Friends and Neighbours

Growing up bilingual, I was aware from a young age of “false friends.” Not the kind who borrow money and never pay you back, but words that look or sound like each other across languages but mean very different things. I’ve always had to keep an eye open for them and have had to constantly remind myself to distrust apparent similarities. One memorable example would be the word gift, which occurs in English and German. In English, it’s a present, something nice to be given to a friend. In German, well, it’s not something you’d want to give to a friend. The spelling and sound are the same, but in German Gift means what we would call “poison” in English. So, it’s a good idea to distrust apparent similarities.

milkStudying Latin American Spanish and Filipino (Tagalog) has shown me that my “false friends” rule is not always quite so simple. I’m still very much in the beginning stages of my journeys with these two languages, but what I’ve found thus far are not so much false friends as real friends and neighbours. As neighbours, Spanish has falda for “skirt;” Tagalog has palda. Spanish has vestido for “dress;” Tagalog has bestida. As friends, they have taza and tasa for “cup,” bicicleta and bisikleta for “bicycle,” and azul and asul for “blue.” (There are also Tasse in German and tasse in French, which goes to show that a good cup of coffee goes a long way.) Three hundred years of colonial history will do that to a language, I suppose, which makes getting the spelling correct particularly important to me. It may sound the same, but if I write it in the wrong language, that just won’t do.

I was discussing this with my Filipina girlfriend, Chris, and she brought up some interesting false friends. Gato, of course, is Spanish for “cat,” but the very similar sounding gatas in Tagalog translates as “milk.” I can just imagine mixing up the two when asking for a drink! Similarly, seguro means “certain” in Spanish, but only “possibly” in Tagalog. “Certainly” in Tagalog would be sigurado, I’m told.

Weather permitting, I’ll be meeting Chris and her family in the United States in January next year, and I’ll need to study as much Tagalog as I can before then. In the meantime, I’ll go back to my studies, certainly with a nice tall glass of cat.

Learn more about Mike Hayes’s adventures in language learning.

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  • Jorge

    One interesting thing about the word “gato”, is that in arabic, que original word is “Qitt” … on the coloquial, it is pronounced “qatto”. Now, the “qaf” sound has many different pronounciations: in the Gulf area, and most probably the language that the arabs brought to Spain, sounds like a “g”; so the word “Qitt” was pronounced as “Gatto”. That´s a nice example of the arabic roots of spanish and portuguese.

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  • jack andrew

    subject: indigenous languages. I like the fact that American native languages (North America and South America) are archived and taught through RosettaStone software. Like the comments on the Navajo language say that this product at best is only a supplement to other Navajo language instruction.

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