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Learning Italian: Cognates and False Friends

By- Claudia Quesito

As you likely know, there are several cognates (parole simili, or affini)—words that have a very similar, but not quite the same spelling in English and Italian. Cognates can be precious allies in class, and in many situations—when strolling around a city, for instance—you’ll certainly see words like farmacia (pharmacy), museo (museum), teatro (theatre), cinema (cinema/movie theater), ristorante (restaurant), and stazione (station). More generally, you’d probably use terms such as possibile (possible), necessario (necessary), intelligente (intelligent), and fantastico (fantastic), when conversing and expressing your opinion.

There are some patterns you will start to recognize that will help you put cognates into categories. Among them, the Italian cognates of English words ending in –ble will end in –bile. In addition to the above possibile, we have adorabile, flessibile, visibile—adorable, flexible, and visible, respectively. Using the example of “respectively” (rispettivamente, in Italian), we see that English words ending in –ly normally have their Italian counterpart ending in –mente (and so, the just- mentioned “normally” will translate as normalmente).

Be careful though, because in addition to many “friends,” there are several fearsome “false friends”—words that look and sound similar, but that have a totally different meaning in English and Italian.

And so, i parenti in Italian are “relatives” (mom and dad are i genitori). Camera means “room,” while you use a macchina fotografica to take pictures. Una persona educata is someone with good manners, while “an educated person” is una persona istruita. Confetti is not something you sprinkle around, but rather something that you eat: sugar-coated almonds used to celebrate births, graduations, weddings, and special occasions. And if you’d like “cream” with your coffee, ask for panna, not crema, which is the Italian term for “custard.” And there are more: attualmente doesn’t mean “actually,” but “currently,” morbido means “soft,” not “morbid,” and you can read and borrow books from a biblioteca, while a libreria sells them.

Unfortunately, there are no rules, tricks or shortcuts to avoid these false friends. As always when learning a language, it’s just a matter of giving it a try, and practice.

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