False Friends: Nobody Likes Them But We Have to Learn Them

It’s nice to have a true friend, someone who shares similar interests as you, is there for you when you need someone to talk to and someone who understands you. True friends are great. False friends, however, are not so great; they’re confusing and you can’t trust them and sometimes they don’t mean what they say. False friends occur between two people but did you know that false friends also exist in languages? False friends are two words that look similar, and sound similar, but actually have different meanings. False friends can occur between many different languages and there are a plethora of false friends between English and other languages, especially the Latin based languages.

Everyone who is learning a different language makes mistakes with false friends. It is almost unavoidable since so many words are similar across the language spectrum. Most of the time when a language learner uses a false friend thinking that the meaning is the same, the outcome is pretty humorous. However, it is a good thing to learn about false friends because sometimes they can get you into a lot of trouble if you don’t know the real meaning. Spanish and English share many false friends because Spanish is a Latin based language and English has adopted thousands of Latin based words. When I was living in South America I made many mistakes using false friends leaving the person I was talking to utterly confused. For example, one very common false friend amongst Spanish and English speakers alike is the word “soap.” Since so many Spanish words are almost exactly like English words with the exception of an additional vowel sound at the end of the word, it is easy to think that just by adding an A or an O at the end of the English word, it is the correct Spanish form of the word. For example, the word delicious in Spanish is actually deliciosa, or the word ridiculous is ridiculosa in Spanish (in feminine form). They are almost identical to the English words. So what’s the big confusion with the word soap? The Spanish word for soap isn’t sopa contrary to many beginning Spanish learners. Sopa in Spanish means soup. The word for soap in Spanish is jabón, which sounds nothing like the word soup. So when a native English speaker is in a restroom in a Spanish speaking country and needs some soap but asks for sopa, the Spanish speaker is going to wonder why anyone would want a bowl of soup in a bathroom (This exact situation actually happened to me in Chile and the woman next to me looked at me as if I were crazy). Only later after I had become more proficient in the language did I understand what happened in the bathroom that day. I had used a false friend thinking it was a true friend (two words that look the same and have the same meaning in two or more languages).

But the same ‘soup/soap’ confusion happens the other way around too, with Spanish speakers and English words. If a Spanish speaker wants soup at a restaurant but tells the waiter they want soap thinking it means soup by merely dropping the last vowel sound, the waiter is going to give them the same look I got in Chile and wonder why the customer wants to eat soap. An American friend of mine who did not speak very much Spanish was caught in a rather embarrassing false friend situation. He was trying to tell his Chilean host family about an embarrassing situation that had happened to him. He told them, in broken Spanish, that he was very “embarazada” thinking that it meant embarrassed when embarazada actually means pregnant! So he basically told his host family that he was pregnant. (However, embaraçado does mean embarrassed in Portuguese). They all had a good laugh but after that he was even more embarrassed. Using false friends is all a part of learning a different language and the only way to know if the word is a false friend or a true friend is by trial and error, similar to the way you find true friends and false friends in your relationships with people.

So how do two words that look so similar and sound so similar have completely different meanings in their respective languages? As it just so happens, many false friends actually began having the same meaning but evolved over time to mean different things. For example, a very common word in the Romance languages is the word used to mean ‘white’, (Spanish, blanco/blanca; French, blanc/blanche; Portuguese, branco/branca; Italian, bianco/bianca.) Its roots are from the Germanic word, ‘blank’. Originally, it meant ‘bright’ but then was borrowed by various Romance languages which changed its meaning to ‘white.’ The word ‘blank’ made its way to the English language and was changed again to mean ‘empty;’ while ‘empty’ in the Romance languages is totally different; in Spanish ‘blank’ is ‘vacío, in Portuguese, ‘vazio’, in Italian, ‘vuoto’, and in French, ‘vide’, thus making ‘blank’ and its Latin sound-a-likes false friends. This is just one example of the copious amounts of English words that have false friends in other languages.