English and Portuguese False Friends

Speaking a foreign language isn’t always easy. Sometimes, when you don’t know how to say a word, you tend to just say it how it is said in your native language with an accent and hope for the best, right? It’s happened to all of us before. It does work most times but it might also lead to some very unpleasant situations. In this article, I’d like to share with you a few false friends in Portuguese.


What is a False Friend and a Cognate?

No, a false friend isn’t a friend who is saying horrible things behind our back (that’s not being a false friend, that’s just being a terrible person). It also isn’t a friend that isn’t real. We’ve passed the age to have those. It is another type of false friend we’re talking about. “False friends” are pairs of words from different languages that are written almost the same way and sound pretty much the same (with different accents) but have completely different meanings. How is this different from a cognate? A cognate is a word that sound the same and means the same thing in two different languages such as “computer” and “computador” or “music” and “música” in English and Portuguese.

Why There are So Many Similar Words in Different Languages?

Let’s take the romance languages for example. All of them evolved from the same source language: Latin; which is why there are so many words that are almost the same across these languages but with a different accent. A great example of this are the languages from 3 southern Europe countries: Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. People in these three countries speak different languages but all of them can understand each other almost perfectly even if they have never studied each other’s languages. And if you are able to speak Spanish fluently, you’ll be able to learn to speak Italian and Portuguese really fast. Not to mention that you can use one of the languages to learn the other two languages.  

Many people even think Portuguese and Spanish are exactly the same. They are not. There are many differences between the two languages even if there are many similarities too. Truth is: if you go to Portugal and ask for something in Spanish, there’s a 90% chance the Portuguese person you asked will understand what you just said.

But this also happens with the universal language – English. English has the same origin and, even though it has a completely different accent and a simpler grammar than most of the other languages that evolved from the same basis, it has a lot of words that sound the same too.

Some Examples of False Friends Between Portuguese and English

Let’s take a moment to focus on these two languages and its similar words that are, in fact, very different. One thing Portuguese people do a lot more than they should is to make Portuguese words into English ones by changing the accent a bit. Most times it works perfectly and that might even lead to a compliment as there are a lot of those words that sound intelligent in English.

Other times it may get you into a pickle. “Constipation” is one of those times. For someone who is trying to learn Portuguese, “constipado” might sound like something completely different from its actual meaning (which is simply to have a cold). We can’t count how many times a Portuguese speaker has said “I’m constipated” in English thinking they were referring only to a cold yet wasn’t what was understood.

This is indeed the funniest false friend between Portuguese and English, but fear not as there are many more. Going to the “library” and going to the “livraria” isn’t the same in the UK or in Portugal as in the second one you would be heading to a bookshop. Going to a “college” and going to a “colégio” is also quite different. Both are schools but a “colégio” is just a high school. English people have a “jar” of jam but Portuguese use a “jarra” to put flowers in.

English people eat “pasta” for “lunch” while Portuguese use a “pasta” (folder) to keep papers and would never eat “massa” (the translation of pasta) for “lanche” as “lanche” is just the snack you eat in the afternoon even if it sounds almost the same as it’s English false friend.

“Parentes” might sound like “parents” to you but it is not the same thing. “Parentes” in Portuguese are all the family members related to a person but not necessarily just the parents. Remember that TV show that ended a few years ago named “White Collar”? There’s a similar word to “collar” in Portuguese: “colar”. It is almost the same with one “l” less, yet the meaning is completely different as “colar” is actually a necklace. “Actually” is actually another word (see what we did there?) that has a false friend in Portuguese. “Atual” stands for something current, up-to-date.

In the UK people read “novels” while in Portugal people see “novelas”. If you’re thinking a “novela” in Portuguese is the same as in Spanish, you are totally right and for a Portuguese it sounds really weird when someone refers to a novel as a book instead of a soap opera. Suffering from an “injury” or from an “injúria” is quite different. The first is a wound and needs to be taken care of, the second is just an offensive word or insult that won’t leave a physical mark on you.

To “assist” someone is to help someone but in Portuguese, “assistir” is just to watch something. While watching, you may also “notice” something. That is one of the most common errors Portuguese people make while learning English. “Notícia” stands for “new” (as in the newspaper, for example) and not “notice”.

You know that emotional moment of singing the national anthem right before a sports game or after winning a medal in the Olympics? Looking at all the Portuguese words there are, you’d think the equivalent to “anthem” would be “antena” but, believe me, you cannot sing the “antena” prior to a football game. “Antena” is actually an “antenna” or the way some Portuguese say the capital of Greece (which is actually called Atenas).