Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cultural False Friends

You are probably already familiar with the ideas of cognates and false friends. Cognates are words which are related to each other in different languages. English and Romanian, for example, contain a fair few cognates, since Romanian is Latin based, and English has tons of Latin based stuff in it. English and Hungarian on the other hand have very very few cognates, because Hungarian is just bloody weird. (And because they have one of those academies which insists on creating new words for new things, they don't even have easy-to-grasp words for things like "The Internet" or what have you).

False friends, are words which you think are probably cognates, but turn out not to be. The most famous example of this is the Spanish word embarazada, which means pregnant (and not embarrassed as people tend to assume). Though my personal favourite is the Portuguese word constipação which actually means "a cold", and so (because I have a puerile mind) makes me imagine Portuguese tourists going to the chemists in the UK while on holiday and asking for medicine for their cold, and getting something else.

Hungarian to English has one or two false friends - trafik, for example, actually means kiosk or tobacconists (there must be a "My hovercraft is full of eels" joke I could squeeze in here, but I can't work out how). Akció, on the other hand, means "special offer" or "discount", and not anything like "action". (This is also a Hungarian/Romanian false friend, as you sometimes see shops here with signs in the window saying Akció/Acţiune, which makes the same error. A slightly ruder example is the Hungarian word Szakadék which means cliff or abyss, and nothing like how it sounds (which is more or less "suck-a-dick")

Between English and Romanian there are one or two which come up all the time - nervous being the most obvious. The Romanian word nervos actually means angry, and this causes people (not least me) a lot of confusion. I think the Romanian word mizerabil means something like filthy, which is also a tad confusing. Then of course there's the common menu item crap (fillet of crap, fried crap, grilled crap, etc).

But, I have come upon a new concept here, and that is the cultural false friend. There is a Romanian word imediat, which you hear very often. How long will it be? Imediat. When will you be finished? Imediat. When can I expect it? Imediat. Now, in theory, imediat is a cognate. It means, as you might expect, "immediately". It's just that in English, immediately means "right away", or "I'll drop everything and get it done right now". It doesn't really mean that in Romanian. It means something more like "soon-ish" or "when I get round to it", or "in a week or so". So, I've had to mentally redesignate it as a false friend, or otherwise it just gets too confusing, and more that that, it creates unreasonable expectations (for me).

Any other cultural false friends? Or even just amusing linguistic ones?

11 comments:

Ruby said...

you MUST have heard of "manana" (sorry - can't do the diacritics). There is a Scottish joke about the man who went to the outer Hebrides and was speaking to a crofter there, asking him if there's a Gaelic word for "manana". The reply: yes, we do have a word like that, but it doesn't have the same sense of urgency"
Have fun collecting!

Gadjo Dilo said...

"Fac eu" in Romanian means "I'll do it", but sounds like "Fuck you!" in a Brummie accent :-)

Mokus said...

Well: the most obvious to me would be the Hungarian (slang) word for good-bye: hello.

Andy H said...

Ah yes, the incredible cognitive dissonance brought on by that "hello". I wrote about it a while back.

Another good Hungarian one along the same lines as Gadjo mentions is Fakanál - wooden spoon- which sounds uncannily like a Belfast accented "Fuckin' 'ell" (There's a close tie up with Hungarian and Northern Ireland obviously, since sajt - cheese - sounds like shite in the same accent.

Soj said...

Hm, let's see. First of all it's mizerie means "a mess" and has nothing to do with English "miserable".

I've heard tons of Romanians "translate" the word turistic into English as "touristic". Same for the "translation" as something being "economic" (instead of economicAL).

Another false friend is emotii which DOES mean nervous and not "emotional".

Romanians also always "feel" smells (i.e. "I feel the onions" means the person can smell the onions) but that's not really a "false friend", it's just a literal translation gone wrong.

Also "telefon" in Romanian usually refers to telephone CALL rather than the handset itself (which is aparat de telefon usually), as in "ieri am primit un telefon".

Then there's all the weird pan-Europe words that appear to be in English but aren't quite, such as "fair play" and "tuning" to think of a couple off the top of my head (like "footing" in some languages).

Romanian is a mixed up language where the American word "chips" is used but British word "lift", both of which have alternative meanings in the other version of English (a lift in USA English being a ride in a car), etc.

I think the funniest "false friend" however has to be the French auto brand Peugeot which sounds remarkably like "pe jos", or "walking". Reminds me of the "Nova" hullabaloo a few years back in Latin America with Chevy :P

Soj said...

Oh I forgot the all time classic miting in Romania which always refers to like a protest or a strike and never to a "meeting" (which is intalnire). Doh!

Mary said...

Hey Andy!
one of my favorite cultural "false cognates" is similar to yours. Here in Costa Rica when someone says "ahorita" it seems like it would mean "right now" or "immediately." but, similar to your example, it actually means "sometime in the near future." The interesting thing is that I think that "ahorita" does mean "immediately" in some other Latin American countries.

So good to see you and your fam on your blog and also fb.

hope all is well over there! fondly,Mary

lvl100 said...

Heh, its clear that the cognates debate are just an excuse to reach the main grievance : the meaning of "immediately" for Romanians. (and fair enough its not far from truth)

But a few corrections :

NERVOS it`s actually a true cognate (its all about nervi=nerves so it has all the similar meanings that English has)

MIZERABIL - (from the root Mizerie - filth) but its also a true cognate ( miserable = "wretchedly unhappy, uneasy, or uncomfortable" = feeling like filth (shit))

And yes Soj , emotii its a cognate for emotional.

lvl100 said...

For a true funny "false friends" we have :

Romania : Pula - slang for penis (dick) and one of the most used cussing in Romanian language
Botswana : Pula - national currency
Croatia : Pula - a city
Portugal : Pula = "to jump"...I think..
8 years old girls singing together pula pula pula and then stamping the word all over the place its just wrong :)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yr7oQ2VRdjw

Oana said...

"Just now" and "now now" have very odd meanings in South Africa - similar to the manana / imediat thing.

Sato said...

Soj, MITING doesn't mean protest or strike, it means RALLY (as in French MEETING). MEETING in the English sense most often translates as SEDINTA rather than INTALNIRE (which would be a DATE or MEET-UP). As for 'feeling smells,' see French SENTIR, which means both SMELL and FEEL.

And really, PEUGEOT and PE JOS don't sound anything like each other -- bar sharing two consonants. No more than QUESO and CUSTARD, at any rate.