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Beware of false friends

Ian McMaster ist Chefredakteur von Business Spotlight
Huch, was ist denn jetzt los? Sie haben doch nur Ihren englischen Geschäftspartner gebeten: "Call me on my handy." Da starrt der Sie an, als hätte er gerade die Queen in Unterwäsche gesehen. Tja, dumm gelaufen: Sie haben einem "falschen Freund" vertraut.
One of the great advantages for German-speaking learners of English is the large degree of similarity between the languages: There are many basic English words that are the same as, or similar to, those in German: "wind", "beer", "temperature".

There are a number of distinctly German words in English: "angst", "kindergarten", "rucksack", "schadenfreude" and, in the financial press, even "mittelstand".

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There are an enormous number of English words that German is currently adopting, from "fit for fun" to "outsourcing".

However, there are still plenty of language traps for learners to fall into. Many of them are the result of "false friends" - words that seem to be the same, but which have different meanings. Look at the following sentences, which a German-speaker might say:

  • My chef is an influential undertaker.
  • Welcome in Berlin, where the actual temperature is 20 degrees.
  • Our personnel manager is important.

    The first sentence is undoubtedly humorous, as it is very unlikely that the speaker meant to say "Mein Koch ist ein einflussreicher Leichenbestatter". However, in my experience, few Germans really make the mistake of translating "Unternehmer" in this way, instead of the correct "businessman/ woman", "entrepreneur" or "industrialist". On the other hand, "Chef" certainly is often translated wrongly as "chef" (Koch) or "chief" (Indianerhäuptling). Correct is "boss".

    The second sentence is an authentic example, which I heard on a flight from Munich. There are two problems here. First, the false friend "actual" - which means "eigentlich"; correct is "current". Second, it should be "welcome to Berlin", not "in Berlin". Another typical mistake is "I work by Siemens" instead of "I work at/for Siemens".

    There are many other false friends:

  • "Aktion", which means "campaign/ drive", not "action" (Handlung/Bewegung)
  • "eventuell", which means "possibly", not "eventually" (schließlich)
  • "Fabrik", which means "factory", not "fabric" (Stoff)
  • "Formular", which means "form", not "formula" (Formel)
  • "Meinung", which means "opinion", not "meaning" (Bedeutung). "Ich meine" should be translated as "I think", not "I mean"
  • "Menü", which means "set meal", not "menu" (Speisekarte)
  • "Notiz", which means "note", not "notice" (Aufmerksamkeit/Benachrichtigung)
  • "Provision", which means "commission", not "provision" (Vorkehrung)
  • "Rente", which means "pension", not "rent" (Miete)
  • "Rückseite", which means "back", not "backside" (Po)
  • "sensibel", which means "sensitive", not "sensible" (vernünftig)
  • "spenden", which means "donate", not "spend" (ausgeben)
  • "Warenhaus", which means "department store", not "warehouse" (Lager).

    Another common mistake is to refer to a "mobile phone" (US: "cell phone") as a "handy", which translates as "handlich". (However, I am in favour of English taking over this word, as it is perfectly descriptive.)

    But what about the third sentence above? Did you find the mistakes? No? That's hardly surprising, because, when written, the sentence is correct. The problems here are ones of pronunciation, and, in particular, of stress (Betonung). German-speakers tend to stress the first syllable of "personnel", making it "PERsonnel", which sounds like "personal" (eigen). The correct stress is "personNEL", as in the German "Personal". Second, "important" is often mispronounced "IMPortant", rather than the correct "imPORtant".

    The result of these two mistakes is a sentence that would translate back into German as "Unser eigener Manager ist impotent", which again, probably wasn't what was meant. Other words that are often stressed wrongly are "colleague" ("COLLeague" is correct) and "hotel" ("hoTEL").

    It is not only vocabulary and pronunciation that causes difficulties. There are grammar traps, too. "You must not sign today" is very different to "Sie müssen nicht heute unterschreiben". Correct would be "You don't have/need to sign today". Note also that the German conjunction "wenn" normally translates as "if", not "when".

    Finally, don't let anyone try to tell you that, in British English, "billion" is the same as the German "Billion". This use is outdated. A billion in both British and American English is now a thousand million and so corresponds to "Milliarde". The correct translation of the German "Billion" is "trillion".
  • Dieser Artikel ist erschienen am 21.01.2002