"False friends" in English and Finnish

What "false friends" are?

"False friends" (French faux amis) are pairs of words in two languages so that the words are written or pronounced identically or similarly but differ in meaning. They cause problems especially when you see or hear a word in a foreign language and you assume that it has the same meaning as a similar word in your native language. Often the words have a common origin but the meanings have become different, perhaps very different. See English faux amis for francophones learning English for a more detailed general characterization and for examples on English/French false friends. This document lists some "false friends" in English and Finnish. Section English as 2nd Language at About.com contains an annotated list of links to pages about false friends between English and other languages.

The expression false cognates is often used instead of false friends. However, it as also used for words that that are similar in two languages but have different origin, and in other meanings, too.

Some examples

In the following table, each row contains

  1. an English word
  2. a semantic equivalent in Finnish
  3. a Finnish word resembling (in spelling or pronunciation or both) the English word
  4. an explanation of the meaning of the Finnish word in English.

English wordexplanation in Finnish Finnish wordexplanation in English
ale'olut (eräs tyyppi)'ale'sale (at a reduced price)'
angina'sydänkouristus, angina pectoris'angiina'tonsillitis'
bassoon'fagotti'pasuuna'trombone'
billion (US)'miljardi'biljoona'trillion (US)'
canine'kulmahammas; koira(eläin)'kaniini'rabbit'
faggot (or fagot)'(risu)kimppu; homo'fagotti'bassoon, fagotto'
grape'viinirypäle'greippi'grapefruit'
harmonica'huuliharppu'harmonikka'accordion'
home'koti’home'mold (fungus growth)’
liquor'väkevä alkoholijuoma'likööri'liqueur'
motorist'autoilija'motoristi'motorcyclist'
pickles'suola- t. etikkakurkut'pikkelsi'mixed pickles'
novel'romaani; uudenlainen'novelli'short story'
petrol (Br.)'bensiini'petroli'paraffin oil'
risky'vaarallinen'riski (adj.)'strong (person)'
silicon'pii'silikoni'silicone'
tile'laatta, kaakeli’tiili'brick’
undulate'aaltoilla, lainehtia'undulaatti'budgerigar, budgie

Special case: specialized meaning

There are some word pairs which could be regarded as "false friends" in the sense that a Finnish word has more restricted meaning than its "friend" in English. For example:

Being false friends may depend on the context

Some words are false friends in some contexts only:

Complicated cases

The word pair pathetic - pateettinen is more difficult to describe. Originally, pateettinen means 'high-flown' (and English pathetic in its modern meaning, as opposite to its old dictionary meaning, is translated e.g. as säälittävä or surkea). But it seems that the impact of English has changed things so that pateettinen now very often means 'pathetic'. (In the Finnish version of The Lion King on video, Zazu's words about Simba becoming a pretty pathetic king has been translated as "sinusta tulee hyvin pateettinen kuningas". In this context, both interpretations are plausible, and perhaps the translator intentionally created the ambiguity!)

The English words brandy and brand and their use in Finnish is an interesting phenomenon, too. Probably the words don't get confused with each other in English, but in Finnish things might be different. The word brandy has been used in Finnish a long time. The use of brand is newer, and fashionable, and it is typically written as brandi or brändi (where the final -i is pronounced roughly as -y in English brandy). In this case, and in some other cases mentioned above, false friends reflect similarity of two words (or even polysemy) within the English language. But the problem is that a Finn is inclined to associate a word wrongly much more probably than an Englishman might confuse the two English words with each other. For example, English has liquor and liqueur, but only the latter has a counterpart in Finnish; and since films and books in English mention liquors more often than liqueurs, a Finn might easily understand liquor as likööri.


Finnish summary - suomenkielinen tiivistelmä

"Väärät ystävät" ovat sanapareja, joissa samannäköisillä tai samalta kuulostavilla sanoilla on eri merkitys eri kielissä. Ongelmia aiheuttavat erityisesti tapaukset, joissa vierasta kieltä opetteleva olettaa tutunnäköisen tai -kuuloisen sanan tarkoittavan samaa kuin äidinkielessään. Usein kyse on sanoista, joilla on yhteinen alkuperä mutta jotka ovat kehittyneet merkitykseltään ehkä hyvinkin eri suuntiin. Tämä dokumentti luettelee eräitä "vääriä ystäviä", joissa kielinä ovat suomi ja englanti.


On the origin of this document

I got (1999-06-14) an E-mail message from a person writing an English textbook, intending "to include some exercises on false friends (ie words that look the same in two different languages but which in fact have different meanings)", and asking whether I could help by providing a list of 10 - 15 common Finnish/English false friends. My first reaction was that there probably aren't many of them, and no pair that might cause real confusion came into my mind. Little did I know... Luckily I posted a message to the Usenet newsgroup sfnet.keskustelu.kieli (a Finnish group for discussing language issues). It initiated an interesting thread, and almost all examples here have been taken from the contributions there. I have tried to pick up those cases which could be especially important in practice: words which could occur in a context where an interpretation based on a false friend makes sense (though the wrong sense). Later, other people have sent me other interesting examples.

I became convinced that false friends actually cause a lot of problems to Finns trying to learn and use English. Perhaps I had forgotten some relevant situations in my past, since they were so embarrassing. Now I remember that during my visit to the US in the 80s, I, being a smoker at that time, was looking for a vending machine to buy some cigarettes. I asked a motel employee whether the motel had a cigarette automaton. In Finnish, automaatti means 'vending machine' (and 'automatic teller machine'), among other things. And now I also remember having seen a pub advertisement stating ale-olutta - I was really puzzled by the question whether they sell beer at a reduced price or ale, which is still rather unknown in Finland, enjoyed by connoisseurs mainly. In colloquial Finnish, ale is short for alennusmyynti 'sale at reduced price'.

For information about other phenomena which cause problems to Finns when they use English, see the document About English as used by me, and by Finns in general.