My last blog about language talked about the differences between Belgian Dutch and Dutch Dutch. I would like to write a bit more about my experience learning Dutch and about Dutch people learning English. As a Fulbright ETA, my main job is to be a resource to my students, and hopefully point out some ways in which we can bridge the gap between just studying English and actually experiencing English. Part of doing that is looking at the language itself and asking questions about where the words come from, why they mean what they mean, and their historical progression.
In this blog, I’d like to talk about false cognates and false friends between Dutch and English, which cause difficulty for my students of English and for myself when speaking Dutch. English and Dutch are both Germanic languages. However, influence from Norman French and the fact that English developed on an island have contributed to a lot of linguistic differences between the two languages, especially lexically. This can often cause humorous consequences, which I can attest to, and I think my students can too.
A false cognate is a word that sounds similar in a language but does not have the same linguistic root. False friends, on the other hand, are words that sound the same in different languages, but have entirely different meanings. A famous example in Spanish is embarazada, which doesn’t mean embarrased, but pregnant. Estoy embarazada is not something you want to say after accidentally falling down.
It is important to point out that false cognates are not the same as false friends. For example, Hund in German (dog) and hound in English have different meanings, but the linguistic origin is the same (Proto-Germanic). This means that these words are false friends (although similar), but not false cognates. Hope you all enjoy!
1. Actual v. actueel
Actueel means current or nowadays, not true or real.
Bad translation example: Actueel ben ik er niet mee eens. (I don’t agree nowadays.)
2. Acorn v. eekhoorn
Eekhoorn means squirrel! I remember thinking my Dutch friend was messing with me when he told me this. Eikel, on the other hand means acorn.
Bad translation example: Ahh! That acorn stole my sandwich!
3. Eventual v. eventueel
Eventueel means potential in Dutch. This caused a big ruckus when the Belgian national football team invited Scottish delegates for an event celebrating the “eventual qualification of the Belgian national football team.”
Bad translation example: Good luck with your eventual job after the interview!
4. Magazine v. Magazijn
A magazijn is a warehouse. Magazines are called tijdschriften in Dutch. Go figure.
5. Half vijf v. Half five
Half vijf in Dutch means 4:30. Half five in British English means 5:30. Thankfully, we Americans rarely use this form (opting instead for spelling it out as five-thirty), so it hasn’t been a big problem for me, according to the British English speakers I’ve met, they have said it can be very confusing.
Bad translation example: Work ends at 5. It’s half five, so you can’t leave yet.
6. Smal v. small
Smal means narrow in Dutch, or sometimes thin, while klein takes the mean of little.
7. Dier v. deer
Dier means animal in Dutch. This also used to be the case in English, but around 1500, animal (of Latin origin) took the more general sense, while deer is now only reserved for these antlered specimens.
Bad translation example: Alle deze dieren hebben zo’n mooie gewei! (All these animals have such beautiful antlers!)
8. Monster v. monster
Monster, while sharing the English sense of the word, also means a sample, or a specimen.
Bad translation example: We need to go out and collect monsters today.
9. Sterven v. starve
Like with deer, starve used to have a broader meaning in English: to die. This is the case with the Dutch sterven (and the German sterben). Starve in Dutch is verhongeren.
Bad translation example: “My brother starved last week.” “Oh, no. Did he end up getting something to eat?”
10. raar v. rare
Raar means odd or strange in Dutch. You can compare this to raro in Spanish. Rare in Dutch is zeldzaam.
11. chef v. chef
Chef in Dutch refers to a boss in general, not just the chef in the kitchen. To specify the top chef, you need to say chefkok. And yes, kok, meaning a cook, sounds exactly how you are thinking it does.
12. meaning v. mening
Mening means opinion in Dutch. Betekenis would take the sense of meaning in Dutch.
Bad translation example: En wat is de mening van het woord? (And what is the opinion of the word?)
13. brave v. braaf
Braaf means obedient in Dutch. Thus, brave hond means a “good dog,” not a brave dog.
14. Dapper v. dapper
And then just to make it a little more confusing, dapper means brave in Dutch!
15. bakken v. bake
Bakken means to bake in Dutch, but it also means to fry something on the stove.
Bad translation example: Are you going to bake those pancakes?
16. Douchen v. douche
The same in German, Spanish and French (and probably several other languages), English speakers think it is hilarious that the word for “to shower” is the very same as the word for the feminine hygiene product.
17. Miljard v. million
Miljard means a billion. Biljoen means a trillion. Triljoen is a quintillion. And so on. Glad I’m not studying Mathematics over here.
18. Laatst v. Last
Laatst can mean both last and latest, so the de laatste tijd means recently, and not the last time.
Bad translation example: He has been very busy the last time.
19. Invalide v. invalid
An invalide is a handicapped person.
Bad translation example: Jouw mening is invalide. (Your opinion is handicapped).
20. Hond v. hound
Like with starve and deer, hound used to have a wider meaning in English and meant “dog” in general. The origin of the word dog in English is one of the language’s great mysteries, as it seems to have come out of nowhere etymologically. Today, hound has the more narrow definition of a hunting dog, or jachthond in Dutch. Hond in Dutch, however, means any kind of dog.
21. File v. file
File in Dutch, pronounced fee-la, is a traffic jam, and not a file.
22. Map v. map
Meanwhile, map is a file in Dutch, and map is kaart.
23. Kaart v. card
I think you are starting to get the picture…
As you can see, confusion can occur when working with Dutch and English, but at the same time, some of these similar words can help you to remember the meaning. We see that false cognates are a blessing and a curse. One good thing about Chinese is that false cognates are very low, which is to say that cognates are low in general, which I guess is probably a bad thing.
In any case, cognates are fun. If anyone has any interest about writing a blog about false cognates or false friends in languages you study, I would love to see it!