False friends are pairs of words in two languages or letters in two alphabets that look or sound similar but differ in meaning. False cognates, by contrast, are words that, due to strange similarities in appearance and/or meaning, are often erroneously believed to share a common root, although the similarities are due to chance and unrelated word evolutions.
Such words and letters—both false friends and false cognates—can cause difficulty for students learning a foreign language, particularly one that is related to their native language, because the students are likely to misidentify the words due to Language interference. Comedy sometimes includes puns on false friends, which are considered particularly amusing if one of the two words is obscene.
Since false friends are a common problem for language learners, teachers sometimes compile lists of false friends as an aid for their students.
Even compilers of bilingual dictionaries are sometimes fooled by false friends, particularly when they are cognates. For example, the Spanish desgracia can on rare occasions mean "disgrace", but it usually means "misfortune". The best defense for the language student is to use a monolingual dictionary in the target language as a final authority.
From the etymological point of view, false friends can be created in several ways (not all the following is correct):
- If Language A borrowed a word from Language B, then in Language B the word shifted in meaning, a native speaker of language A will face a false friend when learning language B.
- Different alphabets, particularly ideographic languages.
Roman "P" came to be written like Greek "Rho" (the Roman letter 'rho' was then change to "R" to keep it distinct)
- In certain cases, false friends were created separately in the two languages
- some false friends are simply homonyms with no relation between them whatsoever. They happened due to sheer coincidence.
- e.g., the Latin is, the Chinese you, and the German Rat when compared to the respective English words.
Pseudo-anglicisms are artificially-created constructions of words with elements borrowed from English but the morphemes of which do not actually exist in English.
e.g., German: "Twen" for anyone in their "twenties" or the age itself, "fesch" for smart, natty, chic, attractive or dashing which originated in the English "fashionable" or "Handy" for mobile phone.
- The words Präservativ (German), prezervativ (Romanian), preservativo (Italian) and prezerwatywa (Polish) are derived from the French préservatif (which means both "preservative" and "condom", though "conservateur" is more used for "preservative" ; in French, "conservateur" also means conservative) and all false friends of the word name. This is an example of how in one language, a word can acquire an additional meaning which is not shared by other languages.
- Geoff Parkes and Alan Cornell (1992), 'NTC's Dictionary of German False Cognates', National Textbook Company, NTC Publishing Group.