Have you ever studied a foreign language? If so, you have probably encountered enough vocabulary items or idiomatic expressions to know that there are things about a language that are inexplicable to speakers of other languages. If you are an English speaker who hasn't studied another language, then imagine trying to explain some English expressions to foreigners learning English. For instance, if you were to tell someone, "keep your nose to the grindstone," how would you explain that you mean that you want the person to keep working hard, and not to do an activity that would be not only stupid and unnatural, but also extremely painful and messy?
Being a French professor, former German professor, and having studied a little Spanish and Chinese, I have done my share of trying to understand some basic idiomatic expressions for myself and of trying to get others to understand them. As hard as it is sometimes to get my French students to accept and use certain idioms in French, I must say that the two summers my wife and I taught English in China were far more difficult. The differences between our cultures and our languages are so great that the gap is hard enough to bridge already. But then compounding that with the hundreds of inexplicable things in the English language makes the task all the more daunting!
Below is something I've pieced together, using various things in my files. You English speakers (anglophones) out there need to read the following with an eye towards being the one who has to explain all this to non-anglophones.
The English Language Is Crazy!
If we English speakers thought about it, we would have to admit that English is a crazy language. The reasons for that statement are almost endless. There is no egg in eggplant, no ham in hamburger, and neither apple nor pine in pineapple. A mushroom is not a room where we eat mush. English muffins weren't invented in England nor French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies, while sweetbreads, which aren't sweet, are meat.
We simply take English for granted. Yet if we explored its paradoxes, we would find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.
And why is it that writers write, but fingers don't fing, grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn't the plural of booth beeth? One goose, two geese. So one moose, two meese? No. Just as we can have one mouse, two mice and one louse, two lice, but not one house, two hice. Crazy!
Doesn't it seem odd that you can make amends but not one amend, that you comb through annals of history but not a single annal? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?
If a teacher has taught, has a preacher praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? If you wrote a letter, perhaps you bote your tongue? And try to explain verbs like sing, sang, sung, ring, rang, rung, but not bring, brang, brung. Or better yet sink, sank, sunk, drink, drank, drunk, but not think, thank, thunk?!
Should English speakers all be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane? In what other language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell? Park on driveways and drive on parkways? How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and wise guy are opposites? How can overlook and oversee be opposites, while quite a lot and quite a few are alike?
Have you noticed that we talk about certain things only when they are absent? Have you ever seen a horseful carriage or a strapful gown? Have you ever met a sung hero or experienced requited love? Have you ever run into someone who was combobulated, gruntled, ruly, or peccable? And where are all those people who *are* spring chickens or who would *actually* hurt a fly?
You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which an alarm clock goes off by going on. And when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible. And why, when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up a speech, I end it.
And then English teachers seek to enforce and reinforce all these things! They tell us not to use a double negative in English because a double negative forms a positive. If an English teacher told me there is no language where a double positive can form a negative, my reply would be "Yeah, right!"
In some languages, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. In fact in French, you can have more than two negatives, and it's still just fine. "Personne ne fait jamais rien pour moi" is a perfectly acceptable sentence in French, but an English teacher would insist that the literal translation "No one never does nothing for me" would be better rendered "No one ever does anything for me." I somehow prefer the French on this one since the correction just sounds too positive.
So, do you agree with me that English is a crazy language?
Our German house guests, Uwe and Diana, arrived last evening, and so far we are having a great time together. Diana speaks some English, but Uwe's English is stronger. I can say far more in German than I thought I could, but we've already talked about all kinds of things where my German vocab was either weak or non-existent. Trying to get our ideas across to each other has been challenging, but fun also. I'll give an update in a blog post next week.
I mentioned above that French fries weren't invented in France. Some people almost go into a panic when they hear that, but fries were invented in Belgium. The French don't mind that we call them French fries, even though the French tell Belgian jokes in the same way that Americans tell Polack jokes. In fact, in France I've told many Polack jokes, substituting "Belge" for "Polonais," and the jokes fly! Several years ago one of my cousins from France sent me the following funny picture of a bloody battle in Belgium.
War in Belgium (la Guerre en Belgique)...
(Click on the image for a larger version of it. In case you still can't tell what it is, it's fries with ketchup on some of them.)
I would love to hear some of your thoughts on our crazy English language and/or your funny mistakes in grappling with idiomatic expressions in another language. I've made my share of mistakes through the years!
"God's plan in our trials is not to make us more self-sufficient. It's to make us more dependent on Him." - Alan Benson
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