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Beware False Friends in Italian

False Cognates in Italian

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There are many types of Italian friends, for example: amici del cuore (close friends), amici fraterni (fraternal friends), and amici d'infanzia (childhood friends). There are also amici per la pelle (best friends), amici della buona sorte (fairweather friends), and amici di penna (pen pals). One type of Italian friend to beware of, though, is the falso amico.

Recognizing Cognates
Italian words that look like English words and have similar meanings are called cognates or parole simili. There are only minor differences in spelling. Some examples are:

dizionario—dictionary
farmacia—pharmacy
intelligente—intelligent
mercato—market
museo—museum
necessario—necessary
oceano—ocean
onesto—honest
stazione—station
teatro—theater

Learning Italian is actually made easier by the fact that there are many word pairs like this. On the other hand, words that look alike in two different languages but have different meanings are called false cognates or falsi amici (false friends).

List of Italian False Cognates
camera—room (NOT a device for taking photographs)
candido—clean, spotless, innocent (NOT candid)
confetti—sugar-coated almonds presented at weddings (NOT small pieces or streamers of colored paper that are scattered around)
crudo—uncooked (NOT crude)
fastidio—annoyance, boredom (NOT fastidious)
genitori—parents (NOT genitals)
libreria—bookstore (NOT library)
magazzino—store, warehouse (NOT magazine)
parente—relative (NOT parent)

False Friends Amongst Verbs
It stands to reason that if, for example, there are Italian nouns and Italian adjectives that can be classified as either parole simili or false cognates, then there must be other parts of speech, such as Italian verbs, that have similar groupings. In fact, there are quite a few in both categories. Below is just a sample:

List of Italian Verb Cognates
accompagnare—to accompany
creare—to create
dividere—to divide
studiare—to study
telefonare—to telephone

List of Italian Verb False Cognates
assistere—to be present (NOT to assist)
attendere—to wait for (NOT to attend to)
confrontare—to compare (NOT to confront)
intendere—to understand, hear, want (NOT to intend to)
tastare—to touch, to feel (NOT to taste)

Separating the True Friends From the False
Rather than attempting to learn, by rote memorization, lists of Italian vocabulary words that resemble their English counterparts but don't have the same meaning, it may be more effective to learn by experience. There will always be instances where English speakers use the wrong Italian word, leading to embarrassment and laughter, but those are usually the lessons that stick. It's having the courage and creativity to make mistakes that leads to a greater understanding of the nuances of the Italian language. After all, the only way to make friends (of any sort) is to take the initiative and ingratiate oneself.

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