Sunday, November 15, 2009

False Friends

Swedish speakers leave the room, this is not for you.

Browsing through The Local, an English-language Swedish news site I ran across an article covering a viral video that provides a brief and humorous introduction to Swedish for English speakers. (Don't ask me why I was browsing a Swedish news site, it's just what I do, okay?)

Warning: the language is a little coarse, so if you are easily offended you probably shouldn't play it.

My favorite little phrase from the article is: It’s not the fart that kills, it’s the smäll. For those of you who don't speak Swedish (and that should be all of you because I sent the Swedish speakers out of the room), this is funny because it combines two Swedish/English false friends* to make a reasonably meaningful sentence. The word "fart" in Swedish means "speed", and "smäll" (pronounced like the English "smell"), means impact. So if you translate the words, the sentence becomes "It's not the speed that kills, it's the impact," which still makes sense. I think it's a nifty little double meaning for those in the know (which now includes you - welcome to the club).

Other Swedish/English false friends include:

bra - fine, well, good
ful - ugly
full - drunk
kissa - to pee
hamstring - hoarding

Notice how much funnier false friends are when they mistakenly include scatological and anatomically sensitive terms. Somehow it seems a part of us will always be stuck in third grade.

The BBC website has several false friend examples for English (if you can really call British English "English") and other languages. There are also several websites for false friends, just search for "false friend" plus the language pair you're looking for ("false friend English Spanish").

A classic for written French is chat, which means to talk in English, but means "cat" in French, and in spoken French the English word "shovel" can easily be confused with "cheval", the French word for horse. With a little work you can find French/English false friends that don't involve French animal names.

And for those of you who like word play, here is an old Two Ronnies sketch about learning Swedish, except that there's no Swedish involved and Corbett is dressed in German lederhosen.

 *a false friend is a word that sounds like a word in another language but has a different meaning. I thought that's what false cognates were, but in reading about such word pairs today I have become enlightened. Shame, really, because I always felt that saying "false cognate" made me look taller.

The Local
Transparent Language

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