Something for the weekend: Idiom

This week I decided to go back to school. Not full time or anything like that, but a twice-weekly evening class to improve my German. I learnt German at high school and started a university course in German (why I didn’t finish it is a whole other story), but I haven’t spoken German in about ten years, so I have forgotten a lot. Coupled with my never-ending difficulty in meeting new people, my frustration at no longer having any real fluency in a language I love inspired me to take some action.

I have taken the placement test, and term starts next month. It’s a little bit exciting, but a certain apprehension last night:

Idioms are phrases or expressions that have figurative meanings, and they’re usually specific to the source language, that is translated word-for-word into another language leaves the phrase either meaningless or (perhaps worse) with a literal meaning that is something other than intended. An example in English is I’ve got butterflies in my stomach. To a native English speaker the meaning is clear: it means you’re nervous or anxious, but what it doesn’t mean is that you actually have butterflies in your belly. And translated into most other languages the meaning is unclear: you have to use a phrase with a different literal meaning to convey the same figurative meaning. In Chinese, for example, you would say that your heart is beating as hard as a deer bumping into a tree. Perhaps you could guess the meaning, but it doesn’t really make sense. One of the most curious things about idioms is that often, as a native speaker, you don’t notice them until you start learning another language, or someone who is not a native speaker points them out. And oftentimes they are very difficult to explain. Christian asked:

The meaning of love child is wrapped up in culture and subtlety, almost irony, and it’s very hard to convey the exact meaning of the phrase. Wiktionary defines it as a child born as a result of a romantic liaison between unmarried partners, but the phrase itself is supposed to draw attention to the infidelity: the essence of the phrase is difficult to translate, or even to explain in English. The fascinating topic of idiom was expanded on last night in a discussion with Dave, who studies Auslan (Australian Sign Language) and should soon be an interpreter. I asked

And the answer was basically some do, some don’t and yes. For instance I was able to make a good guess of how to sign it went over my head (meaning it was too confusing for me to understand or often used to indicate that what was just said appeared to be an in-joke that the speaker was not in on), but Dave explained that there are examples of phrases that are idiomatic in English and Auslan, but rely on different figurative language:


In short, idioms fascinate me, and the best way, I think, to discuss them is just to give examples and to explore them. But back to my original worry. Ich bin nicht von gestern might be translated for the Australian learner as I didn’t come down in the last shower. And as a boy from urban Yorkshire, neither one of those phrases is part of my native tongue!

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