Your Weekly Dose of Spanish by Spaniology: Semana 7

Published in Dungarvan Leader Page 12 on Tuesday 7th of September 2021


English and Spanish share an array of terms of common etymological origin and, often, similar morphology which also tend to have the same meaning. If you are an English speaker learning Spanish or vice versa, it is a godsend to find words like extraordinario (extraordinary), revolución (revolution) or universidad (university).

Use of these similar words —called cognates— is all well and good and they provide a very handy aid for navigating both languages. The problem arises when, for diverse linguistic reasons, their meanings differ. This phenomenon is called "false friends" or faux amis —a vestige of a felicitously past era when French was, literally, the lingua franca of Western civilisation—.

And so, actual does not mean actual but current, facilidad means ease and not facility, and una librería is a book shop rather than a library. If you are embarrassed, remember to say that you are avergonzado, since embarazado means pregnant and you might elicit an unexpected reaction from your interlocutor, especially if you are a bloke. In a similar manner, do not say that you are excitado if you are excited but entusiasmado, as the former means aroused and the situation might turn even more unpredictable. And do not ask your neighbour for a loan of an espada if you intend to dig the soil in your garden or he will think that you plan on avenging your honour in a duel at dawn; the Spanish for spade is pala and espada means sword. Be likewise mindful when introducing a friend (presentar in Spanish) since introducir means to insert, and you might end up with fewer friends to be introduced.

And this caveat evidently extends to Spanish speakers learning English. You might have a Spanish mate who tells you with a peaky face and voice that he is constipated. Before turning a grimace at the excess of information you might consider that he is probably suffering from a cold (constipado in Spanish, whilst constipated is estreñido) —both words originating in the Latin constipāre: to constrain, we simply seem to have applied it to different body passages—. Or you might find a Spaniard somewhat lost heading in the direction of an "exit" sign believing to have found the way to success (éxito in Spanish, whilst exit is salida) —again, both stemming from the same Latin root exitus: exit, the characteristic Spanish optimism has granted any situation an inevitable successful outcome—. Some Spaniards might be appalled to find preservatives in their food (conservantes in Spanish), thinking they might be preservativos (condoms), which, irrespective of being used or not, it is not an item one wishes to find in his fare.

Resorting to cognates is a valid and useful technique when learning a new language but, in linguistics as in life, one ought to beware of false friends.

* Here is your weekly dose of Spanish: Me molesta discutir con mi jefe en la fábrica [It bothers me arguing with my boss in the factory —and not "it molests me discussing with my boss in the fabric"—]

Sergio Fernández Redondo

Sergio hails from Asturias in northern Spain and has recently relocated to Dungarvan, where he is a Spanish teacher and PR assistant at Spaniology. Having an eclectic background in engineering, translation and linguistics, he is also a keen aficionado of history and languages.


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