A major downside for English speakers learning French is that there are a lot of similarities between the two languages.
Let me explain.
See, there are a bunch of words in French that look like English words and mean the same thing as those English words.
There are also a bunch of words that look similar in both languages, but that mean different things.
The above creates an intricate maze of twist and turns where nothing, or at least not everything, is what it seems.
It can be difficult to find your way through the French language when it’s full of false friends, cognates and false cognates.
Whew! This can be confusing. At best, it can lead to a good joke. At worst, total embarrassment. Don’t be that person who wants to know if a food has preservatives and uses the word préservatifs (condoms). This is the ultimate faux-pas (gaffe).
Incidentally, “preservatives” and préservatifs are what are known as false cognates. But before we get into all of that, let’s get our terminology straight to avoid getting lost.
Different Terminology for Similar Words in English and French
- Loanword: Loanwords are words that are directly lifted (loaned, if you will) from another language and retain their meaning. In English, we use a bunch of French loanwords, like “déjà-vu,” “silhouette,” “prestige,” “coup d’état” and “debacle.”
- Cognate: Cognates are words that have the same etymological origin. Their meanings, however, do not have to be the same. The English word “night” and the French nuit (night), for example, are cognates because they share the same Indo-European origin. In this case, they mean the same thing.
- False friend: The term “false friend” is short for “false friend of a translator” and it refers to two words that look and sound similar but have divergent meanings. Take sensible, which exists in both English and French. In English it means “prudent” or “thoughtful” while in French it means “sensitive.” It’s possible for false friends to be of similar etymological origin, but this is not always the case.
- False cognate: False cognates are words that appear to have the same etymological origin but in fact do not. Take the word sets “arch”/”architect” and “pen”/”pencil”; based on their meanings (and appearances), one could assume that each pair is related, but they’re not. Similarly, the apparent likeness between the English word “road” and the French route is just a coincidence; the former is actually of Germanic origin. There are cases in which false cognates share meanings, usually with regard to secondary definitions.
To make things even more confusing, “false cognate” and “false friend” are often used interchangeably in a colloquial sense. This is probably largely due to the fact that they both often pose the same problem for French learners: they may look like they mean one thing, when in fact they mean another.
Why So Many Similarities Exist Between English and French
French is the most common source of borrowed words in English and vice versa. Why is that, you ask? The answer requires a brief historical detour. While close geographical and cultural contact between France and England over many centuries led to the intermingling of French and English, historian Bill Bryson tells us that things stopped being nice and started getting real in the year 1066 AD, when William the Conquerer became King of England.
During his rule, Norman French became the official language of government, the church and the upper classes in general in England. English, in turn, became the language of the masses. For about 300 years, this was the state of affairs, and thousands French words made it into the English language. Most of these words are still in use today.
Indeed, most of these words are still in use today, but they don’t always mean what we expect them to mean. It’s a confusing, linguistically-jumbled world out there! Below are some tips for navigating it.
Tips for Avoiding Confusion with Similarities Between English and French
- Expand your vocabulary (and think like a translator). Books meant for budding translators are a great way to gain exposure to common false friends. This makes sense because translation is all about finding le mot juste (the right word). I recommend checking out “Formidable French: False cognates in French and English” and “The Beginning Translator’s Workbook” for comprehensive lists of false cognates.
- Whenever you come across a false friend, it’s a good idea to learn the “right” word along with the “wrong” word so you’ll avoid making the same mistake in the future. Think of this as a two-for-one deal!
French Words That May Not Mean What You Think They Mean (and How to Correct Yourself)
Below are some nouns, verbs and adverbs that may cause confusion.
Some of these aren’t strictly false friends, but rather words that share only some of the English meanings (but not all of them).
Let’s take a closer look at how they should be dealt with.
- Amateur. In English, an amateur is a beginner or non-professional. In French un amateur is someone who really loves or is passionate about something. An amateur du vin (lover of wine), for example, is someone who is really into wine (how French!). If you want to refer to someone inexperienced, the French word for “beginner” is débutant.
- Avertissement. Un avertissement is not an advertisement (that’s a publicité), but rather “a warning.”
- Conducteur. Un conducteur in French is a person who drives a vehicle (any vehicle—most often a car, but also a train). Un cheminot is the word in French that commonly refers to any other train employee, and un contrôleur is a ticket-collector.
- Caution. Une caution refers to a security deposit. Un avertissement (see above) is what we use in French if we want to warn someone about something.
- Chair. If you want to mention a chair in French, “une chaise” is what you’re looking for. La chair refers to flesh, as in en chair et en os (in the flesh).
- Délai. Un délai primarily refers to a period of time, as in “j’ai un délai de 3 semaines pour écrire l’article” (I have three weeks to write the article). It can also refer to an extension. Un retard is how you would refer to a delay in French.
- Habit. This is another word for vêtements (clothes) or fringues, if you want to get slangy. As a mnemonic device, recall that “to dress (oneself)” is s’habiller. Une habitude is the French for “habit.”
- Parole. Based on the pattern, you’ve probably guessed that une parole has nothing to do with freedom or imprisonment. La liberté conditionnelle is French for “parole,” while une parole primarily refers to words or other speech acts. The expression donner sa parole, for example, means “to give one’s word” or “to make a promise.” Paroles can also refer to song lyrics.
- Rang. Un rang can either refer to a row (as in columns and rows), a ranking or a classification. Sonner, which is a verb, means “to ring (a doorbell).” “Tu as sonné ?” translates to “you rang (the doorbell)?”
- Sommaire. In French, un sommaire primarily refers to a book’s table of contents. It’s an example of a false cognate with a shared meaning; its secondary definition refers to a summary. Résumé, however, is the more colloquial word of choice for “summary” in French.
- Actuellement. Actuellement is the French for “currently.” If you mean to say “actually,” vraiment is the word you should use.
- Eventuellement. Eventuellement, rather counter-intuitively for Anglophones, means “may,” “might,” “possibly” or “potentially.” “Eventually,” on the other hand, can be expressed with au fur et à mesure (bit by bit).
- Finalement. This is actually another way of saying “eventually,” but also “finally,” as one would expect. Enfin is another French adverb that can be used to mean “finally.”
- Achever. The verb achever means “to finish” or “to complete.” Accomplir (to accomplish) or atteindre (to reach) as in atteindre son but (to reach one’s goal), on the other hand, are synonymous with “to achieve.”
- Avertir. Avertir means “to warn” or “to alert.” The French for “to avert” is éviter, which also means “to avoid,” or détourner, as in the case of averting one’s gaze (détourner son régard).
- Contrôler. The primary definition of contrôler is “to check” or “to verify.” It can also mean “to dominate” or “to control,” as one might expect, but maîtriser is usually the more appropriate choice.
- Détenir. Détenir can mean “to detain,” as in to hold in police custody, but it’s important to note that it can also be used to mean “to possess” or “to have,” as in “Marc détient des documents importants” (Marc has important documents) or “to hold (a title, for example)” as in “Teddy Riner détient le titre de champion de judo” (Teddy Riner holds the title of judo champion).
- Ignorer. Ignorer means “to not know” or “to be ignorant of.” The verbs bouder or mépriser mean “to ignore.”
- Prétendre. In French prétendre means “to affirm” or “to maintain.” Faire semblant, on the other hand, is French for “to pretend.”
- User. User means “to wear out.” Utiliser is the French verb for “to use.”
The moral of this post? Don’t get too complacent.
Once you’ve learned enough false friends so that words like coin (corner) and location (to rent) don’t trip you up, you’ve reached an important stage in your French learning journey.
This doesn’t mean you should let your guard down!
Follow these tips, and you’ll be unstoppable in no time.
So unstoppable that if you were to passer un examen (take a test), you wouldn’t just pass it (that would be réussir, by the way). You’d ace it!
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