Italian and English have a lot of vocabulary in common.
But not all words that look similar in the two languages mean the same thing: these words are false friends.
Italian and English: natural language friends
To understand why English and Italian are so similar, you need to know a little about their shared history.
Both English and Italian belong to the large Indo-European language family. Think of this language tree as a family tree descended from a single language ancestor.
In this case, that ancestor is Proto-Indo-European, which was spoken in Central Asia as early as 7,000 BC.
Nomadic tribes from Central Asia began moving into Europe around 5,000 BC, spreading their language along the way.
Today, the majority of languages spoken in Europe belong to the Indo-European language family.
Italian belongs to the Latin branch of the Indo-European language family, along with Spanish, French, and Romanian.
Latin was the language of the ancient Romans and spread throughout the vast Roman Empire, which included what is now France, Spain and Italy.
English belongs to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European languages, along with Dutch, German, and Scandinavian languages.
These languages remained independent of the influence of the ancient Romans. Nevertheless, the languages of the Latin and Germanic branches have similarities because they are Indo-European languages.
English, however, is unique among the Germanic languages.
Remember 1066 and the Battle of Hastings from history class? After that event, England was conquered by William the Conqueror from Normandy, whose people spoke Old French.
One of the results was that the English language was Latinized.
Because of this, the English language took much of its vocabulary (about 40%) from Latin, and the sentence structure of English is more like Latin languages than Germanic languages.
Italian cognates and false friends
Since the Italian and English languages share common roots, there are many words in both languages that share a common Latin root.
These words can be divided into two groups: cognates and false friends. Learning about these two groups will help you improve your Italian vocabulary.
A cognate is a word that has a similar spelling and exactly the same meaning in two languages. For example tavolo and table. Forchetta and fork. Piatto and plate.
They are not exactly the same, but close enough that an English speaker can easily remember the Italian equivalent.
Cognates are your true friends when it comes to learning a second language.
False friends, on the other hand, make learning a new language a little more difficult.
A false friend is a word in a foreign language that is spelt and pronounced similarly to a word in another language but has a completely different meaning.
So you need to remember what the wrong friends are called in your target language to make sure you do not say the wrong thing.
English and Italian have a lot in common, but they also have a lot of false friends.
14 Italian False Friends to watch out for
In the list below, you’ll find the most common false friends in Italian to watch out for.
If you memorize this list, your Italian will sound much more accurate and fluent.
False Noun Friends
1. Libreria vs. Library
Do you want to borrow Italian books for free? Do not go to the libreria.
You will find books there, but you will have to pay for them!
That’s because libreria means bookstore.
For free books, you should go to the biblioteca.
2. Fabbrica vs. Fabric
Do you want to sew a quilt? Do not go to the fabric store and ask for some fabbrica.
In Italian, fabbrica means a factory, not fabric (that’s tessuto).
3. Preservativo vs. Preservative
Suppose you buy some breakfast cereal and want something healthy.
You ask a clerk, “Dove sono i cereali senza preservativi?”
The clerk looks at you confused and calls the manager to escort you out of the store because you just asked for cereal without condoms.
If you want food without preservatives, say “senza conservanti“.
4. Fattoria vs. Factory
Let’s say you actually wanted to visit a factory because you work in logistics.
You get lost on the way and ask someone, “Dov’è la fattoria?”
He gives you directions to a farm. That’s because fattoria means farm, not factory. For that, as you have just learned, you say fabbrica.
5. Camera vs. Camera
In Italy, you ask for a camera in a hotel, not in an electronics store.
That’s because a camera is a room, not a device for taking pictures.
That is una macchina fotografica.
False Adjective Friends
6. Morbido/a vs. Morbid
You and a friend go to an open-mic night in a coffee bar, and a goth there reads his sad poetry. “Che morbido!” you say to your friend.
But the goth is wearing a lot of chains and spikes, and your friend does not think he looks soft at all.
Morbido means soft in Italian, not morbid. For that, you should say morboso.
7. Grosso/a vs. Gross
Against your better judgment, buy some gas station sushi.
You take a bite and say, “che grosso!”
But what you said was that the sushi is huge.
If you want to describe the disgustingness of your fishy mistake, you say “che schifo!” instead.
8.Educato/a vs. Educated
You are in a job interview and want to highlight the quality of your education.
You say to your interviewer “sono ben educato/a“.
He raises an eyebrow and says, “Well, I hope you are polite”. Educato/a means polite, or that you were raised well by your parents.
If you want to say you are a smartass, use istruito/a instead.
9. Attualmente vs. Actually
Is someone spreading fake news they read on Facebook?
You want to rebuke him, so you say “attualmente [insert fact]”.
But that’s not the best way to insert your first-class fact-checking, because attualmente means currently, not actually.
If you want to expose the person who can not do two minutes of research, start with “in realtà [insert fact].”
False Verb Friends
10. Confrontare vs. To Confront
Suppose you confront a company that dumps its garbage into the lake about its terrible environmental policies.
If you round up some (Italian-speaking) people and say, “confrontiamo l’azienda“, they’ll think, “What are we comparing the company to?”
That’s because “confrontare” means to compare, not to confront. If you want to confront this polluting company, use affrontare.
11. Pretendere vs. To Pretend
You and your Italian-speaking friend are in a play and you say to them “Gli attori pretendono bene!”
But you did not just say that the actors are good at pretending. You said that they are good at expecting.
Pretendere means to expect, not to fake. If you want to say that someone is pretending something, use fingere, e.g.
He is pretending something
In fact, pretendere is about expecting something without being entitled to it:
Pretende di passare l’esame senza avere studiato
He expects to pass without studying
You can also use the word in the sense of “to demand or require” or to have something asserted or claimed:
Pretende di avere sempre ragione
He thinks he is always right
12. Annoiare vs. To Annoy
If you are watching your child and he misbehaves, do not call the parents and tell them “il bambino mi annoia“.
They will think, “Oh, the child bores you? It’s your job to entertain the child, not the other way around.”
That’s because annoiare means to bore, not to annoy.
To describe someone or something annoying in Italian, use irritare or dare fastidio.
13. Frequentare vs. Frequently
Frequent is not a word that is often used as a verb in English.
In Italian, frequentare means to visit or, in colloquial speech, to arrange to meet.
Alessandro e Giovanna si frequentano
Alessandro and Giovanna meet.
It does not mean that you do something frequently. Use spesso for this, e.g.
Vado spesso all’ opera
I often go to the opera
However, you can use the Italian word for “frequently“, as in:
Questo bar e’ frequentato da soldati
This bar is frequented by soldiers
14. Domandare vs. To Demand
Are you babysitting that bratty child again? If you say “io domando che tu vada a letto” the child will continue to trample on you.
You did not ask him to go to bed. You asked politely.
Domandare means to ask, not to demand. If you want to show the child who’s boss, use pretendere.
Waring! False Friends
If you are learning a language that is as similar to English as Italian is, it is good to use cognates to get ahead.
But beware of the false friends so as not to make a bad impression!
If you learn and remember what false friends are, your Italian will sound much more fluent.
Still translating in your head? Wanna speak Italian for real? Check out Stefano's courses to think directly in Italian and become fluent fast!