Figurative Links as Source of False Friends

Academic Paper, 2013

12 Pages, Grade: 1,3



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Literature
2.1 Polysemy and semantic change
2.2 Metaphor
2.3 Metonymy
2.4 Specialization and Generalization

3. Method and Discussion
3.1 brief
3.2 map
3.3 brave
3.4 caution
3.5 sentence

4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Introduction

European learners of English as a foreign language are familiar with situations in which they create incorrect interferences between words belonging to their mother tongue and words from the target language, assuming that their meanings are equivalent. Due to the existence of cross-linguistic word pairs that are similar, even identical in orthography or in spelling the foreign language learner traps into treacherous language errors which result in misunderstandings, mistranslations and difficulties in communication. Koessler and Derocquingy have named this phenomenon by the metaphorical French term faux amis (Broz 2008: 200), which means false friends in English.

(1) German: Das ist Gift für dich. (Gift in the sens of poison)
(2) English: This is a gift for you. (gift means present in English)

As shown in the examples the German Gift and the English gift are identical in orthography and pronunciation. However, there is – regarded from a synchronic point of view- no overlap in meaning between the two words. In terms of Ferdinand De Saussure’s1 theory about the linguistic sign this example illustrates that the same signifier (signifiant) denotes completely different concepts, which depicts the signified (signifié). False friends between English and other European languages are mainly lexemes that have derived from Latin and have undergone semantic change in the respective contexts they were used (Broz 2008:199). Linguists like Koessler and Derocquigny (1928), Vladimir Ivir (1968) and Dominguez and Nerlich (2002) have already investigated in the field of false friends in the course of the last century and produced a classification of different types of false friends. Particularly, the work of Dominguez and Nerlich has offered a new insight- based on the concepts of cognitive linguistics- on this phenomenon. The goal of this paper is to investigate diachronically the processes of semantic change from which originate false friends by the examination of five typical cases of false friends between English and German. First, a classification of different types of false friends (chance and semantic) will be made. This part includes the delineation of the major meaning shifting processes (metaphor, metonymy, specialization and generalization) that have resulted in semantic false friends. Second, the diachronic development of five cases of semantic false friends will be examined in order to find out to which extent these figurative links have contributed to the existenceof false friends.

2. Literature

The topic of false friends has been investigated for almost a century by different linguists2 (Broz 2008: 199). In particular, this phenomenon was the object of contrastive analysis in order to improve language acquisition and translation (Broz: 2008:202). Regarded from a synchronic viewpoint, false friends are two words which are similar or the same in writing or in spelling in two distinct languages, but which differ in meaning (Broz 2008: 200). Still, theoretical works of present-day linguists have provided new revelations that base on a rather diachronic cross-linguistic analysis than on a synchronic. This means that the historical development of false friends has increasingly moved into the focus of attention. Pedro J. Chamizo Dominguez and Brigitte Nerlich have classified false friends into different groups. According to them, false friends can be subdivided into chance false friends and semantic (figurative) false friends (Dominguez and Nerlich 2002:1833). Chance false friends are similar or identical in orthography but differ in meaning and in their etymologies. ‘They can be compared to homonyms3 in a single natural language.’ (Dominguez and Nerlich 2002: 1833)

In contrast to the preceding type of false friends mentioned, semantic or figurative false friends have the same etymologies but they have exploited different meaning potentials of the original word which is most cases Latin. Accordingly, you can still identify semantic relations between the two words. ‘They can be considered to be cross-linguistic equivalents to polysemeous words in a single natural language’ (Dominguez and Nerlich 2002: 1833).

The semantic relation between this type of false friends can be explained by observing the semantic processes that underlie the divergent exploitation of one meaning potential of the word they have originated from. According to Dominguez’s and Nerlich’s (2002:1833) approach of false friends the different meanings of one and the same word in two distinct languages based mainly on so called figurative links like metaphor, metonymy, specialization (narrowing) or generalization (widening). These depict concepts from cognitive linguistics since they do not only underlie figures of speech, but also cognitive processes themselves (Dominguez 2002:1834). There are further ‘mechanisms’ (Broz 2008:205-206) that could be a reason for the existence of semantic false friends, namely pejoration4, amelioration5, hyperbole6, euphemism7. These mechanisms will not be taken into account in further detail in this paper by reason of focus and in order to limit the object of investigation. Due to my following investigation of five cases of semantic false friends there is, first of all, the necessity to delineate the major processes that underlie semantic change and that have resulted in the existence of false friends.

2.1 Polysemy and semantic change

The phenomenon of semantic false friends represents a cogent example to demonstrate that semantic change can be motivated. Usually, false friends were considered to be a random crossover of form and meaning of two words in two distinct languages (Broz 2008:203). Due to Broz, that is why they have simply been categorized disregarding the need for scientific explanation. As already noted, semantic false friends can be regarded as ‘cross- linguistic equivalents to polysemous words in a single natural language’ (Dominguez and Nerrlich 2002:1833). This means that they are polysemous. Polysemy in turn signifies that one word has two or several related senses. These senses are semantically linked with each other by what Dominguez and Nerlich’s described as ‘figurative links’ (metaphor, metonymy, etc.). These figurative links are the reason for diverging meanings of one word in two distinct languages. This is why semantic false friends are the remains of pragmatic language use over time (Dominguez and Nerrlich 2002: 1833).

2.2 Metaphor

One of the major figurative links that is estimated to be a cause for false friends is the metaphor. The metaphor consists in the principle that ‘one entity or domain is experienced in terms of another’ (Broz 2008:205). This means that correspondences are created between two distinct domains. To illustrate this figurative link we can refer to the example of the animal name ‘camel’ in several European languages. In English (camel) and German this word basically denotes the same animal. Still, in German, for example, Kamel can also be used metaphorically in order express that someone is ‘stupid’ or ’silly’ (Dominguez and Nerrlich 2002: 1839). Thus, in German the concept (signified) that belongs to the sound pattern (signifier) Kamel is related to the concept or entity of being stupid. This is where the metaphorical link has taken place. And since the contexts that contribute to shifts diverge in each language, false friends are created. In point of fact camel cannot be used in the same sense in English, for here the metaphorical link has taken place in other animal names or not at all.

2.3 Metonymy

Metonymy is a cognitive process that is based on contiguity relations like for example part-whole, cause-effect and content-container relations (Broz 2008:205). In order to clarify semantic change through a metonymic link Dominguez and Nerrlich (2002: 1834) refer to the etymology of the English word flannel (a type of cloth with a specific function) and compare it to the etymology of the German word Flannel (a specific type of cloth). The metonymic link that has taken place in the meaning of the English word is the one from MATERIAL (a specific type of cloth) to FUNCTION (is has a specific function). Hence, in English flannel has become a polysemous word whereas the German word Flannel has maintained the literal meaning (Dominguez and Nerrlich 2002:1834)

2.4 Specialization (narrowing) and generalization (widening)

Specialization and generalization are the last two of the four basic processes producing semantic change. Specialization signifies the semantic process in which the sense of a word or expression is restricted to one of its several meanings. By way of illustration, the word meat in English used to denote ‘food’ in general (15th century). However, its meaning changed due to specialization and, thus, today it designates a special kind of food, namely flesh. In contrast to specialization, generalization signifies the process in which a word signifies several concepts. This is why generalization always ends up in polysemy.

3. Method/Discussion

The objects of my investigation will be five examples of English-German semantic false friends that will be examined diachronically and cross-linguistically in order to find out to which extent figurative links have contributed to the existence of the false friends selected. As a matter of fact, the amount of false to investigate is infinite. By reason of restriction of the object of my scientific investigation I have decided to focus only on semantic false friends. In view of the number of false friends I will examine, I am aware of the fact that my results will not be representative. The five examples have been chosen randomly. For a diachronic investigation of the examples it is necessary to use sustained etymological dictionaries. Therefore, I have selected the Oxford English Dictionary and the Etymologisches Wörterbuch der Deutschen Sprache (etymological dictionary of the German language).

3.1 brief adj. [vs. German Brief ‘letter’]

The first example of semantic false friends to be investigated is the English lexeme brief, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means ‘of short duration’, ‘quickly passing away or ending’. This lexeme forms a false friend with the German lexeme Bief. Unlike the English sense of the word, German Brief signifies a ‘writing8 that is sent to someone in an envelope, so a ‘letter’ (in English). The OED and the Etymolgisches Wörterbuch der Deutschen Sprache state that both words have derived from the Latin word breve ‘letter, dispatch, note’. So, they are semantic false friends since both are almost identical in form and have the same origin but differ, from a synchronic and cross-linguistic viewpoint, in meaning. Examining the diachronic development of English brief, it can be concluded that the word had several senses: from ‘a letter of authority’ (noun, obsolete) to ‘a letter, dispatch, note,’ and to ‘something brief or short’ (adj.). However, it has to be noted at this point that the respective meanings existed simultaneously, from which we can assume that that brief was a polysemous word. Definitely, the processes that underlie the semantic change between ‘letter, note’ and ‘something brief or short’ are diverse. Still, it can be stated that one of the meaning potentials of the word brief has survived until today which is the one of ‘something short’. Thus, we can state that after the phase of polysemy the sense of word brief changed through the figurative link of generalization. This means that its meaning has become less specific. In contrast to this development the German sense of Brief has stayed the literal one. This is why brief and Brief are categorized as false friends now a days.

3.2 map n. [vs. German Mappe‘folder’/ ‘portfolio’]

The second example depicts the English-German false friend of map and Mappe. This example also belongs to the group of semantic false friends, since the words are similar in their forms, but have different meanings and the same etymologies. Both words have derived from the postclassical word mappa which used to mean ‘piece of cloth’ or ‘napkin’. The transition from ‘a piece of cloth’ to ‘map’ (in the sense of ‘plan, diagramm’) developed, as stated by the OED, in consequence of the fact that early maps were drawn on cloth. If we precisely analyze this statement, it can be claimed that it was a metonymic link between material (cloth) and function (map) that has issued the change in meaning of map. Instead, in 18th century the German word Mappe changed its sense to the sense of ‘portfolio’ or ‘folder’, due the transition from ‘a drawing that represents the earth surface (or a part of it)’ to ‘a protective covering’. This transition emerged since maps were kept in protective coverings at that time. Hence, it can be concluded that, just as in English, in German a metonymic (content- container relation) link was the source of semantic change. Due to these differences in diachronic development, the words have finally become English-German false friends.


1 Ferdinand de Saussure was a Swiss linguist and semiotician. His theory about the linguistic sign and its arbitrariness have been pioneering until today

2 See Introduction

3 Homonyms are words that are identical in orthography or in pronunciation

4 The development of a less favorable meaning or of less pleasant connotations of a word or expression

5 The development of a more favorable meaning or of more positive connotations of a word or expression

6 The development of an exaggerated or extravagant meaning

7 The substitution of a word or expression of comparatively favorable implication or less unpleasant associations, instead of the harsher or more offensive one

8 Definition by the DUDEN

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Figurative Links as Source of False Friends
Free University of Berlin
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figurative, links, source, false, friends
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Anonymous, 2013, Figurative Links as Source of False Friends, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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