Shortly after my return from Canada I had to examine a PhD thesis, which required me to read it thoroughly, and it was 900 pages long. That’s why there was a few days’ delay before I restarted this blog. I was the external examiner, and the viva took place in Cardiff, three hours away by train for me.
It must be getting on for twenty years since I last visited Cardiff, and as you would imagine there have been various changes. One of them is linguistic: not only is the public signage now much more systematically bilingual than the half-hearted attempts I remember from earlier visits, but all the announcements over the public address system at Cardiff Central station (that’s Caerdydd Canolog) are now given first in Welsh, then in English.
As I was preparing to return to London after the viva (the candidate passed, you’ll be glad to hear), there was a problem. Because of a herd of cows reportedly having wandered onto the line at Sain Ffagan/St Fagans, trains coming from the west had to be diverted and my return journey was delayed by over half an hour. So I got to listen to a lot of bilingual announcements.
And I discovered a new Welsh-English false friend. Mae’r trên hwn wedi’i ddileu, said the announcer, or words to that effect. The Welsh word dileu is pronounced diˈlei, as near as dammit identically with the English word delay. Unthinkingly, I mentally translated ‘this train has been delayed’.
But my mental translation was wrong. The meaning of dileu is not ‘delay’ but ‘cancel’ (in this context, that is — it can also mean ‘get rid of, abolish, delete’). The announcement duly continued, in English, This service has been cancelled.
I would never have confused Welsh dileu and English delay in writing, only in speech. So this pair are what we might call ‘phonetic false friends’.
All of us who have studied one or more foreign languages are familiar with the notion of a false friend. For most of the ‘faux amis’ I remember from school French lessons it was the written form on which we concentrated: actuel doesn’t mean ‘actual’ (but rather ‘present, current, topical’), though if you heard aktɥɛl you’d hardly think the speaker had said ˈæktʃuəl.
German Gift, on the other hand, is not only a written false friend of English gift but also a phonetic one, since both are pronounced ɡɪft. (The German word means ‘poison’.)
I suppose you could say that French choix ‘choice’ is a phonetic false friend of English schwa, since both are pronounced ʃwɑ (with perhaps some leeway in the precise quality and length of the vowel). But no one would ever confuse them in writing.
Likewise, for us non-rhotic speakers German Bahn ‘path, track, railway’ is a phonetic false friend of English barn. But no one literate is going to confuse them.
What are the conditions under which we need to be on the lookout for phonetic-only false friends?