Pronunciation False Friends

In the context of languages, the term false friend refers to the incorrect use of a word in one language that is identical or very similar in terms of spelling to a word in another language. Of course, because of the common origin of many languages, there are many true friends, namely words that are spelled very similarly and do have the same meaning in two different languages. For example, the German Hand translates into the English hand. However, the widely used Handy (German for mobile or cell phone) has nothing to do with the English word handy (an adjective that means easy to use or to do). Similarly, the English word actual has nothing to do with the German word aktuell (English: current). The fact that some of these associations are correct (true friends) whereas others are not (false friends) makes it quite difficult to avoid such mistakes. In recent decades, the trend to assimilate English words into other languages has become an important source of false friends. Whereas Browser is used in German with the same meaning as browser in English, Handy does not even exist as a noun in English, and is an example of a so-called pseudo-anglicism. Similarly, a data projector is often called a Beamer in German, but the word beamer has a very different meaning in English, see here. The distinction between a false friend and an incorrect (literal) translation is not so clear. For example, the English term racing line (see this post) translates to the German Ideallinie. However, it is not clear if the expression ideal line (which certainly makes sense in English although it is not used in the context of racing) should be classified as a false friend or as an incorrect translation.

Here, I want to propose a new type of false friend, namely the pronunciation false friend. In the process of collecting material for my blog, I came across a number of examples for pronunciation false friends. The key idea is quite simple: a pronunciation false friend can occur when a word that exists in two different languages (possibly with the same meaning) is pronounced differently. The differences in pronunciation can be substantial (different sounds, silent letters) or minor (stress of syllables). The origin of the incorrect pronunciation is the association with a related word in another language. Let me give you a few examples to illustrate the concept of pronunciation false friends.

The English word psychology is essentially the same as the German Psychologie. However, as pointed out before, the pronunciation is quite different. Most importantly, the letter p is silent in English but not in German. Hence, when somebody pronounces psychology as [psaɪˈkɒlədʒi], I would call that a pronunciation false friend. Another example, previously mentioned here, is physics. In German, the letter y in Physik is pronounced like the letter ü (listen here), whereas in the English word Physics (and in many others) it is pronounced as [ɪ], see here. We can also consider words which are pronunciation false friends and false friends. For example, the German word aktuell is often incorrectly translated as actual. In addition, a German native speaker may also pronounce actual as [ˈæktuəl] instead of [ˈæktʃuəl].

Pronunciation false friends can also be more subtle and hence harder to avoid. In many cases, the pronunciation is correct in terms of the individual sounds, but wrong in terms of stress. For example, the correct pronunciation of register is [ˈredʒɪstə], stressing the first syllable. In contrast, the German word Register is stressed on the second syllable, see here. Consequently, German speakers often pronounce register as [re’dʒɪstə], stressing the wrong syllable. The same is true for operator and Operator (stressed on the 1st syllable in English, on the 3rd in German), as well as for effective and effektiv (stressed on the 2nd syllable in English, and on the 3rd in German).

Remarkably, pronunciation false friends can apparently even occur in cases where there is no obvious similarity between two words that describe the same thing in different languages. An important every-day example is afternoon. In German, the word Nachmittag is stressed on the first letter a (or on the first syllable, for example in Austria). The English word afternoon is pronounced as [ˌɑːftəˈnuːn], with stress on “noon” but not on “after” (as often done by German native speakers). Based on my observations, I suggest that the fact that both words describe the same thing is sufficient for German native speakers to apply some aspects (here: stress) of the German pronunciation when using the English word. A similar case is that of interaction, which is correctly pronounced as [ˌɪntərˈækʃn] (with the stress on -action, not on inter-). The German equivalent, Wechselwirkung, is stressed on the first part, Wechsel-, and I have heard a number of German native speakers apply the same pronunciation to interaction (the same people would, however, pronounce international correctly). Another good example is unclear, which is stressed on the second syllable. However, German speakers, presumably having in mind the German word unklar, often stress the first syllable instead. Although I have no proof, the fact that these false friends seem to occur quite consistently among German speakers who otherwise can be classified as advanced English speakers, seems to support my hypothesis.

In other cases, the situation is even more complicated. For example, the English noun intern is stressed on the first syllable, the verb intern is stressed on the second syllable, and the German word intern is stressed on the second syllable. For my scientific readers, I want to mention the example of magnetism, stressed on the first syllable, as opposed to the German Magnetismus, which is stressed on the third syllable (see here and here).

Pronunciation false friends also exist between other languages. A particularly interesting example is the pair of words no (English) and non (French). Whereas the meaning is identical, the no is pronounced quite differently than the non, and it can be quite difficult for native French speakers to pronounce no correctly in English.

Of course, pronunciation false friends also work the other way around. An extensive list of such false friends for the Dutch language (which has many words that are spelled in the same way as in English) can be found here.


3 thoughts on “Pronunciation False Friends

  1. Learning Swedish – False Friends | Invading Sverige

  2. How to pronounce interaction – painfulenglish

  3. How to pronounce refugee – painfulenglish

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