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a false cognate on mars.

February 23, 2017

What I am about to write will at first seem like a potentially boring linguistics lesson, but it is not that. If you will indulge me with a bit of patience, I think you will find it will have been rewarded.. so I hope.

What is a (genuine, that is, not false) cognate? Two words, in two different languages, that look similar, and have the same meaning. For example, “is” in English and “ist” in German. Or “abrupt” in English and “abrupto” in Spanish.

There are also false cognates.. words that look the same, and are spelled similarly, but have very different meanings. Foreigners trip over false cognates all the time, much to the confusion and especially amusement of locals.

Here’s a fun one..

If you are speaking Spanish, and say “Estoy embarazada,” and by that you think you mean “I am embarrassed,” you soon will be embarrassed, if you are a dude. “Embarazada” means “pregnant.”

If you want to say embarrassed, try “desconcertado” instead.

One more false cognate.. this will be of particular interest to UFO enthusiasts and fans of sci-fi stories.

In 1877, an Italian astronomer named Giovanni Schiaparelli reported the existence of channels on mars.. channels are a naturally occurring feature caused by water.

Schiaparelli, being Italian, used the Italian word for “channel,” which is “caneli.”

“Caneli” was mistranslated into English as “canal,” something made by human, or alien hands.

People today are still talking about canals on Mars as proof that there was, or even is, life on the Red Planet.

And no serious astronomer even said there were canals on Mars! Think of all the stories that have been created because of a false cognate.

H.G. Wells was inspired by the unintentionally erroneous report of canals on Mars. He was so inspired by the idea of life on Mars, supposedly exhibited by canals, that he wrote an all-time Science Fiction classic, “The War of the Worlds” which was published in 1898.

C.S. Lewis, not generally known for writing science fiction, created a very weird but interesting mash-up of sci-fi and pagan fantasy called the Space Trilogy. The first of the three books, “Out of the Silent Planet,” (published in 1938) is set mostly on an inhabited Mars.

Ray Bradbury, one of the greatest sci-fi writers, published an excellent, rather wistful book called “The Martian Chronicles” in 1950.

These are only a few of the examples of Mars-related fiction.

And then there are the all the books and theories about Mars really being or having been inhabited.

None of the books would have been published, nor nearly as many theories about life on Mars concocted, if the word “caneli” had been accurately translated as “channels.”

Sometimes, a false cognate can be a remarkably good thing!

Just for fun, here’s David Bowie with a rather good live version of his classic “Life On Mars?” He’s not wearing any spaceman makeup in this video, but damn he sounds great! Enjoy.

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