In Austria there is a funny sign on the freeway labelled “Section Control” that alerts drivers to an upcoming speed trap. While one has to wonder at the usefulness of such a sign (as it provides speeders with ample time to slow down), it is hard to restrain a chuckle at the phrasing “Section Control,” which is incorrect English and clearly based on a common false cognate the employees of the Austrian Ministry for Transport were unaware of prior to manufacturing all these signs.
Despite the common etymology of “Kontrolle” and “control”, there are crucial differences between the two terms. “Kontrolle” means “supervision” or “monitoring”, but not “control” in the sense of “to direct”, “to manipulate” or “to hold sway over”. Thus, a correct (direct) translation of the German term for speed monitoring (Abschnittskontrolle) would have been “Section Check” or “Section Monitoring”, but not “Section Control”. The British, of course, refer to such systems as “SPECS”, or “Speed Check Services”.
While some foreign drivers may – upon seeing this sign – incorrectly come to the conclusion that the Austrians have devised a system for taking over the control of vehicles remotely, the error is not that grievous in the end, as the picture of the camera on the sign makes the meaning more or less clear. In other contexts, however, the false cognate of “Kontrolle” and “control” is more pernicious.
In current debates surrounding the future of the euro the Germans are often criticized for their emphasis on the need to institute new regulatory frameworks, rather than a system for joint liability in the event of sovereign default. One pillar of the German proposals is to establish better systems for the supervision of finances in individual member states. Note the operative term here: “supervision”, not “control”. Yet due to the “Kontrolle/control” false cognate, the Germans are often incorrectly understood as calling for greater EU “control” in the sense of “direct managerial powers” (and not just “monitoring capabilities”).
In an article that appeared this morning in Bloomberg, for example, Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted as saying the following: “There must not be an imbalance between liability and control”. What she actually means, of course, is that there must not be a discrepancy between “liability” and “supervision”. Admittedly, supervision inherently implies some degree of control (insofar as it could lead to, say, sanctions against member states), yet the thrust of her statements has a completely different flavor when her words are mistranslated in this manner. This “false reading” plays all too easily into the hands of those who might wish to portray the Germans in clichéed terms as bent on “dominating” the eurozone. It is an unfortunate false cognate.