Learning The Greek Language: Beware False Friends

One likes to think that with so much influence on the English language, there should be a wealth of cognates in Greek which would make it easier for a native English-speaker to learn — and there are — but there are also a lot of "false friends"... words that sound like cognates, but are not.

When I started learning Greek this year, one of the biggest challenges I had to overcome was dealing with false friends. Right from the start, several of the most commonly used words in the Greek language are false friends!

ναι - perhaps the most difficult false friend with Greek, this one still causes me trouble. The word means "yes", but it is pronounced "nay" which means no in English, and sounds like a word of negation in many other languages as well.

μια - another words that's been particularly troublesome. This word is pronounced "mia", which would sound like a first-person possessive (my) in a large number of Indo-European languages, but in Greek it is a feminine indefinite article (a/an).

με - anyone with any experience in a Romance language would take this word as an accusative personal pronoun (me), and it does indeed have that function. However, most of the time that it's used, its meaning is "with". (με ζάχαρη = with sugar).

τι - this sounds like it could be a second-person pronoun (you) in almost any Indo-European language. Unfortunately, that's not even close. This word means "what?".

και - speaking of the word "what", that's exactly what I want to think when I hear this word. Pronounced "kay", it sounds exactly like the Spanish qué or the Italian che, but it actually means "and"!

η - and the word "and" is what my mind thinks when I hear this word, which sounds like the Spanish "y" or the Russian "и", but is actually the feminine definite article (the).

ή - to make things even more difficult, adding a stress to the same word changes its meaning to "or"!

ο - And "or" is what I want to think when I see this word, but it's actually the masculine definite article (the).

Those are all very common words, ready to trip up the new learner from day 1. At this point, I've managed to successfully separate them in my mind from their "false friend" meanings. (Though I must admit that I still have trouble with ναι!)

But there are also several more landmines waiting for the Greek learner. Here are a few that I have discovered so far...

ιδιωτικός - sounds like the English word idiotic, which likely originates from this Greek word, but definitely has a completely different meaning today. Ιδιωτικός means "private".

κόσμος - sounds like "cosmos", which in English and Russian refers to outer space, but in Greek this word means "world".

λιμάνι - pronounced "limáni", it sounds like it would mean "lemon", but it actually mean "port".

ερώτηση - saving the best for last, this word is pronounced "erótisi", I'm sure you can imagine why I thought it meant something other than "question".

I'm sure I'll discover many more along the way, but as you can see, that's already a lot for the new learner to overcome!

Of course it's not all difficulties. In my next post, I'll talk about some of the cognates and other slightly less obvious shortcuts that I've been able to use to my advantage so far.

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  • και also looks like Esperanto's kaj. I never thought it would come in handy!! 

  • Yeah, I noticed that too. Zamenhoff must have taken it from Greek.

  • I've also recently started learning Greek, and I actually found that Greek has a lot of true cognates with my native language - Russian.
    Russian has tons of words that came directly from Greek, or through Old Church Slavonic. Some cognates even came as a shock to me - like λαμπα or κρεβατη - all my life I thought that they're truly Russian words!
    The word ναι is also terribly difficult for me!
    However, λιμανι is not - there is a Russian word лиман, that means "bay". And, actually, I just checked in the wikipedia, that English has this word, too - https://en.wikipedia.org/wik... Probably, it's just less frequent in English than in Russia, or, maybe, I know it so well because I used to read a lot of books about life on the Black Sea, and the dialect of this region is most heavily influence by Greek.

  • I haven't found a huge number of cognate with the common Russian language -- that is, the basic language which I speak -- thought I'm sure a native speaker with a large vocabulary would see more similarities than I do.However, I have noticed a lot of similarities in the ways things are pronounced. I kind of "feel" a similarity, even if I can't quite isolate what it is that I'm noticing yet.

  • The one meaning "with" reminds me of the Dutch word "met" with  the same meaning,perhaps it has its origins on greek itself.

  • Interesting: I didn't think these words, especially the short ones, could cause you problems. If I remember correctly now, they haven't caused any for me. The reason for that is that they are encountered so often in texts that I would just start taking them for granted and not questioning what they might sound like in other languages (I don't think I have even noticed most of these similarities).As for ερώτηση, the similarity gives you an easy association to remember the word right away.And ναι is kind of interesting. I went to Bulgaria after Greece where it is precisely the other way around. Not even that, but the Greeks actually shake their heads for "yes" or nod for "no", with Bulgarians doing it just like everyone else. Now that can cause some confusion.

  • I just block out English almost completely when I hear thos words. I only think of the Greek meaning and what picture I would associate it with.

  • It was very interesting examining Greek through your perspective.One thing I would like to add is that "idiotic"/" idiot" are related to the Greek word. An "idiot" (ιδιώτης) in the Athenian democracy was a person who abstained from public matters and only concerned themselves with private ones. Thus, the word became a synonym for ignorant, as a person is born an idiot, but becomes a citizen through education. Of course, the word lost that meaning in modern Greek.A somewhat similar example (another swear word) is "moron". It comes from the Greek word μωρό(ν) which means "baby", and μωρός, a person who acts/thinks like a baby.Also, cosmos' use in Greek is a bit broad, but the root has found its way into other loan words with the same meaning, like microcosm/macrocosm (μικρόκοσμος/μακρόκοσμος = literally small/big world) and cosmopolitan (κοσμοπολίτης/πολίτης του κόσμου = citizen of the world), so remembering these might help you.

  • Fascinating!

  • True story. Greek man in country where "nay" means "no". Waiting for bus asks in international hand signal language which bus to his hotel. Kind lady signals "Wait I'll tell you." Bus pulls up he asks "Is this it?" She replies "Nay" and he jumps on. Then he notices she's trotting along side the bus hand signaling get off and probably: "Are you out of your b...y mind?" in the local dialect.

  • They are both based on the Cyrillic alphabet. Speaking as a Greek, who started learning Russian years ago. Although linguistically Armenian and Albanian are closer to Greek than Russian.

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