16 September 2014

False Cognates and False Friends

There´s a guy in Michael´s Spanish classes who is entirely too enthusiastic about participating in class.  I´m hesitant to say he´s enthusiastic about learning Spanish--because maybe he´d be smarter about his choices??

He seems to blurt out everything that comes into his head, no matter how incredibly wrong and illogical it may be.  I absolutely love hearing stories about him.

They use different scenarios in their textbooks to learn grammar and vocabulary.  For example, in one unit they´re doing charity work in a South American country, and, having used all their tools and construction vocabulary, they´re finished building a house.  Then, they go to a furniture store to furnish the house.

The sentence is: No se adonde empezar.  Adonde esta el mostrador de servicio?
He translates: I don´t know where to begin.  Where is THE SERVICE MONSTER?

I die when I hear this story.
Mostrador de servicio means service counter.

A new favorite hit from this kid:

The sentence is:  Quiero una boda pequeña.  Que solo estemos nosotros dos, y dos testigos.
He translates:  I want a small wedding.  Just us two, AND TWO TESTICLES.

I can´t even.

I can´t.

Testigos means witnesses.  I´m sure it has the same root at testify!  Idiot.

I mean, come on.  Sure, those words *might* sound alike (they don´t really), but wouldn´t your head do a double check??  A small wedding, just us two and two ___.  Even without a word of reference to fill in the blank, wouldn´t your mind automatically hope for "witnesses" or "guests" or something wedding-related?!

I´d say he´s fallen into the trap of false cognates, or "falsos amigos" as the Spanish teacher calls it--but it turns out false cognates and false friends are two different things.


  • Plain-old cognates are words that come from the same root--that is, they´re etymologically related.  
  • False cognates are when words sound similar but actually have different roots, and end up having similar meanings.  I didn´t know this!  For example, in French, butterfly is papillon and in Nahuatl papalotl.*  Or in Chuvash nĕrtte meaning "awkward, inept" and English nerdy.  Wiki has a wonderful list of examples here.
  • False friends are when words sound similar, used to have the same root a long time ago, but have since diverged in meaning.  The most common example we hear is embarazado and embarrassed.  Embarazado in Spanish actually means "pregnant"--but it comes from the same etymological root as embarrassed!**  Another example I stumbled upon in my life is the English word preservative and the French and German préservatif and Präservativ, respectively.  In English preservative is something that preserves, in French and German these words mean birth control or condom!  They´re etymologically related--they´re false friends!***
There are tons of examples of false friends, but this is one of my favorites:
The sign (in Dutch) really says,
"Mommy, (I want) that one, that one, that one. Please."


So it turns out this idiot guy in class is neither a victim of false cognates nor of false friends.  Mostrador and monster have never been etymologically related, nor do they have similar meanings.  Same goes for testigos and testicles.  He´s just an idiot.



*I had written about Spanish words of Nahuatl origin before but I had missed this one, it seems! I just realized papalotl is where the Spanish word for kite comes from, papalote.  So if that´s a Nahuatl word, WHAT did the Spaniards call kites before they came to the new world?
Turns out there were no toy kites before 1660, really.  I guess they didn´t have kites before they came to the Americas.  What a sad world.

**From OED and the Spanish Royal Academy:
Embarrass.  1670s, "perplex, throw into doubt," from French embarrasser (16c.), literally "to block," from Italian imbarrazzo, from imbarrare "to bar," from assimilated form of in- "into, upon" + Vulgar Latin *barra "bar".  Meaning "to hamper, hinder" is from 1680s. Meaning "make (someone) feel awkward" first recorded 1828. Original sense preserved in embarras de richesse (1751), from French (1726): the condition of having more wealth than one knows what to do with.
The French word was derived from the Spanish embarazar, whose first recorded usage was in 1460 in Cancionero de Stúñiga (Songbook of Stúñiga) by Álvaro de Luna. The Spanish word likely comes from the Portuguese embaraçar, which probably is a combination of the prefix em- (from Latin in- for "in-") with baraça "a noose", or "rope", which makes sense with the synonym encinta ("on noose, on rope" because of the old usage of women to wear a strap of cloth on their dresses when pregnant). The Royal Spanish Academy theorizes that embaraçar originated from Celtic because its root palabra existed before the Romans conquered the Iberian Peninsula.

***From the OED:
preservative comes from late 14c., from Old French preservatif and directly from Medieval Latin praeservativus, from stem of praeservare (see preserve (v.)). The noun is from early 15c., "a preservative medication;" sense of "chemical added to foods to keep them from rotting" is from 1875.



2 comments:

Myles said...

The nice thing about studying with "idiots" is they make the lessons fun: as long as he's not disrupting the class and making the teacher's job impossible, I would suggest he's possibly even helping other kids to get over their nerves about making their own mistakes. A lot of the problems with language learning stems from people's fear of looking stupid by saying something wrong. But it's okay to make mistakes. It's how we learn. And I doubt very much the other guys in the class will ever forget what testigos means now... :)

pedro lopes suarez said...

Kite in Spanish is cometa, from greek komé, hair, the same root as comet. The term papalote is only known in México.