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