Italian Language Blog

Italian False Friends Posted by on Feb 16, 2018 in Grammar

The English language contains many Latin words, and once you learn to recognise them it will be a great help in terms of building up your Italian vocabulary …

… but not always … and that’s where false friends come in.
False friends, often referred to as false cognates, are words that sound very similar in two different language but don’t actually have the same meaning.

Think of words such as stazione = station, inibizione = inhibition, or parziale = partial, for example. It’s easy to hear the etymological links, isn’t it? But some words which share a common etymology have taken different paths in the distant past, and are now used in quite diverse ways in English and Italian.

An amusing example of this happened earlier this week: Serena runs several local yoga classes, and has recently started a new one exclusively for English speakers. On Wednesday, Simona, who manages the holistic centre where the classes are held, contacted Serena to say that she’d had an e-mail from an English lady who attends the class saying that she wouldn’t be able to make it. However, Simona was a bit mystified by the reason given:

‘Unfortunately, we have a puncture! Clive and Jean’

Ma quanto tempo ci vuole per fare una puntura!?! said Simona, amazed.

False friend alert!
In Italian, una puntura is an injection, as in ‘il dottore mi ha fatto una puntura’ = ‘the doctor gave me an injection’. What Clive and Jean intended to say was ‘abbiamo una ruota bucata’ or ‘abbiamo una ruota a terra’, both of which mean ‘we’ve got a flat tyre’.
Simona found this hilarious, and we decided that it was time to write another article on false cognates. Here are a few of the most common ones:

‘attualmente fa molto freddo’ = It’s very cold at the moment. Photo by Geoff

Attualmente does NOT mean actually.
Definition of attualmente = at present, at the moment, now, or nowadays.
‘attualmente fa molto freddo’ = It’s very cold at the moment
‘mia sorella attualmente abita in Francia’  = my sister lives in France at present.
Find out more about attualmente and actually here.

Pretendere does NOT mean pretend.
Definition of pretendere = to want or expect something unreasonably or unjustly.
‘pretende quaranta euro per mezz’ora di lavoro!’ = he wants forty Euros for half an hour’s work!
‘non puoi pretendere di parlare italiano dopo un mese’ = you can’t expect to speak Italian after one month.
Find out more about pretendere and pretend here.

Attendere does NOT mean attend.
Definition of attendere = ‘to wait for’, ‘to await’.
‘ho atteso l’autobus per oltre mezz’ora’ = I waited for the bus for more than half an hour
‘attendiamo che arrivi Anna per mangiare’ = let’s wait for Anna to arrive before we eat.
Find out more about attendere and attend here.

Sensibile does NOT mean sensible.
Definition of sensibile = sensitive.
‘non posso lavare i piatti senza i guanti perché ho la pelle molto sensibile’ = I can’t wash the dishes without gloves because I’ve got very sensitive skin
‘i miei occhi sono molto sensibili alla luce del sole’ = my eyes are very sensitive to the sunlight. Find out more here.

Grazie a Clive e Jean per l’ispirazione!

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  1. Mike Nicolucci:

    Ciao, potete dirmi se pretendere e aspetto sono sinonimi?
    Non l’ho aspettato?
    Non l’ho preteso?

    • Geoff:

      @Mike Nicolucci Ciao Mike, immagino che volevi dire “I didn’t expect it”, vero?

      Innanzitutto, ‘aspettare’ significa ‘to wait’. Se vuoi dire ‘expect’ devi usare il riflessivo ‘aspettarsi’, quindi: “non melo aspettavo” = “I didn’t expect it”.
      Pretendere, invece, si usa nei casi sottolineati in questo blog:
      1. To want or expect something unreasonably or unjustly
      2.To tenaciously assert or sustain something against accredited opinion or in contrast to reality
      3. To expect one’s rights
      La scelta di parole, perciò, dipende dal contesto del argomento.

      Spero di essere stato chiaro. Se no, fammelo sapere, okay?

      Un saluto da Geoff.

  2. Jan Keeys:

    Un articolo eccellente, molte grazie.

  3. William Auge:

    Hi Serena and Geoff, given my limited exposure to Pontremoli and the surrounding area I was surprised to read that there is a demand for English speaking yoga classes. Is this a new development or are there hidden enclaves of English speaking inhabitants in the hills of Lunigiana.

    abbraccio, Bill

    • Geoff:

      @William Auge Ciao Bill, yes those damned Brits are everywhere!!!

      It’s both ‘hidden enclaves’ and newcomers (the Brexit effect) … but we could definitely do with a few Yanks in the mix 🙂

      Tanti Saluti da Geoff e Serena!

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