Sometimes in the course of learning a new language it can seem like you’re in over your head. You work on your vocabulary, you listen hard to the nuances of the accent. Even if you seem to do well with your flashcards, when it comes to listening to the language spoken, and especially when you’re being addressed by someone talking at lightning speed, you think you may drown. But then, miraculously, you hear a word you recognize! It’s as if someone has thrown you a lifesaver (they were a thing even before the candy). You grab hold, and experience momentary relief, but instead of bearing your weight, the ring seems to be sinking, even pulling you down with it. Aaargh!
You’ve just fallen victim to a false cognate. False friends, they’re sometimes called: words that seem to match words in your native tongue, but which mean something unexpected. It’s as if you’ve come up behind a friend at a party, laid your hand on his arm, only to find when he turns toward you that you’re staring at a stranger with a menacing expression.
Because German and English (the top two languages featured in our recent trip up north) are cousins, there are hundreds of genuine cognates, words that mean the same thing in each language, even if they’re spelled a bit differently. Hand is exactly the same; milch and milk both work great accompanying your plate of after-school cookies. Some cognates are close enough that with a little help from context, you can guess: grund and ground, wasser and water, haus and house.
There are some cognates that are fairly close, but differ in tone or emphasis. For instance, the German word lust does mean desire, but not necessarily that kind; it’s similar to the English, but without the leer.
False cognates, on the other hand, may not have been designed to mess with you, or set you up to be the source of amusement for all and sundry, but they’re really good at getting it done.
Here are ten words that appear both in English and in German (note that while all German nouns should be capitalized, I’m ignoring that fact here: Entschuldigung).
after, also, arm, art, bad, bald, bang, brand, brief, die
You know what they mean in English; here is what they mean in German. Any from the first list you can match with second list?
the, letter, fire or blaze, soon, kind or type, poor, thus or therefore, rectum, frightened or uneasy, bath
Here’s a picture hint for one of them:
If you guessed that “bad” is the German for bath, give yourself a pat on the back.
The others are here, with their counterparts. The first column is the word in English and German, the second column is what Germans picture when they hear those words. You could also label them “what we’re thinking,” and “what they’re thinking.”
|also||thus, therefore, um|
Here are pictures for a few more, and then I’ll post a list at the end.
The word hell shows up in both English and German, and here are two ways to look at it:
Yup–hell in English is all fire and brimstone, and in German, it just means bright. Let’s try another. How about hut?
When our kids were learning German in middle school, they learned to sing a song about their hut, which had drei echen, or their hat, which had three corners. So hut is hat in German. Ready for another? Behold, mist:
The German word Roman refers to a novel. Then there are some rocks,
one you can climb on, and one you can wear: rock in German means skirt. For your browsing pleasure, here is a list of a few dozen other false friends. The left column is the way the word appears in both English and German, the right column is the German meaning.
|fade||boring, insipid, dull|
|parole||motto, slogan, password|
|pepperoni||hot chili pepper|
|quote||proportion, number; rating|
Oh, by the way–that picture of a Gift at the top of the post–it’s another false friend. Gift is the German word for poison….