBLE           
           SENSIBILE           

If you're just skim-reading this page (tut tut!) or if your screen is a little bit grubby you might not even notice the extra 'i' in the second word. This little 'i' makes a huge semantic difference though as in English, sensible is an adjective which means using common sense or being rational. The Italian however, the word sensibile is an adjective which means you feel emotions strongly or perhaps you are overly emotional. You may have guessed already that 'sensibile' is actually the equivalent of the English word 'sensitive.'


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A now onto one of my favourite pair because it amuses me every time I hear it. 

            INTERROGATE           
            INTERROGARE           

I remember being rather alarmed when an Italian child told me that she had been interrogated for an hour by her teacher. I became slightly concerned about the goings on of this school, especially as more and more children informed me that they were being interrogated on a regular basis! It turns out that in Italian interrogare can simply mean that you were asked questions, as in an oral exam for example. Whereas in English, the meaning of interrogate has been narrowed down in our collective mind to police detectives questioning and intimidating criminals. 

This pairing leads me on to problematic words, ones that have the same meaning in one specific context but in other contexts are completely different. A perfect example of this is a pair of words which are both basic and fundamental to both languages.

              CIAO              
            HELLO             

The inclusion of these two might confuse you at first because even in English we use ciao to mean hello or hi (usually when we feel like sounding a bit continental). The problem lies in the fact that in Italian, 'ciao' can be used as 'hi' when you meet someone and as 'bye' when you leave. Italians are told very early on that 'hello' means 'ciao' (which has a double function that 'hello' doesn't). But this duel function concept is ingrained into Italian minds. This is all well and good when you exchange greetings at the beginning of a conversation but it does mean that I'll often have a student who waves to me at the end of a lesson and says 'hello!' rather than 'bye.' It's incredibly difficult at this moment to stop chuckling to myself and correct them, particularly as this mistake comes just as the student disappears though the door!


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If you're interested in more on false friends, Pimsleur have a Comprehensive Guide to Italian-English False Friends which is great if you don't know which word to use

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You might also like 


Have you come across any false friends in Italian? 
Do you have an experiences with false friends in other languages you speak?

25 comments:

  1. Love those pictures... they are so gorgeous!!!

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    1. Thanks! Glad you liked them : D Hope to hear from you again soon. Have a great day!

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  2. haha.. i just knew that such things called false friends. here in indonesia, sometimes i confuse my native language to my friend's native language because we sometimes find similar words .sometimes they means the same things but sometimes they just false friends.

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    1. Which languages do you both speak? I heard there are many different versions of Malay - does this sometimes cause confusion? I'd love to hear any examples you have : )

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  3. Hi Sarita, sorry I did not respond to your post sooner...I tried a few days ago and kept getting kicked off the website. I meant to tell you that of course you can use my photo, and thank you for asking. I see you have already written your article, but maybe next time! Jenny (knitticrafty)

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    1. hehe no problem (hopefully the problems on the website have gone away now). I liked your photo of the cakes so much, I've put them in anyway : D thank you so much! Your blog is really lovely so it deserves a mention. Hope you're having a lovely day.

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  4. This is an informative and interesting post!

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    1. Thanks - I'm very glad you liked it. Hope to hear from you again soon : )

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  5. wow your extremely creative! thanks for you visit and leading me here... going to be a new follower!

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    1. Thanks so much for your comment - it's always nice to hear positive words & it really encourages me. Have a lovely day x

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  6. Thanks for commenting on my blog - and it's so grreat to discover yours! I like oxymorons (Greek word, and fitting since I am in Greece teaching Engligh) ie: an honest politician.
    I have ss regularly say things such as "Miss, shall I put out the light?"
    You've got me thinking now - thanks Sarita.

    Bex
    www.leavingcairo.blogspot.com

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  7. Hi there false frineds are common in Snaish as well...so many words in Italian are the same but they 've got different meanings...
    In Spanish poner means mettere in Italian, but meter in Spanish means introdurre in Italian...
    In Spanish hombro means spalla, but espalda in Sniash means schiena
    There are so many and some of them are quite embarassing

    As you can see there are many assonances...

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    1. Hi! Those are so interesting - thanks! I'll try and remember those if I have any Spanish students. I have a friend who tried to say that she was embarrassed in Italian to her Spanish friend and said 'imbarazzata' but 'embarazada' in Spanish means pregnant!! She wondered why her friend looked so shocked! A lot of italians say that spanish is easy to understand but there is also a lot of confusion with false friends!!

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  8. Salams
    JazakIllah khair sister.
    A brother I know wrote a short article (less than a page) on the proof of Islam, and wanted it to be translated into Italian.
    Could you be able to translate it into Italian please? If so, please contact me at mirzaahmed10@gmail.com

    THis is the article:
    muslim-lion.blogspot.com/2012/06/prophet-on-planes-hadith.html
    Thanks

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  9. I have found it funny when saying English words to my Algerian family who speak a mix of French/Arabic. In English we say lets go to peepys (sleepy peepys meaning sleep) when its bedtime. However my family found it strange when I took my son (aged 3 at the time)to bed instead of the toilet! For them pee pee translates to urinating!. And when I said lets go for a wee wee (urinating in English) they look at me more strangely when I take him to the toilet - Wee wee translates as Yes Yes in French also the toy Noddy is pronounced wee wee (qui qui) in french! There are probably many more but them ones have always stood out for me lol!

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  10. I work in Italy and am learning Italian now. This all rings so true. I had to use the word ASSISTERE the other day in a speech and I just couldn't get my head around it! How could I assist at a horse race? Impossible! :)

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  11. nice lessons :)
    In my language there is no false friend with other language. maybe because its really different from others. or because I don't know. hehe
    nice to know you :D

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  12. Love to learn new things! I might of learned that in school but I admit I had forgotten Thanks so much!

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  13. interesting. thanks for sharing.

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  14. Well-written! Thanks for the explanation!!

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  16. Very nice post, there are a lot of false friends... Also ACTUAL and ATTUALE. They look similar but they have a very different meaning! :)

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  17. Hi There. I loved to read you, it was helpfull in deed. I am spanish mother tongue and speak English with my italian husband, after 3 and a half years leaving in Italy, imagine what a mess my head is turning to. Anyway, if you keep writing we'll keep reading you ;)

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  18. And don't forget, in most European languages "sympa, sympathetic", "szimpatikus" means "likeable, friendly, nice", whereas we know what it means in English. And "pathetic" is another great example: "patetikus" (deriving from the same Latin root) in Hungarian means "uplifting, moving, sophisticated", but the English "pathetic" is quite a different story. :) I often come across these common mistakes. :)

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    1. Thanks for both your comments. The difference between uses of pathetic is a great example.

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