Thursday, October 7, 2021

Quick Thought – False Friends

Yesterday morning, I was talking with my Chinese colleague (who is not a false friend!) and came across a problem remembering a certain Chinese word. This morning, soon after waking up, I suddenly realized why I was having a problem yesterday.

Generally, I try to get to a place where I have feeling about a word I’m learning, rather than just strictly translating. With the words in question, they were new enough that that feeling is still under development. This encounter, I believe will go along way to cementing a feeling for the words in question into my brain.

During the conversion, I wanted to say that I was a little worried about something. The two words that came to my mind that I needed to decide between were 担心 (dānxīn, worry, be anxious, etc.) and 放心 (fàngxīn, rest assured, be at ease, etc.). I knew they were more or less opposites, so I needed to make sure I selected the right one. 担心 was the newer word for me, so I was focusing on trying to remember 放心. I was having conflicting ideas in my mind surrounding 放. One side had the feeling of setting down, like setting down your worries, and the other was picking up or grabbing and holding tight. I was stuck.

We discussed it a bit and I remembered the definition of 放 was along the lines of to put, to place, or to let go of something. Obviously that wasn’t what I wanted to say.

She also mentioned that 担 has a hand component on the left and that 担子 is the traditional way two heavy baskets or buckets are carried with a pole balancing over the shoulder. Now, I even have a great visual to use in the future for 担心 too! (And what an appropriate image! Those baskets of worries can get pretty heavy at times!)

This morning I realized why 放 (fàng) was giving me trouble. Between different languages there is a concept of “false friends.” These are words that seem like they should be equivalent words in the other language, but they aren’t. These are especially interesting to me when their meanings are not only different, but different in a way that could be troublesome. One of my favorites is kind of a false friend love triangle:

English – poison & gift

German – Gift (means poison in English)

French – poisson (means fish in English)

I probably get more joy out of those words than I should.

The meaning that was tripping me up was the German word fangen, which means to catch. If you are going to throw something to someone, you might yell “Fang!” This is pronounced very much like the Chinese 放 (fàng) and not like the toothy English false friend, fang. The related German word gefangen means caught and also captive, like being in a jail, for example. So fangen and 放 (fàng) had a sound connection in my subconscious, but that was already associated with an action that was more or less opposite. What made it harder was that both actions involved using the hands. How interesting!

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