Neunte Lektion / Ninth Lesson
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
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.
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."