How are false friends created? The main way is that one language borrows from another or two related languages take a word from the same source. In time, the meaning in one of the languages may morph into something different or one meaning gets dropped.
For example, English took the word, friend, from the German word, freund, while the Scandinavians changed it to frände in Sweden and frændein Danish. The original word meant ‘someone one cares for,’ so it could refer to a friend or a relative. The word, in Danish and Swedish, however, means relative,losing the friend meaning while in English we have lost the relative meaning.
I once teased my German wife, when she was filling out a questionnaire that asked how many languages she spoke fluently, ‘You’ll have to say none, since you haven’t learned English yet and you’ve forgotten your German.’ There was truth to my tease; she would sometimes turn to me, an American, and ask me how to say this or that in German.
One time, while we were visiting her mother with our kids, my wife explained to her mother that, after lunch we would ‘resten’ a while and after ‘resten’, we would like to go for a stroll. Her mother looked as if she understood, but thinking, ‘That’s not German’, I asked my mother-in-law what she understood from the word, ‘resten’? She pointed to the remaining food on the table and said, ‘Dies sind reste.’ We all had a good laugh. False friends in action.
Written by: Brent Adams