Food for Thought: Apples and Potatoes

Language is ambiguous. Sometimes, one word evokes multiple meanings, what linguists call homonyms. If I ask you what a seal looks like, would you describe an animal, a stamp of authenticity, or a pipe cover? It probably depends. We learn to rely on context clues to distinguish the multiple meanings of a word. So, if I ask you whether a seal looks more like a sea lion or a walrus, you will probably focus on the aquatic mammal and not the wax impression.

Confusion can arise when there is a relationship between the multiple meanings of a semantically overloaded word. For example, you can dust a cake to cover it with sugar or you can dust a table to remove a layer of particles. So, if I ask you to dust the ramekin, are you adding flour to the bowl or are you cleaning the object that was sitting in the back of the cupboard for the last ten years? Words with opposing meanings like this are called contronyms.

Now, add in the layer of a second language and the possibility for more homonyms and contronyms grows. In French class I learned about faux amis, or false friends. These are words that look similar in two languages but differ in their meanings. Consider pain. This word refers to a loaf of bread in French but to a state of discomfort in English.

P.A.I.N. In French, this word represents bread. In English, this word represents discomfort.

There are some faux amis that I continue to misuse because their two meanings are closely related. This is especially confusing when I find myself in a code switching situation, speaking both French and English in the same conversation. First, there is librairie and library. When speaking French, I talk of going to a librairie like Barnes & Noble or Gallimard to buy the latest novels. But, when speaking English I talk of going to the public library to borrow items for free. Then there is casserole. When speaking French, I boil water in a casserole on the stove. But, when speaking English, I put my lasagna in a casserole and cook it in the oven.

Just when I thought my troubles stopped there, I visited Cameroon and learned about the alternative uses of the word pomme. Let me set the stage. So, in French class I learned that an apple is called pomme and a potato is called pomme de terre (literally, apple of the earth).

Simple, right? Well, let me tell you what turned my world upside down. I was in a car with my in-laws driving around Yaounde when we passed a woman selling apples on the street. Someone asked if we wanted any pommes de France. Everyone said no while I sat in the back wondering if there was something special about apples produced in the land of France. A few days later, we sat at the dinner table and my mother-in-law announced we were having a stew with pommes. To my surprise, we ate potatoes. So, there you have it, apples in Cameroon are called pommes de France (literally, potatoes of the land of France) and their starchy cousins that grow underground are simply called pommes.

Since a faux amis relates to two different languages, and the French of France and the French of Cameroon might be called dialects of the same language, should this be called a fausse soeur (a false sister)?

Want to learn more:

  • Walter (2001) provides a classification of French-English faux amis including several examples and rationales for these duplicate meanings.
  • Inkpen, Frunza, and Kondrak (2005) present a natural language processing method for identify faux amis.
  • BBC has collected a set of stories from adults who’ve encountered faux amis in their daily lives.
  • Ngo Mayag explains how the fruit and the tuber became known as pomme de France and pomme in Cameroon.

6 thoughts on “Food for Thought: Apples and Potatoes

  1. Very interesting! My favorite is from the BBC link where someone attempting to ask for a pen in spanish used the word pene. 😯

    1. Speaking of Spanish and other “fausse soeurs”, my family had an encounter many years ago when we hosted an exchange student from Spain. One day, she told my mother that she wanted some biscuits. So, my mother baked her a batch of those flour pastries you might cover with syrup or jam and eat with eggs for breakfast. It turns out that our exchange student wanted something similar to a cookie. It turns out British English (which our exchange student learned) and American English differ on these words. A British biscuit is an American cookie:

  2. As soon as I read your title, I started thinking about how I always mix up apples and potatoes on French menus because of pomme vs. pomme de terre…now there is a whole new complicating factor!

    1. Next time I’m in Cameroon, I’ll have to see if they use ‘pomme de France’ on their menus. Stay tuned!

  3. I love reading this post. As I am trying to build Sebastian’s language as a young toddler, I wonder how he is making sense of the contronyms in the English language in his mind. Consistency is key with toddlers and I try to give visual aids as much as possible so he can associate the word with the object and/or context.

    I also wonder the relationship between colonization and false friends. There are many false friends in Spanish and Tagalog. I am curious if these false friends were a means of resistance against the colonizer.

    1. The mind of children working between languages is very fascinating (and a topic of a future post)! I think it’s much different than someone like me who was fully proficient in one language before starting to learn a second. I wonder if Sebastian is noticing a difference at all in the contronyms or if he stores the concept of an object separately from the words for it, then accesses the appropriate word automatically depending on who’s around.

      Do you have any examples of false friends you can share between Spanish and Tagalog?

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