Learning a language would be a great deal simpler if all you had to do was learn the words and grammar.
Besides learning their vocabulary, language learners also have to spend a proportion of their study time absorbing the cultural context for communicating with that particular culture. This might include understanding whether to address someone as ‘Tu’ or the more formal ‘Vous’ in French, understanding German handwriting, and getting your head around cultural concepts of humility which will affect verb conjugation in Korean or Japanese.
There’s also the question of idioms: expressions that don’t mean what they appear to mean. These funny little turns of phrase occur in every world language and whilst they can be amusingly colourful, they can also confuse newcomers to the language.
The meaning of an idiom can be simple to deduce. If a Japanese person was to say ‘even monkeys fall from trees’, it might be possible to understand their meaning is that even experts can make mistakes. Others require a bit of grounding in the culture to really understand. For instance, a Tibetan who asks if you plan to erect a beer tent is actually asking when you’re getting married.
One of the quirkiest idioms in English is to say ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ to imply that it is raining heavily. The origins of this one are a little uncertain: the writer Jonathan Swift either coined or first recorded it in 1738 and it could come either from Norse legend, a twisted Greek expression, or just poor medieval street hygiene that left animal corpses to be washed out by rainfall.
The cryptic nature of this idiom means it’s a good example of its ilk: anyone learning English for the first time could be forgiven for thinking such phrases are invented solely to frustrate non-native speakers.
English certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on abstruse idioms. If a Japanese person has a lot of social connections and receives many party invitations, they may be described as having a wide face.
The idiom that describes naively buying something unseen as ‘a cat in a sack’ is common to Swedish, Polish, Latvian and Norwegian natives. Native speakers may not need to know that unscrupulous medieval butchers sold cats in place of live rabbits, however they may well use the expression confidently anyway.
Some of the most unintelligible Chinese idioms come from traditional stories that are equally hard for outsiders to fathom. If a person is described as ‘carving the boat to find the sword’, it means they are not recognising that situations can change.
To understand this it’s essential to be familiar with the story of a man who lost his sword overboard whilst crossing a lake. He used a knife to cut a notch in the wood of the boat to mark the spot where it had fallen, in order to retrieve it in a calmer patch of water.
Idioms from simpler times
Most idioms tend to be fairly old and long established and as a consequence many of the most enduring idioms tend to reflect a more old fashioned, rural way of life. Many of the most common idioms in any language reference simpler times and draw on everyday experiences and objects.
These include staple foods such as bread or milk, home wares such as porridge pots, domesticated animals such as donkeys or roosters, and minor domestic mishaps such as broken pottery or spilled liquids. This tends to be common across different languages as so many idioms emerge from simpler, more rural times and domestic settings.
However there are also idioms of more recent origin. The TV show Happy Days was immensely popular during the 1970s, however in the fifth series an episode in which the character Fonzie rides a waterski over a shark seemed to precipitate the decline of the series.
‘Jumped the shark’ is now used to pinpoint when a creative endeavour begins to decline in quality. It’s thought this idiom came to use in the mid-eighties when the series was retrospectively analysed and the concept of ‘jumping the shark’ was applied to identify the turning point in other shows. The contemporary idiom was popularised by a crowdsourced website, Jumpedthesharkco.uk, which applied the concept of ‘jumping the shark’ to identify when other popular shows started to deteriorate.
Idioms are surprisingly similar
It’s interesting to see that some idioms are almost exactly the same across different languages.
The Esperanto idiom ‘he sits in the forest and doesn’t see trees’ means the same thing as ‘he can’t see the wood for the trees’ (he’s so close to the issue that he’s blind to it).
There are also similarities between the Finnish ‘to make a bull out of a fly’, the Estonian ‘to make an elephant out of a gnat’ and our own expression ‘to make a mountain out of a molehill’ which describes overreaction to a small matter.
Euphemisms for being not very intelligent take a similar approach across many languages:
- He’s a sandwich short of a picnic (English)
- He doesn’t have all the cups in his cupboard (German)
- Some planks are missing from his roof (Turkish)
It’s also common for idioms across many languages to refer to anger or other strong emotion in terms of heat. In Hindi a person who is extremely angry may refer to excreting embers. In English a furious person may be ‘hot under the collar’, their blood is boiling’ and need to ‘let off steam’ like a hot liquid.
Idioms are in some ways a linguistic shortcut that employs metaphor to convey information. Referring to one’s modest apartment as a ‘cat’s forehead’ (Japanese) or ‘postage stamp’ (English) is an economical way to communicate humility about ones living space.
It uses fewer words than detailing the number of rooms or the square footage or using a whole sentence to convey smallness in a mildly disparaging way. Using these expressions also imply the speaker’s modesty using economical language.
Whilst it probably isn’t essential to master idioms in order to speak a language, it may be necessary to understand other speakers. It’s also a sign of language sophistication.
Those learning other languages are advised to spend some time learning at least the more common ones: native speakers are often not even away that they are using them which communicating with you, so familiar are these turns of phrase to those speaking their mother tongue.
Brands that decide to use idioms in their marketing campaigns should be aware that they often don’t travel well. Here are some examples of idioms from TED which it claims simply can’t be translated literally.