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False Friends and the Varieties of English
by Diane Nicholls

Next in the series of articles on Language Interference

False Friends on the Home Front

In the last issue, I discussed the variety of problems that can occur when the lexicons of two different languages contain very similar words. But the same problems arise even closer to home, when we communicate with people from different parts of our own country, or with people from different parts of the English-speaking world. In such cases, we have a language in common but the strangest things can still happen in the course of our communication. This is the phenomenon that gave rise to the often-quoted remark, attributed to George Bernard Shaw, that 'England and America are two countries divided by a common language'. On a more personal level, the same phenomenon left me self-conscious and indignant when my husband's grandmother kept telling me I looked 'starved' — I was later reassured that this, in her northern dialect, meant 'cold'.

False Friends, then, lurk even in the exchanges of people who speak the same language. So, when communicating with our compatriots, we have not only to contend with homonyms like bat (the sports equipment) and bat (the winged mammal), where we have to decide which sense a person is using, but also with the fact that a familiar word in our own dialect or variety of English may crop up in somebody else's but have an entirely different meaning. This is possible because there is not one universally identical and unchangeable English language, set in stone, but a whole range of dialects and varieties of English, the vocabularies of which vary both regionally (within a country, or even within a county!) and internationally.

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What are the varieties of English?

Estimates as to the number of people who speak English as their mother tongue vary greatly but one study put the figure at more than 337 million in 1995 and revealed that English was the dominant language in over 60 countries at that time (see David Crystal, pp.106-109). 70% of mother-tongue speakers of English live in the USA and the UK, and it is estimated that, of this number, four times as many people speak US English as speak UK English. The remaining 30% of mother-tongue English speakers are concentrated in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, South and East Asia and parts of the West Indies, the Caribbean, West, East and South(ern) Africa, and the South Pacific.

In its 'Language Awareness' section (LA18) The Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners gives an outline of the distinctive features of British and American English. It details differences in the four areas of vocabulary, pronunciation, spelling and grammar and gives handy usage notes at individual entries in the dictionary itself. The areas of difference shown there are also found in the varieties of English spoken in those other international regions where English is a first language. Within each of these regions further distinct varieties can be isolated. In the same way, UK English can be divided up into Welsh English, Scottish English, BBC English, Northern English etc. and Northern English may be further divided into, for example, Yorkshire English, Lancashire English and others. These too can be further subdivided. When we add to this equation the many English slangs, pidgins, creoles and jargons spoken in the world today, it becomes very difficult to pinpoint exactly what we mean when we talk about The English Language. Linguists have suggested that it would be more appropriate to talk about the 'English Languages':

… we already live, and to some extent always have lived, in a world where there are both an English language and a range of English languages

Tom McArthur, 'The English Language or the English Languages?', Bolton & Crystal, The English Language, 2nd Edition, 1987

It is no great surprise, then, to find that in this great mixture of dialects and varieties of English, we find the same overlaps in vocabulary as we have identified between foreign languages; similar word pairs which have the same meaning, and similar word pairs which have no shared meaning at all. The latter are our 'same-language' False Friends.

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Regional False Friends

The vocabularies of regional varieties of English have very fuzzy borders and many words turn up in the dialects of Northern England that also feature in Scottish dialects, for example. When my husband's grandmother used starved or starving to describe my shivering state she was using a sense of the verb starve that is also used in Scotland, much of North England, Ireland and the Isle of Man. The word originally derived from a prehistoric Germanic base meaning 'to be stiff' and then logically took on the meaning 'to die', and in England, from the 12th century onwards narrowed to the more specific meanings 'to die of cold' or 'to die of hunger'. The former sense survives only in the dialects listed above.

If we take a closer look at other examples of these same-language false friends, we can often see how they came into being. Many are survivors rather than oddities. Urchin, for example, means hedgehog in Yorkshire and this was actually the original sense in the 13th century before it began to be more commonly used for the sea creature elsewhere in the country. A similar survival is found in Tyneside English where bully is a term of endearment meaning good friend or mate, which is more closely related to the original 16th century meaning: sweetheart. The regional varieties of English are often the repositories of snapshots of the language in earlier times.

In other cases, the etymological process by which two words come about may be the same for each but yield different results in different parts of the country. For example, the verb to bubble is believed to have originated as an onomatopoeia, an imitation of the sound of bubbling. In Scottish and Tyneside English the verb bubble acquired, by the same logic, the same meaning as to blubber, which itself is believed to have been formed imitatively from bubble. And it is easy to imagine onomatopoeia having played a part in buzzard coming to mean moth (or any insect that buzzes around at night) in Yorkshire English.

It is impossible to give more than an arbitrary snapshot of the sorts of words involved in this feature of the language. What follows is a short list of words used in Yorkshire and other parts of the North of England which have different meanings in other areas of the country:

yell to weep loudly pine to go hungry, pine for food
roar to weep loudly spice sweets
brat pinafore, apron clock beetle or cockroach
fond foolish, gullible barn child
pumps gym shoes, plimsolls cod pod
natter to irritate, annoy hut heap, pile

These words are usually labelled regional or dial. (dialect) in dictionaries though some dictionaries give more detailed information about which particular regions a word is used in. But many dictionary makers now acknowledge that it is becoming more and more difficult to pin words down to particular regions since, as society has become more mobile and more intermingled, words too have become far more peripatetic and universally owned. It is one thing to identify a word's geographical and historical origins, but, in the 21st century, it is another to determine where it is used now and to predict where it might be going.

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International False Friends

The varieties of English currently spoken across the world were imported from Britain via different routes, by different sectors of society and at different points in history and also reflect in their vocabularies other (internal) influences such as the languages of the indigenous peoples. The vocabularies of these varieties of English are surprisingly varied — it is claimed, for example, that Australian English has 10,000 words which do not feature in British English and that there are 5,000 words unique to South African English. The same forces are at work both in foreign languages and in regional varieties of the same languages, creating an evermore slippery stock of false friends.

As with regional false friends like bully and urchin, some of these international false friends are survivals; words whose meanings have been frozen in time, like flies in amber, while their meanings elsewhere in the world have diverged and evolved. For example, vest is the word used in US English to describe the garment which in UK English is generally called a waistcoat. A look at the etymology of vest reveals that it was, in fact, originally a sleeveless, jacket worn over a shirt and under an outer jacket, and that US English therefore retains the original (17th century) sense while the UK English underwear sense dates from much later, in the 19th century.

Sometimes the nouns for objects which belong to the same area of the lexicon or which perform a similar purpose may appear to have become muddled during importation to another country or region. What are known in UK English as suspenders are called garters in US English, where the word suspenders is used for what are known in UK English as braces. Context is unlikely to be of much assistance in translating between the two varieties of English in the vocabulary of clothing, too, where a US jumper is a UK pinafore dress, overalls are dungarees, shorts are underpants, pants are trousers, cuffs are both cuffs and turn-ups, and thongs are flip-flops, respectively. Perhaps George Bernard Shaw was right?

We in the UK are all very familiar these days with the vocabulary of the English used in the US, and most of us are aware that what we call a nappy, they call a diaper, for example. We make adjustments in our communication with people from the US either by using the word used in their variety of English or by making sure our own UK term has been understood correctly (linguists call this process 'accommodation'). In this context, words like diaper and nappy which do not occur in both English varieties present relatively few difficulties. Real problems arise when the word pair are homonyms or false friends. In a conversation between a US-English speaker and a UK-English speaker, if the UK-English speaker describes somebody as 'mad', for example, do they mean the UK English main sense of 'insane' or are they 'accommodating' the US speaker and do they actually mean the US English sense of 'angry'?

Of course, same-language false friends and the confusion they can engender are phenomena common to all varieties of English. Here are just a few examples from other Englishes:

bat large moth or butterfly (West Indies English)
shanghai to shoot with a catapult (Australian and New Zealand English)
robot traffic lights (South African English)
camp paddock (South African English)
chop to eat (West African English)
unit flat, apartment (Australasian English)
cheeky stern (South African English)
proposed engaged (South African English)
homely ugly, unattractive (of people) (US and Australasian English)
snag sausage (Australasian English)
stack car accident (Australasian English)
bag (v) to criticise or laugh at someone or something (Australasian English)

Very often two varieties of English can have so much contact that the boundaries become blurred. Would you ask your boss for a raise or a rise? One of these is US and Australian English and the other UK English but I suspect that few of us can confidently tell the difference and probably use the two interchangeably.

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What and where is English?

The existence of False Friends between different varieties of the same language raises a number of important questions.

Lexicographers are faced with difficult decisions about how to acknowledge the importance of the differences between varieties of the same language and satisfactorily inform readers, in particular non-native speakers who are generally very clear about which variety of the language they wish to learn or use. But at the same time they are faced with a situation where the boundaries between those varieties are increasingly blurred through contact between countries and areas of countries and where new varieties are constantly being generated as more and more people around the world come to use English as their common language and where the so-called 'standard' variety of English becomes more and more difficult to define. They are faced with the dual challenges of recording the elusive common core of the English languages, on the one hand, and identifying and clarifying the variations and alternatives on the other.

Teachers and students in turn must be aware of which variety of English they are teaching or learning, and, at the same time allow for the fact that another native speaker or learner may legitimately use a different word to mean the same thing.

For all of us, it raises questions about who 'owns' the English language, about what can truly be considered 'correct' or 'proper' English, and who is qualified to be the judge, and about our attitudes towards the way that geographically or socially distinct groups of people speak and write our mother tongue. Finally, it challenges us to think carefully about how we talk with people who are native speakers of other varieties of English. Awareness of the existence of possible overlaps in vocabulary and the variations and deviations in meaning of apparently similar words is as important a factor in our communication with fellow native speakers of English, whether in the next town or on the other side of the world, as it is in our communication with non-native speakers.

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Further reading

Howard Jackson and Etienne Ze Amvela, 'Words, Meaning and Vocabulary: an Introduction to Modern English Lexicology' (Continuum, 2000)
McArthur T. (1987) 'The English Languages?', English Today, No. 11: 9-13
Survey of English Dialects, Vol 1 (1962) ed. H. Orton and W. J. Halliday
Tom McArthur, The Oxford Companion to the English Language, (OUP, 1992)
David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (CUP, 1995)
Arnold Kellett, Basic Broad Yorkshire (Smith Settle, 1992)

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Next in the series

In the next issue I will take a look at the practice of 'borrowing' words between languages and how Loan Words become False Friends.

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