As a linguist, I often get asked whether I find it much easier to learn new languages (it normally comes right after the question of how many languages I speak).  I would like to say “yes, sure I do” but this is not entirely true. One stumbling block comes from the fact that languages have their own idiosyncrasies. These can manifest themselves in various ways, the most obvious one being in the idioms that languages use. Many of us have probably mused over the weird and wonderful ways in which languages encode cultural wisdom and past experience.

Has this koala put his foot in the jackfruit? / (c) Christopher Lance

It would appear that some languages make high use of sayings and proverbs, while others don’t. The differences could well stem from distinct cultural practices, but to my knowledge this has never been studied in depth. Variation in individual style also comes into play here, making it rather difficult to study it in an objective manner. Perhaps this makes learning some languages easier than others, I am not sure. But one thing is certain: every language uses idioms and sayings to some extent.

One area of particular interest to those looking at idioms is taboo language – language which deals with rather unpleasant or potentially sensitive or offensive topics, such as death, sex, bodily secretions, insults, swearing, and so on.  When you don’t want to talk directly about something that might cause offence, an idiomatic phrase is the perfect vehicle to couch your idea.

Below is an illustration of how different Indo-European languages use idiomatic phrases to describe someone who is odd or bizarre and to describe someone who is drunk.

BE ODD OR BIZARRE

– A Romanian would say that the person is “gone on a raft” (dus cu pluta).
– A Spaniard would say that someone had “lost their North.” (pierde el Norte)
– A Swede wouldn’t describe a person as being “raving mad” but “forest crazy.” (Skogstokig)
– Italians are not “out of their minds”, they are “outside as a balcony” (fuori come un balcone).
– A Lithuanian doesn’t “lose it”, instead his “roof drives away” (stogas nuvažiuoja).
The French “break a fuse” (péter un plomb).
– A German person wouldn’t call you weird, they would say you “have a bird” (du hast ein Vogel) or that you don’t “have all the cups in the cupboard” (nicht alle Tassen im Schrank haben).

BE DRUNK

– A Chilean doesn’t get drunk, he “goes on top of the ball.” (estar arriba de la pelota).
– A Mexican goes “fart, blurry, all the way up to his little hands” (se pone pedo, borroso, chachalaco, hasta las manitas pues).
– Greeks that are really drunk aren’t “wasted”; they are “pie” (πἰτα).
– Italians aren’t “wasted” either, they are “drunk as a monkey” (ubriaco come una scimmia).
– A Brazilian does not get drunk, he “puts his foot inside a jackfruit” (enfiar o pé na jaca)
– In Sweden, you don’t go on the booze, but you “are on the cinnamon” (att vara på kanelen).
English has at least 101 ways of saying that a person is drunk.

For those who want to see more translations of various idioms in different languages, here is a fun site with a large list of Indo-European ones.

Andreea S. Calude lectures in linguistics at the University of Waikato (New Zealand), loves grammar, studying languages through actual real use (corpus linguistics) and thinks “no word is an island“.

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