Neunte Lektion / Ninth Lesson

Burg Rheinfels

Filling in some holes

Some idiomatic expressions, and looking beneath the obvious

Every language has little idiosyncracies in the way it expresses certain concepts. For the sake of novelty and variety, speakers introduce colorful new phrases, and these may be so apt and appealing that through the years they move from slang into proper usage, phrases such as: hit the road; jump ship; carry on.

Other phrases, though they seem to have no literal meaning when they're dissected into individual words, fill a niche in such a way that they enter the consciousness as a single concept and we seldom even think about the actual meanings of the words.

For instance, what does "once upon a time" have to do with anything being upon a time? Just as in"upon a time," our choices of prepositions in many phrases seem odd or inappropriate: "I'll see you on Sunday morning, or in the morning on Sunday—that is." As soon as we replace the with Sunday, we change the preposition from in to on. But if it's tomorrow morning, then we don't use a preposition at all!

And yet, as little sense as this makes, it all sounds right, and any other way would sound wrong.

In the same vein, different languages double up the meanings of words, but not always in the same way. We have the word free, which means unfettered, liberated, unenclosed. It has a very close and easy German cognate, frei. So you go into a restaurant and order a meal, and ask "Das Wasser, is es frei?" The waiter (der Kellner) just might look at you quizically and respond, "We let it out for a walk around the restaurant a little while ago, but when it started for the door we decided to put it back in the pitcher," and walk away scratching his head, unable to see the connections in your mind — without cost = free = frei — because to him frei has nothing to do witha thing being without cost, kostenlos.

The point with both of these examples is simply this: learning your second language is a very different experience from learning your first because of this phenomenon of "language interference," in which prior knowledge introduces pointless habits and leads to false assumptions. And this is why language can't be figured out but must be experienced, accepted uncritically, and imitated.


More bits

Idioms can lead to hilarity (or embarrassment) even between dialects in the same language. My mother shared a cabin during an Atlantic crossing with an Englishwoman who was returning home. The woman had first come to America during WW II and gone to work at a small company that was having trouble meeting its payroll. She was on the verge of quitting, and threatened the manager, using a British slang word to refer to her salary, "When I come here tomorrow, if I don't get my screw I'm going right out the door."

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