False friends and real friends

When you’re learning languages you invariably stumble into the alluring trap of the “false friend”, those terms that seem so familiar and welcoming, sharing common Latin roots with words you know and love from your native vocabulary. Seductive, yes, but ultimately they betray us, and we end up saying we’re constipated (estreñido) when we just have a cold (constipado), or that we’re pregnant (embarazada), when we’re just embarrassed (avergonzado).

How frustrating!

However, I try and look on the bright side. “Real friends” do exist in the linguistic realm, and they allow the lazy language lover to triple their productivity in learning words in English, Spanish, and Catalan.

I came across the word “palimpsest” in a couple of English books (Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Ackroyd’s London: The Biography). A palimpsest is a historical document which has been erased and written over numerous times. It is a more useful word than you think if you use it in a figurative sense to talk about historical legacy as Atwood does, and luckily its Spanish and Catalan equivalents “palimpsesto” and “palimpsest”, are virtually identical!

I find this process is even more satisfying in reverse, when I discover English words I never knew existed. A good friend wrote me an email in Catalan bemoaning her “macarronic” language skills (“macarrónico” in Spanish) and, lo and behold, there is an English equivalent “macaronic“, which refers to a jumbled mix of language. The etymology is pretty interesting too; it comes from the word maccarone, a pasta regarded as a low-status jumble of a peasant dish in Italy… “You’re talking macaroni!” I love it!

The lesson? In language, as in life, know who your real friends are!