Semantics and pragmatics of false friends

Semantics and pragmatics of false friends. By Pedro J. Chamizo-Domínguez. (Routledge studies in linguistics 7.) New York: Routledge, 2010. Pp. xiv, 186. ISBN 9780415887885. $39.95.

Reviewed by Ahmed Seddik Al-Wahy, Ain Shams University

This book is about false friends, generally understood as words in two or more languages that are identical or similar in form but different in meaning. Drawing on data from several European languages, it provides a theoretical treatment of the topic. While citing many examples of miscommunication and mistranslation caused by false friends, the book is primarily intended for linguists rather than foreign language learners seeking lists of confusing words in a given pair of languages.

Ch. 1, ‘Clearing the terrain’ (1–30), defines false friends and shows how the term overlaps with other terms such as false pairs, deceptive words, and false cognates. False friends are then classified into two types: chance and semantic false friends, corresponding to homonymy and polysemy within the same language, respectively. It is also noted that false friends occur not only in different languages, but also between dialects of the same language.

As shown in Ch. 2, ‘Synonymy, polysemy, and homonymy’ (31–60), a theoretical approach to false friends is necessarily diachronic. Words that are false friends today were not so at some point in the past. Therefore, when dealing with an old text, the translator (and, indeed, the reader) should pay attention to the sense in which certain words were used in the past. Historical considerations are also crucial for explaining how false friends are created. This involves reference to synonymy, homonymy, polysemy, and register, which are dealt with in semantics and pragmatics to account for lexical relations and contextual variation within the same language. However, in this book, the author uses these concepts as a starting point to explain the cross-linguistic phenomenon of false friends.

In Ch. 3, ‘Semantics of false friends: Borrowing, calques, and inheritances’ (61–90), the author distinguishes between borrowing, inheritance, and calque as sources of false friends. In borrowing and inheritance, the word in the recipient language may acquire new or additional meanings, leading to total or partial false friends. Borrowing and inheritance are, therefore, considered the main causes of false friends. This is not the case with calque, since it involves literal translation and not necessarily cognate words. The book also suggests a classification of the different ways for creating false friends, each of which is discussed and illustrated with examples.

The idea of ‘tropical’ (in the sense of metaphorical) false friends is elaborated in Ch. 4, ‘Semantics of false friends: Tropical false friends’ (91–132). Most semantic false friends, it is argued, have their origin in the metaphorical use of a given word and lexicalization of its new meaning in one language, but not of the cognate form in the other. Special emphasis is given to the transfer of meaning from the domains of plants and animals to humans, which is claimed to be a linguistic universal.

Aspects of the pragmatics of false friends are discussed in Ch. 5, ‘Pragmatics of false friends’ (132–64), which emphasizes the role of context in determining whether cognate words in two languages work as false friends. It also suggests a number of pragmatic strategies to detect misuses and mistranslations attributed to false friends and to reconstruct the speaker’s or translator’s intended meaning. These strategies work best with nonsensical utterances. If the utterance is acceptable, however different from the intended meaning, it will go unobserved.

The book is of interest to researchers in many language-related fields. Generally, it can be regarded as a step towards achieving one of the ultimate aims of language study, i.e. to help improve communication between people.