Reading time: 4–5 minutes
Reading accompaniment(s): Curiosity
Us Brits have no need to learn another – foreign – language. I mean, well, everyone speaks English for goodness sake! We are so well connected! Everyone welcomes us with open arms! Oh. Wait…
For those of you who attempted or merely took a cautionary glance over my last post will no doubt have realised that I am learning Dutch. Or trying to learn Dutch. It is rather trying I must say. But, you know, with Brexit and all I wanted to equip myself with a second tongue, one of nation with more amicable relations to the rest of Europe. One that will set me in good stead for communicating with a large number of people. Oh. Wait…
Though the Dutch language is only spoken by approximately 0.4% of the global population, learning it is proving to be a very valuable exercise indeed. Along with allowing me to ever-so-slightly communicate with the in-laws (made ever-so-slightly trickier by the fact that they don’t actually converse in standard Dutch but an even more indecipherable and idiosyncratic dialect) it has granted me a backstage pass to the intricacies and subtleties of language itself – English included – and is teaching me just how telling (by this I mean illuminating, as opposed to saying) language can be once you look just a fraction deeper and consider: what the hell are we all barking on about?
From my experience thus far, the more you learn of another language, the more you begin to question your own and contemplate those phrases that are so seemingly entrenched in our vocabulary but really, on closer inspection, are absolutely barking mad. (Can you tell I’m pining after a dog?)
It’s raining cats and dogs would be the obvious and only appropriate example to begin with here. Though, alas, I cannot offer any great wisdom on its rhyme or reason. There are innumerable others of equally questionable origin: I’m afraid to say (are you fearful?); you’re on fire! (are you engulfed in flames?); get your ducks in a row (do you really have multiple webbed-footed friends?). When you begin to communicate with others for whom your language is not their own, these idioms seem to emerge from the depths and flick you in the forehead with a sudden pang of misplacement. Strange looks greet what were before non-eyelid-batting utterings and force you to reconsider all that was once unquestionable.
Once the initial embarrassment of using such a phrase in conversation with a non-native speaker has passed, the fun part can begin. They say that comparison is the thief of joy, but in linguistic contexts I beg to differ. (Please, sir?)
In English we are hungry; in Dutch we have hunger. In English we are cold; in Dutch we have it cold. In English we need chocolate; in Dutch we have need for chocolate (in every country, in fact, this need never seems to dissipate). While these differences are in many ways insignificant, they do make me ponder us as nations. In England are we so thoroughly all-consumed with our personal experiences that any rumbling of the tum deems us personification of the need for extra sustenance? I AM HUNGRY! It sounds a little dramatic when compared to feeling, among, no doubt, a multitude of other things, the sensation of hunger. I am always cold (in England and the Netherlands alike) (indeed as I type I am pausing to retrieve thermal socks and an extra jumper). But, given the other connotations associated with this word, is it really something that I want to be proclaiming to BE? I think I’d much rather be ‘having it cold’ – which, in its essence, is more transient and less, well, negative and personal. But with the need for chocolate (or wine, or a cuddle, especially at this time of the month), I will proudly declare my undying embodiment of need. Lord knows I can get cranky without.
Other phrases that are fun to compare cross-communicative-borders are the illustrative sayings or proverbs for which the meaning, country to country, remains the same, but the tools used with which to demonstrate this meaning are unequivocally culture-dependent. In Icelandic, the phrase ‘a bad workman blames his tools’ is instead translated ‘a bad rower blames his oar’. In Polish, ‘a bad ballerina blames the hem of her skirt’. And in Russian – the best of all, ‘a bad dancer blames his balls’.
But aside from the LOLable nature of all of this contemplation (I shit you not, it has recently come to my attention that ‘lol’ is a Dutch word meaning ‘fun’ or ‘funny’, which came way before Laugh Out Loud (and perhaps even before the now-retro Lots Of Love acronym used by out-of-touch but so wanting to be relevant ageing relatives up and down the UK)), by studying the language of others, and consequently your own, you are afforded an insight into others, and yourself, which is perhaps otherwise out of reach, or at least out of earshot.
Language can become so sloppy as it becomes ingrained, that we almost forget to consider what (on earth / in our right minds / the bloody hell) we are saying. Learning language anew has caused me to begin to question the words that I choose and use and consider, more accurately, what I am actually trying to say. Now, after reading this rambling I will forgive you from thinking otherwise but, at the bare minimum (at least), I am giving it a go. I invite you to do so, too.
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