False friends or how to avoid stepping on a linguistic mine?
We’ve known for a long time that a friend in need is a friend indeed. It is when you get in trouble that you’re most likely to discover who your real friends are – a true friend will be there with you to help and support you, while someone who is not a true friend will suddenly disappear, turn his or her back on you, and become indifferent to your needs.
The same applies to languages: some words at first glance seem to mean the same in different languages – they sound similar, so when we hear them we feel that we know what they mean. We consider them to be our “friends” – when we encounter them in a sentence, we finally find that there is something we can understand! Sometimes such “friends” turn out to be “false friends”. This happens when a foreign language manages to trick us, and despite our best intentions we can say something completely different than what we intended.
As you learn Polish you will surely encounter a lot of “false friends.” Here are a few Polish false friends. There are a number of words that are very similar between Polish and other Slavic languages (e.g. Czech, Slovak, Russian), as these are closely related to Polish. The same applies to Polish and English, as well as to Polish and Italian. They are not always to be trusted!
Imagine it is a warm spring day in March. A Czech who speaks little Polish takes a trip to Warsaw. When she is relaxing in a park during a sightseeing break, she meets a boy she finds attractive. After a half an hour of conversation, she realises that she would like to keep in touch with him. More than that even – as the Czech girl is daring, she wants to go ahead and make that clear. She uses the Czech word for a handsome lad and says flirtatiously “Z ciebie to jest frajer!” The outcome is exactly the opposite of what she expected – the boy suddenly turns red-faced and flees down the park alley...
What made him do that? The word frajer, which sounds the same in Polish and in Czech means something entirely different in each language: in Czech frajer is an adorer, lover, or implies good-looking, while in Polish means a sucker who is easy to fool.
Do you know some of the possible struggles of English-speaking tycoons who would like to plan huge investments in Poland? They could, for instance, fail to make clear what amounts they would like to spend for their investment! Let’s say it is a hefty sum: one billion. Now, there is the English word billion, which sounds similar to the Polish word bilion. The difference in spelling is only one letter, so one might believe both mean exactly the same amount. Nothing could be further from the truth! While the English billion means “only” one thousand million (1,000,000,000), Polish speakers hearing a bilion might be convinced that the investor is willing to spend as much as one million times million (1,000,000,000,000)! The difference is quite considerable...
Here is a tip for English-speaking investors:
PLN 1,000,000,000,000 = bilion in Polish, or trillion in English
(Note: there is another danger lurking here as well – Polish “trylion” is as much as 1,000,000,000,000,000,000!)
Let's move to sunny Italy. It is an evening at the end of a long summer day. A likeable Polish tourist has completed an intensive sightseeing tour and is starving! He makes his way to the hotel restaurant and orders a pizza for dinner. He chooses a pizza from the menu and adds the Italian word: “colazione.” The waiter, quite surprised, scribbles down the tourist’s request, while the tourist, proud of his language skills, returns to his room to change clothes. Imagine his surprise, when coming back refreshed, to find that there is no meal! He will then be equally surprised to find that in the morning he will be greeted by the smell of an original Italian margherita...
What was the misunderstanding? The Polish word “kolacja” sounds very similar to the Italian “colazione.” However, a Polish “dinner” is a meal that is eaten in the evening, and an Italian “colazione” is... breakfast. To order something for dinner, we need to use the Italian word “cena.” The same word is used for Spanish also.
Interestingly, the word “cena” is also used in Polish, but it means “price”.
In Russian there is the verb “гордиться”, which sounds very similar to the Polish word “gardzić” meaning to scorn, despise, disdain, etc. A Polish person hearing this word from a Russian friend may feel offended, albeit unnecessarily!
The Russian, who uses the word, is really saying “I am proud of you.” The word is non-offensive, and an expression of appreciation.
The names of the days of the week and months are among the first things we learn in a language course for beginners, regardless of the language. It is obvious that some of these names sound similar in many languages. Take for example the Polish “maj” – in English it is “May”, in German “Mai”, in French and Icelandic “mai” – and in each case the name refers to the fifth month of the year, when lilacs and magnolias bloom. As there are similarities in the names of months between Polish, English, German, etc. it would seem that they will be even greater between the respective Slavic languages. It turns out however, that some false friend hide best in plain sight...
Let's go back to the Czech girl, who lost the chance for true love at the park in Warsaw. Let’s say that the lad haplessly referred to as “frajer” had enough of a sense of humour to not get offended, and they both decided to hook up at a later date. The potential lovers decided to meet again on “15 kwietnia”. They parted dreaming of a splendid budding of a beautiful romance, but alas... they shall not meet again: each will come to the right place but at the wrong time. He will be there on April 15, while she will appear one month late – on May 15!
How is this possible? Despite the closeness between the Polish and Czech languages, “kwiecień” and “květen” refer to two different months. The Polish word “kwiecień” is the fourth month of the year, while the Czech word “květen” is the Polish word... maj!
What is the bottom line?
A language can be quite a surprise – what seems obvious is sometimes not obvious at all. For that reason, learning a language can be an adventure with several unexpected plot twists.
So be vigilant!
LinguaCity wishes you the fewest language mistakes and most satisfaction in uncovering “false friends”.