False friends

Ogromna większość języków europejskich wywodzi się z tego samego pra-języka. Z tego też powodu słowa w języku niemieckim mogą być takie same, jak w angielskim. Mogą czasem jednak oznaczać co zupełnie innego, mimo zbliżonej czy wręcz identycznej pisowni.

People in Poland say that it is easy to speak Czech. Just say a word in Polish – in a very particular way – and it will sound as if you were a native speaker from Prague. This technique is likely to fail, though. Many words are similar in the Polish and Czech languages, but their meanings are completely different. If you have ever asked in Prague for ‚something to drink’ – ‚co do picia’, you will know what I am writing about.

It is because languages have common origins and – because of that – words look similar. Their meanings changed over time and often lost their older original meanings. Nowadays, this can cause confusion. The Russian ‚nedela’ is not ‚Sunday’ in Polish. The word means ‚week’. ‚Magister’ in Latin is ‚teacher’, not a degree as it is in Poland.

False friends – a phrase describing words that look the same but have different meanings – are particularly confusing in English. The language of Shakespeare is a mixture of French, German, Scandinavian, and Latin – to mention just the most important sources. Because other languages including Latin also influenced the Polish language some English words may by tricky to Polish learners as they have common roots.

There are English words that may be easily misunderstood when we translate them into Polish, though they sometimes have the same meanings. ‚Hazard’ usually stands for danger, though a lesser used meaning is ‚risk’. ‚Exclusive’ news indicates that you can only watch it on one TV station; ‚exclusive’ clothes are so expensive that few people can buy them. ‚Billion’ in the USA is one thousand million (1,000,000,000) while in England – the same as in Poland: million millions (1,000,000,000,000).

Some other ‚false friends’ can never share their meanings, no matter what the context. Remember the film ‚Terminator’? In Poland, the title was not changed. A pity because in Polish ‚terminator’ describes a young person who is taught by his master how to make shoes / sew clothes / repair machines. The English ‚terminator’ kills rodents and insects. In the film, Arnie Schwarzeneger played a character that killed everything not just insects – but did not repair shoes.

The word ‚collaborate’, brings to mind aiding the Nazis during the Second World. In fact it means simply ‚working together’. ‚Paragraph’ is not a word used in court by lawyers unless they are discussing the structure of an English composition – ‚paragraph’ divides text into separate ideas. Speaking of composition – in the previous sentence it meant an essay, not a piece of music. ‚Sentence’ itself is a string of words, and not the Polish ‚sentencja’ – a saying.

The Bible explains that the confusion over words in languages was caused during the construction of the Tower of Babel whose builders, who all spoke the same language, wanted to create a structure ‚with its top in the heavens’. God didn’t like the idea and created many new languages and the workers could not understand one another and had to stop working together. Whatever the reason for these new languages, there are still words which do appear to sound the same. However, if you are not sure of the meaning of a foreign word, it is better to look it up in a dictionary, even if you think it could be the same in your language. It’s often the case that it turns out completely different.

Krzysztof Baran


particular szczególny
to fail zawodzić
origin pochodzenie
confusion zamęt
degree stopień (naukowy)
mixture mieszanina
influence wpływ
tricky podchwytliwy
common root wspólne korzenie
to stand for oznaczać
to indicate wskazywać
to share dzielić
pity szkoda
master mistrz (rzemiosła)
rodent gryzoń
to aid pomagać
string ciąg
saying powiedzenie
to appear wydawać się
to look up sprawdzać (w słowniku)
to turn out okazywać się