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Word! The Language Column
Old Relatives

A mouth with one round and one jagged speech bubble
“False friends” are words that sound similar in a foreign language, but mean something completely different | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Some words in other languages sound just like German words but don’t mean the same thing. Thomas Böhm takes a close look at these “false friends” … and finds that they’re actually part of the family.

By Thomas Böhm

When was the last time you came across a false friend? (Your suspicions are well founded: this is indeed the kind of rhetorical question asked by someone who isn’t really interested in your answer, but in telling a story himself. So here it is.)

Vacationing in the Middle Ages

Well, I recently encountered some false friends where I least expected them: in German. More precisely, in Middle High German, the language our ancestors spoke in the Middle Ages. The first was the word “Bescheidenheit”, which didn’t mean “modesty” or “humility” as it does today, but “discernment”. Likewise, the adjective “bescheiden” didn’t mean “modest” or “humble” as it does today, but “discerning”.
So if – for reasons we know all too well – instead of travelling abroad this summer I were to vacation in Germany, and not in the Black Forest, but in the Middle Ages, and if I were to ask for a “bescheidenes Frühstück” (“modest breakfast”) there, the innkeepers probably wouldn’t understand me. Incidentally, my employer probably wouldn’t understand me either if I were to request an “Urlaub” (“leave”, i.e. holiday, vacation) because in Middle High German “urloup” also meant “leave-taking” in the sense of “saying goodbye”. But I have every intention of going back to work after the holidays!

“Liegen” or “lügen”?

I’d like to “take leave” of the word-play and make-believe inspired by “false friends” and look closely at this very term. It’s drawn from interlinguistics, a branch of linguistics that explores relationships between languages. “False friends” are pairs of words that are written the same way or at least quite similarly in two languages, but have different meanings. One oft-cited example is the English word “billion”, which is “Milliarde” in German, not "Billion" (which means “trillion” in German!). Another is the English word “corn”, which is “Mais” in German, not “Korn” (which means “grain”). The French word “apparat” (“pomp”, “splendour”) is "Prunk" or "Glanz" in German, whereas the German word “Apparat” (“apparatus” or “device”) is “appareil” in French. And the Dutch word "liegen" means “lügen” in German (“to lie” as in “tell a lie”), and mustn’t be confused with the German word “liegen” (which means “to lie down”).  

The Tower of Babel and confusion of tongues

At the sight of these false friends, three thoughts occur to me.
First off: a funny thing my daughter once said to me: “English is German in Spanish.
Secondly, I wonder whether “false friends” is an apt term for this phenomenon. Because, just consider: what could be worse than “false friends”? They’re something we wish to and really ought to avoid. But are foreign languages something we wish to and really ought to avoid?
And thirdly, it seems to me that “false friends” ties into the same conception of language as the biblical story of the Tower of Babel and the confusion of languages. Because people hatched a megalomaniacal plan to build a tower reaching up to the heavens and hence all the way up to God, He punished them by “confounding” their language. As a result, they no longer spoke the same language; each nation thenceforth spoke a different tongue. Ever since then – at least in Western cultures – a linguistic event that is not readily and universally understood may be called a “babel”, with negative connotations of confusion and misunderstanding. Just like “false friends”.

All in the family

Most “false friends” arise between languages that are related or have been in close contact for a long time, such as English, French and German – or Middle High German and High German. So they’re not “false friends” at all, but “old relatives”. Now I have no hopes or intention of correcting interlinguistics on this score. But in view of the upcoming summer holidays and the inevitable encounters between different nations and languages, I just wanted to suggest that we shouldn’t misunderstand misunderstandings.
Because speaking is not about “understanding”, “not understanding” or “misunderstanding”. What matters first and foremost is the very fact that we talk to each other in the first place. It’s not about getting it “right” or “wrong”, but about communication. And if we sometimes misunderstand each other, it’s actually a boon, for that goes to show how rich language is, in that it makes even something like misunderstandings possible. Because as human beings, we’re not “false friends”, we’re old relatives.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? ~ Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.