No matter what language you're studying, there's a good chance you've run into a false cognate: a word that looks a lot like one you know in your own language but has a very different meaning. Even languages that don't have much in common can have false cognates—and they're really easy to misuse, because it can feel like they should just mean something else!
If false cognates have ever left you feeling embarazada (oops, that's Spanish for "pregnant," not "embarrassed"!), this post is for you.
What are false cognates?
Sometimes you can use your own language to your advantage and guess the meanings of new words, but false cognates can cause (often hilarious) misunderstandings! Here are the two kinds of cognates:
- True cognates: Words in different languages that have similar (or the same!) pronunciations, meanings, and even spellings. These words might have been borrowed from one language to another, or maybe the languages evolved from the same language and that's why they share the word.
- False cognates, or false friends: Words in different languages that have similar pronunciations and mean very different things. Just like true cognates, false cognates can exist because they were borrowed across languages or because they came from a common ancestor word—or they might simply be a linguistic accident!
How do these words end up with different meanings?
For learners trying to remember that Spanish éxito means "success" (and not "exit"!), it can be puzzling how words can look and sound so similar but mean such different things, especially in languages that are closely related (like Romance languages). How does it happen that words can be deceptively similar across languages?
1. Meanings change over time
Word meanings evolve slowly, a little at a time, and after decades (or centuries!) a word's meaning can seem totally unrelated to what it was in the past. That's how things work in just one language, so you can get twice the meaning changes in two languages! For example, a thousand years ago, the English word silly and the German word selig both meant "happy," but they began to mean "fortunate, blessed"—and that's what the German word continues to mean today. But the English word kept evolving, from "blessed" to "innocent" to "weak" to its modern meaning! This has left English silly and German selig as false cognates.
2. Sounds change over time, too
In just the same way that meanings shift over time, so does pronunciation! Like in a game of Telephone, a word's pronunciation can slowly change. When it comes to false cognates, this means that words that started out as pretty different can gradually become more alike in pronunciation, even if they keep their different meanings. In the interest of teaching purposes only, the English word fart is a good example of this: It looks and sounds a lot like German fahrt, one of the verb conjugations for "drive," but these words only accidentally sound alike, even though English and German are related! Some other examples include English laugh and German lauf (run), and English soap and Spanish sopa (soup).
3. Sometimes, it's a coincidence
Given all the languages in the world, and the (relatively) limited number of sounds or signs we humans can make, accidental overlap in words is bound to happen. For example, in English we use haha for laughter, but that very same sequence of sounds is used in Japanese to mean "Mom" (はは)! There's no reason for it besides that these are pretty common sounds repeated in a pretty common way. Statistically, it's bound to happen sometimes!
Examples of false cognates
- English embarrassed and Spanish embarazada (pregnant). This may be the most famous example of false cognates, but here's the wild, true story: They come from similar words. Both have origins in words meaning to block or prevent (like a physical "bar"!)—the English word was adopted from French embarrasser and evolved to mean "to throw into doubt" and later "to hinder," and the Spanish meaning changes are less clear, but may have been a sort of euphemism like the phrase with child in English.
- Portuguese roxo (purple) and Spanish rojo (red). These words come from one of the Latin words for a particular shade of red, an especially bright red, and they evolved in Portuguese and Spanish to mean something different from (but related to!) "bright red."
- English library and French librairie (bookstore). For a long time, the ancestor of these words meant a place for books, including both bookshops and libraries, and while other languages (including French) stuck with the bookstore meaning, English ended up using only the current meaning!
- English gymnasium and German Gymnasium (high school). Long ago, Greek gymnasiums included opportunities for giving both your body and your brain a workout. By the 1400s, German was using the word just for education, and a century later English was using it for exercise.
- English sympathetic and Russian симпатичный (simpatichnyj, "a total cutie pie"). The English word sympathy comes from Greek, and many languages in Europe have adopted the word with a meaning like that of English (a shared feeling), but the Russian meaning continued to evolve from there! You might also recognize simpático from Spanish and sympa(thique) from French, with meanings related to niceness.
- English brave and Dutch braaf (goody two shoes, obedient). English got "brave" from French, at a point when it meant splendid, bold, or courageous. It's not hard to see how this could evolve into someone who is pleased with how splendid they are!
- Dutch slim (smart) and German schlimm (bad, worrisome). The old Germanic word that these ones come from meant crooked or deviant, leading to related meanings of bad or cleverly sneaky. The Dutch and German meanings evolved from there!
- Japanese 前年 (zennen, "last year" or "the year before (some year)") and Chinese 前年 (qiánnián, "the year before last year"). Japanese and Chinese have a long history of borrowing words from each other, and here is an example of gradual meaning change. The meaning in Japanese has become either for last year or for the year before whatever point or event we're talking about.
- English mansion and Japanese マンション (manshon, "apartments usually made from concrete that are higher than three floors and feel a little fancy"). When new, tall concrete apartment buildings got popular in Japan in the 1960s, they were given a fancy name to match, and that name has continued to evolve to mean something different from the English meaning!
Keep your eyes peeled!
False cognates are probably hiding in the language you’re learning! They might be surprising at first glance, but there's often a story behind them. After you memorize their meanings, think of them as little windows into the relationship between your languages!