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False Friends between German and English
by Diane Nicholls

Next in the series of articles on Language Interference

• Where do they come from?
'True' Friends
Loan words in German
Invented English words
The deceptive allure of compound words
Utterly False Friends
False Friends and the language learner
Further reading
Next in the series

Where do they come from?

English is a Germanic language which started off as a variety of West Germanic in around 500 BC. Given the historical relationship between the German and English languages, it is not surprising that the lexicons of these two languages have a lot in common. In fact, it has been estimated that around 35% of the non-technical words and the majority of the most common words in the English language are Germanic. But the linguistic influence here is by no means unidirectional. German has long been receptive to English words and this receptiveness has naturally increased with the recent added influence of the Internet, tourism and economic globalization. The latest edition of the influential Duden German dictionary, for example, includes entries for e-commerce, chatting, scan, and upgrade, to name just a few new English-origin German words. As a result of this heavy traffic of words, it is easy to find similarities between German and English words, and all the usual False Friends traps are lurking.

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'True' Friends

Some German words have been borrowed wholesale into the English language, like Zeitgeist, Schadenfreude, Angst, and Kindergarten, for example, just as many English loan words retain their 'Englishness' in German, like Computer, Soft/Hardware and Information. But there are also many words in these two languages which look alike, sound similar and have similar meanings, although there can be subtle variations in the way they are actually used, in idioms for example. Hand in German means the same as hand in English, Finger means finger, and Ring means ring. These reliable similarities are largely due to the fact that English borrowed these words from German hundreds of years ago.

To spot the similarities between other German-English word pairs, we need to take into account language-specific differences in spelling. English 'sh' has the equivalent 'sch' in German, hence Busch is German for bush, and Schuh is German for shoe. The English sound represented by 'ou' is often represented by 'au' in German, so Haus means house. English 'c' usually has the equivalent 'k' in German, hence Kaktus is cactus, and Musik is music, and if you remove the infinitive endings from German verbs, bringen, finden and kommen are easily recognisable as bring, find and come.

All this is very good news for both the German learner of English and the English learner of German, bringing a valuable degree of confidence with the new language in the difficult early stages. But it can also be a two-edged sword. Rasch can mean rash but more commonly means swift or rapid, faul means lazy, not foul, Fabrik means factory, not fabric, and the verbs bekommen, willen and winken mean get, want and wave, respectively.

There is nothing for it for the learner of English or German but to learn which similar words are 'true' friends and which ones are false.

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Loan words in German

The first mistake to avoid is assuming that all the words you recognise are English words. German has borrowed from other languages too, just as English has. This can create some complicated relationships between the meanings of similar words between languages.

German and English have both borrowed heavily from French. Lektüre in German comes from French lecture and has retained the same meaning, i.e. reading or reading matter, as the original French, whereas English borrowed the same word but changed its meaning to denote an educational speech or a teaching session. Lektüre is therefore a false friend between German and English and French and English but a true friend between French and German. This is a common complication. Chef was borrowed by German from French and means the same as it meant in the original French, i.e. boss, head, leader. Later, English borrowed chef de cuisine (literally 'head of the kitchen') from French and shortened it to chef. Now all three languages have the same word chef, but, while it is a true friend between German and French it is a false friend between German and English and French and English. This complex relationship of meaning has made chef one of the most common false friend errors made by learners of English.

Loan words borrowed from English can also cause difficulties as they do not always mean the same in German as they meant in the original English:

German English
Slipper slip-on shoe
Smoking dinner jacket
Dress sports shirt/jersey; strip
Boy hotel bellhop
Oldtimer veteran car
Pudding blancmange, custard
Chips potato crisps
Textbuch songbook or script

The same problem arises here as with all loan words. Once a word has been 'borrowed', it belongs to the language that 'borrowed' it and can mean whatever it suits the borrower for it to mean. Some loan words are true friends and some are false.

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Invented English words

German, like many other languages, invents pseudo-anglicisms which German learners of English may assume to be real English loan words. The most common example is das Handy, the usual German word for a mobile phone. Other pseudo-anglicisms include: Body Bag, a new kind of hybrid handbag and rucksack which wraps around the body; Pullunder, which, by analogy with pullover, denotes a tank top or sleeveless sweater; Dressman, which is the German word for a male model, and Twen, which, by analogy with teen, denotes a person in their twenties. And it seems that Mobbing is a pseudo-anglicism for bullying or harassment (usually in the workplace) which has caught on so well that it is now even being used in some English-speaking circles.

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The deceptive allure of compound words

Knowing a little German can be a dangerous thing. Once you know that Haus means house and Meister means master, it's easy to jump to the conclusion that a Hausmeister is a housemaster, but it isn't, it's a janitor or caretaker. Once you know that Mann means man (or husband in some contexts) and Kraft means power, you might assume that Manneskraft is manpower, but it's actually virility. And, of course, the trap works both ways. A German learner of English might well assume that it is safe to translate überhören (over + hear) as overhear, but it actually means quite the opposite, i.e. to not hear or to ignore. The same goes for übersehen (over + see), which means to overlook rather than to oversee. Here are some more of these compounds to watch out for:

Gottvater (God + Vater) God the Father, not godfather
Selbstbewußt (self + aware) self-confident, not self-aware
Alltaglich (all + daily) everyday or commonplace, not all day
Nachdenken (after + thought) thought or reflection, not afterthought
Mittelalterlich (middle + aged) medieval, not middle-aged
Warenhaus (wares + house) department store, not warehouse
Hochschule (high + school) college or university, not high school
Ruckseite (back + side) reverse or verso, not backside
Ausländisch (out + land + ish) foreign or from abroad, not outlandish
Überall (over + all) everywhere, not overall

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Utterly False Friends

Some words that look exactly the same in German and English may once have been cognates but any similarity of meaning has long disappeared. Whether they were once related or look the same by pure coincidence, these false friends can never be trusted. Perhaps these are the ones to learn first?

German English
Gift poison
Kind child
Police insurance policy
Taste button or key (on a machine)
Wand wall
Mist dung, manure, or nonsense, rubbish
Brand fire
Rock skirt
Ratio reason
List trick, ruse or cunning, artfulness

Some words only sound similar:

German English
Breit wide
Leim glue
Igel hedgehog
Zirkel a pair of compasses

Context will often save the learner from falling into a trap with these words.

With other false friends the words do not look exactly the same but it is more or less clear that they were once related and these will often occur in contexts where confusion is possible. The following adjectives might be used to describe a person, for example: lustig, plump, brav, kräftig, but they don't mean lusty, plump, brave, and crafty, they mean funny, clumsy, well-behaved, and strong/powerful. Other adjectives to watch out for are familiär, which most commonly means familial; fatal, which means the same as the English word but can also mean awkward or embarrassing; genial, which means ingenious or inspired; and skrupellos, which means unscrupulous rather than its opposite.

Some cognates have narrower meanings in German than in English. A Puzzle, for example, is only a jigsaw puzzle, and Halle, has only the large lobby or sports or concert hall senses in German. On the other hand, the opposite also applies. For instance, in the case of schwimmen, which means both swim in the water and float/drift on the water (i.e. a dead fish can swim in German), and Mann can mean man in general, a man in particular, and husband. Similarly, Fleisch has all the meanings of the English word flesh, but is also used where English would use the word meat.

And finally, do not be fooled by the little words, which can seem so harmless. Also in German never means also and eben, when used as an adverb, never means even. Also, always pay attention to the gender of determiners. Die See is, indeed, the sea, but der See is a lake.

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False Friends and the language learner

All these potential traps can seem quite alarming and it would be easy to become demoralised. An essential learning strategy for any learner is to arm oneself with a good dictionary and, whenever confronted with a new word, to learn all of its meanings and uses. And for those native speakers who come into contact with learners, it is important to become a good listener, to ask questions when uncertain about intended meanings and to always give feedback when a mistake has been made.

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Further reading

Hartmut Breitkreuz, False Friends — Stolpersteine des deutsch-englischen Wortschatzes (Rowohlt, 1991)
Hartmut Breitkreuz, More False Friends — Tükische Fallen des deutsch englischen Wortschatzes (Rowohlt, 1992)
Heinrich Benneman, Beate Herting, and Thomas Prause, Typische Fehler Englisch (Langenscheidt, 1997)
Margaret Helliwell, False Friends, Falsche Freunde (Helliwell, 1986)
Geoff Parkes, NTC's Dictionary of German False Cognates, Alan Cornell (Editor), Geoffrey Parkes (Editor) (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books, 1991)
Cambridge International Dictionary of English, Ed. Paul Procter (CUP, 1995)

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Next in the series

In the next issue I will take a close look at False Friends between English and French.

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