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False friends between Italian and English
by Diane Nicholls

• Similarities between Italian and English
• Adverb false friends
• Adjective false friends
• Context and false friends
• The downside to orthographical transformations
• Similarities and differences
• Further reading
• Next in the series

Similarities between Italian and English

Italian is an Indo-European Romance language which descended directly from Latin. English is a Germanic language which started life as a variety of West Germanic in about 500 BC. However, English has been heavily influenced by the Romance languages throughout its history, with the Renaissance period in particular bringing a huge influx of words of Latin origin into English. In fact, the vocabulary of English almost doubled at that time. And the borrowing has continued to this day. It is therefore no surprise, for the Italian learner of English or the English learner of Italian to discover reassuringly familiar words between their mother tongue and the language they are learning. Indeed, once we discover that we need only make a few small and apparently systematic orthographical adjustments to words in one language to make them look and sound like words in the other, we can be forgiven for giving in to an often false sense of security.

Add or remove the ending -re from an Italian verb that ends in -ere, and you have something that looks remarkably like the English equivalent: Italian decidere becomes English decide. Transform the ending -are to -ate and an Italian verb looks just like an English one: Italian decelerare becomes English decelerate. Easy!

No. This is the tricky territory where false friends and other problems lurk. While decidere and decide share the same meaning, attendere (meaning 'to wait for, expect or anticipate something') and attend do not. While decelerare and decelerate are 'true friends', accomodare (meaning 'to repair or mend something') and accommodate are false friends, and there's a spelling trap (one 'm' in Italian but two 'm's' in English) hidden in there to boot!

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Adverb false friends

Adverbs are words which add extra information to a sentence about when or how something is/was done or happened. They are also used, among other things, to give more information about an adjective. Unlike verbs or the nouns which make up the subject or object (where necessary) of a sentence, adverbs can often be removed without the sentence falling apart, although some nuance may be lost. Adverbs usually function as added extras. Little is lost if I say 'I am sitting at my desk' instead of 'I am currently sitting at my desk', for instance. This non-obligatory nature of adverbs can make them extra tricky at times since we do not perhaps give them as much thought as the more essential building blocks of our sentences. In the May 2003 issue of MED Magazine, we looked at actually and eventually as particularly common adverbs which have cognates in many European languages, Italian included, and which people tend to use unguardedly, falling into dangerous false friend traps. But they are not the only ones. A look at some Italian adverbs and their English cognates gives a clear illustration of the problems that can arise when we put too much faith in similarities between words in our lexicons.

English adverbs, for the most part, end in -ly or -ally. Italian adverbs tend to end in -mente. Once learners grasp this simple fact, they are understandably tempted to perform this orthographical transformation and to start adding these extras to their sentences in the new language. The simplicity of the operation and the lower status we tend to give to adverbs seem often to combine to short-circuit the more usual and most advisable procedure, which is to pause for a moment to check meaning. The list below gives ten Italian adverbs, the English adverbs they can be easily transformed into, and their real or additional meaning.

Italian adverb English adverb correct or *other translation
attualmente actually currently, at present
equamente equally justly, fairly
eventualmente eventually if necessary, in case, possibly
fatalmente fatally *unfortunately
occasionalmente occasionally by chance, fortuitously
possibilmente possibly *if possible
presentemente presently *at present, at the moment
scarsamente scarcely scantily, poorly, meagrely
specialmente specially especially, particularly
ultimamente ultimately recently, lately, in recent times

Learners need not become paranoid, however, avoiding adverbs wherever possible. There are plenty of adverbs which do have equivalent meanings: apparantemente; definitivamente; direttamente; incidentalmente; prevalentemente; indifferentemente; logicamente; moderatamente, to name just a few examples, can all be used without great fear of misunderstanding. The important thing is to always be aware of the possibility of false friends and to learn them whenever they are encountered.

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Adjective false friends

Adjectives present a similar case. Certain fairly systematic alterations to the orthography of Italian words will produce a feasible English alternative. Remove the 'o' or the 'e' from the end of many Italian adjectives or change the 'o' to an 'e' and you have words which look just like English adjectives. Thus, diplomatico becomes diplomatic, infinito becomes infinite, and digitale becomes digital. Change the -oso ending on an Italian adjective to -ous and you'll often have found the English equivalent: Italian famoso becomes English famous.

But again, caution must be exercised, as the list below demonstrates.

Italian adjective English adjective correct or *other translation
bravo brave *skilful; honest; well-behaved
baldo bald bold, courageous
caldo cold warm, hot
edito edited published
esaltato exalted excited; hot-headed
invidioso invidious envious
morbido morbid soft, delicate; loose; mellow
moroso morose in arrears
rilevante relevant large, considerable; important
sensibile sensible *sensitive; susceptible
servizievole serviceable helpful, amiable, obliging
simpatico sympathetic nice, pleasant, likeable
tremendo tremendous terrible, awful, dreadful
triviale trivial vulgar, obscene, lewd
volonteroso voluntary willing, eager, keen

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Context and false friends

Context is often a great help when on the lookout for false friends. This is particularly the case with nouns. If somebody gives you a shopping list in French with pain (French for bread) on it, you know that it's time to reach for your dictionary, since it cannot be the English pain that you are expected to buy. But if somebody says to you in Italian that a man is baldo, bravo, esaltato, invidioso, sensibile, simpatico or moroso, it is terribly easy to assume, quite wrongly, that he is bald, brave, exalted, invidious, sensible, sympathetic, or morose. This is one reason why adjectives and adverbs are a particular danger to the unwary learner.

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The downside to orthographical transformations

While all this removing, adding and changing of word endings is a great advantage, as we have seen, it does hold another hidden danger in addition to the risk of leading to a false friend error. The process is responsible for some of the common spelling errors of learners of English. While decelerare can be changed to decelerate, and eliminare can be changed to eliminate, there is no English verb verificate (from verificare), and the English equivalent of Italian identificare is not identificate, but identify. In fact, sometimes a transformation error and a false friend error can combine to create something quite impenetrable, as when an Italian learner of English takes the Italian verb ricordare (meaning 'to remember'), transforms it into a non-existent English verb ricordate, and then uses it in the mistaken belief that it means the same as ricordare, announcing confidently 'I don't ricordate'.

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Similarities and differences

Learners of any language will encounter both similarities and differences between their mother tongue and the language they are learning. Armed with a good dictionary and a keen sense of the possible traps, part of the great adventure of learning a language is learning to embrace them both.

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Further reading

Cambridge International Dictionary of English, Ed. Paul Procter (CUP, 1995)
Odd Pairs and False Friends, Virginia Browne (Zanichelli, 1987)
For an online bibliography of books and academic articles on false friends, see: www.uni-bonn.de/~dbuncic/fauxamis/bib.htm

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Next in the series

In the next issue we'll take a look at borrowings and false friends between Polish and English.

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