German and English are both Germanic languages, which means they have many features in common, one of them is synonyms. Once you know a word in one of both languages, very often you can guess the meaning in the other one. This helps you to quickly gain a broad vocabulary base. Compare words like to come (English) – kommen (German), to sing – singen, house – Haus and so on.
However, quite a few misleading ones exist as well. They look like synonyms, but actually they are not. These are the so called false friends. Here, we will learn some of them.
Then there is another, even more trickier group I like to call half false friends, because sometimes they have the same meaning in English, but in other circumstances they don’t.
Bekommen ≠ to become
This is one of the typical false friends. ‘kommen’ in English is ‘to come’, so why should bekommen not be ‘to become’? Maybe to make life hard for German students? Bekommen means ‘to get’ or ‘to receive’. For example:
Ich habe gerade eine Email bekommen - I just got an email
Also ≠ also
The German ‘also’ means ‘well’, ‘so’ or ‘therefore’. The English ‘also’ translates to auch.
Eventuell ≠ eventually
Eventuell has the same meaning as vielleicht, so it translates to ‘maybe’ perhaps. ‘Eventually’ translates to schließlich/letzten Endes/am Ende.
Hochschule ≠ high school
Hochschule generally means an institution of tertiary education, so universities and, Fachhochschulen (universities of applied science) are both Hochschulen, but it is not a high school.
‘High school’ would more or less translate to Gymnasium, even it is not exactly the same, because it starts after elementary school and German students have to go to the Gymnasium for eight or nine years. For example:
Er ist von 2007-2016 aufs Schiller-Gymnasium gegangen - He went to Schiller-high school from 2007-2016
Gymnasium ≠ gymnasium
So then, what about the word gymnasium? This translates to Sporthalle or Turnhalle, or when talking about a gym to Fitnesscenter.
Meinung ≠ meaning
Meinung translates to opinion, and ‘meaning’ translates to Bedeutung. For example:
Meiner Meinung nach war es sehr schön - In my opinion, it was very nice
For verbs, it is slightly different:
Ich meine, das ist... - I mean, that is ....
Was bedeutet das? - What does that mean?
Ich will ≠ I will
This might be a confusing one, therefore it needs some explanation. Both words have the same origin, but now they are used differently. While the English one indicates future tense, the German one means ‘to want’ or ‘to have in mind to do something in the future’. It is a stronger form of möchten (want). Sometimes, will may translate to the English ‘will’. For example:
Morgen will ich nach Hamburg fahren - I want to (I will) go to Hamburg tomorrow
Spenden ≠ to spend
Same origin, but then developed in different directions. The German spenden means ‘to donate’, to give to charity, with Spende a donation. On the other hand, ‘to spend time’ translates to ‘Zeit verbringen’ and ‘to spend money’ to ‘Geld ausgeben’.
Sparen ≠ to spare
Sparen means to save money, time, effort etc. The only resemblance is between to spare sb. sth. and‚ jdm. etw. ersparen.
Publikum ≠ public
Here, we can still see the same origin, Publikum (audience) deriving from the public, but now it has lost this meaning. However, we can still see it in publik machen (publicise) or publizieren (publish).
Rente ≠ rent
Also‚ Rente and rent have the same origin, both meaning income or gain. Now, Rente has the meaning of ‘pension’. The word Pension is also used in this meaning, but only for civil servants.
Gift ≠ gift
Strangely enough, Gift (poison) and ‘gift’ do have the same origin. Both trace back to the verb ‘to give’. The German word is actually a loanword for dose. The meaning of the English word is still kept in Mitgift (dowry).
Brief ≠ brief
Both words derive from the Latin word breve for short, so ‘Brief’ once meant a short letter. Now, it is left only the meaning of letter.
wo ≠ who, but: wo = where
wer ≠ where, but: wer = who
The most terrible ones might be these two couples, because they mean exactly the opposite. ‘wo’ translates to ‘where’ and ‘wer’ translates to ‘who’. They derive again from the same origin, but were subjected to different sound shifts. It is just by chance that they look like the opposite.
Another group of words can also create quite a lot of confusion, because their English counterpart looks similar, but another word which looks exactly the same has a different meaning.
Rat ≠ rat (= Ratte)
The German Rat is an advice or a council, while the English ‘rat’ translates to Ratte.
Tablett ≠ tablet (= Tablette)
Tablett is a tray, while ‘tablet’ translates to Tablette.
Stadium ≠ stadium (= Stadion)
Stadium is a state or phase, while ‘stadium’ translates to Stadion.
Formular ≠ formula (= Formel)
Formular is a form, while ‘formula’ translates to Formel.
Roman ≠ Roman (= Römer/-in)
Roman is a novel, while ‘Roman’ translates to Römer/-in.
Herd ≠ herd (= Herde)
Herd is a stove, while ‘herd’ translates to Herde.
In the last group, the German words sound and look like English words, but they are actually not.
Handy ≠ handy
Nowadays nobody knows why the mobile phone is called Handy in German. Some explanations are circulating, but none of them are really convincing. One translation of ‘handy’ is handlich.
Beamer ≠ beamer
I must admit, for quite a long time I was wondering about the blank look from my Chinese boss when I asked him about the ‘beamer’, blaming him for his lack of English. It took me quite a while to understand that in English a beamer is not a projector like in German.
Smoking ≠ smoking
The German Smoking is actually a dinner jacket or tuxedo. Once it was a special kind of jacket for men, when after dinner they went to a separate room in order to smoke.
Half false friends
‘Half false friends’ is not a phrase usually used. It means that a part of the meaning is consistent with the English meaning (=), but the other part is not (≠). This creates even further confusion, because you have to know in which circumstances you can use it and in which you can’t.
so = / ≠ so
This is a tricky one, because so is used in many cases. Let’s see some examples.
Ich habe so viel gegessen - I have eaten so much
So habe ich das nicht gemeint - I didn’t mean it in this way
It does not introduce the consequence of something:
It is raining, so I am not going out - Es regnet. Deshalb (wrong: so) gehe ich nicht raus
Studieren = / ≠ to study
Studieren is used in one situation. When you are asked what are you doing in life, you might answer:
Ich studiere in München - I am studying at the university of Munich
In German, there is no need to mention the university. On the contrary, it would be redundant because studieren only refers to university studies. Apart from this situation, whatever you are studying, you have to use lernen, for example, children at school, or you are attending any kind of course or class.
Heute Nachmittag muss ich lernen (wrong: studieren) - This afternoon, I have to study
When you are studying at university, but tomorrow you are going to have an exam, today you have to lernen as well. Studieren is used like a profession, not for describing the action of a certain moment.
Student = / ≠ student
The same is true for Student. You are studying a language here on italki, you are not a ‘Student’, but a Schüler (male person) or a Schülerin (female). Only those studying at university are Studenten (plural).
Schule = / ≠ school
The situation is similar for the word Schule. It only refers to schools like elementary school, high school etc., but not to schools like university departments. These are either Fachbereich / Fakultät’ or Institut.
Klasse = / ≠ class
Klasse means ‘class’ when referring to the students, for example:
In meiner Klasse sind 25 Schüler - In my class, there are 25 students
However, Klasse does not refer to the school subject or the lesson.
Morgen habe ich in der ersten Stunde Mathe - Tomorrow, the first class is maths. (Stunde here means 45 minutes)
Der Deutschunterricht war super - The German class/lesson was fantastic
On the other hand, Klasse can have the meaning of school year:
Er ist in der 12.Klasse - He is in year 12
Note ≠ / = note
When talking about the school or exams, a Note is a ‘mark’ or ‘grade’. However, when talking about music, it means a note. On the other hand, ‘to take notes’ translates to sich Notizen machen / sich etw. notieren / aufschreiben.
Direktor/-in = / ≠ director
A Direktor/-in can be either the headmaster/principal of a school or the manager of a company etc. It is not the director of a film or a play (Regisseur), neither of an orchestra (Dirigent) or a choir (Chorleiter).
See = / ≠ sea
The meaning of the word depends entirely on the article: der See (masculine) is a ‘lake’, while die See (feminine) translates to ‘the sea’, but is not used much, only in some geographical names like die Nordsee (North Sea) or‚ die Ostsee (Baltic Sea), otherwise sea translates to Meer.
Letztes Jahr waren wir am Meer - We have been at/went to the sea last year
Keep in mind that some words have undergone a change of meaning in their linguistic history. That is why the same word can have different meanings in different languages.
Image by Martin Fisch (CC BY-SA 2.0)