Sayings from different languages

Published 10:12 am Friday, July 15, 2016

Learning a different language is difficult and time consuming (although ultimately worth it) because different languages divide up reality in different ways.

While it is certainly challenging to learn new vocabulary, pronunciation and sometimes a completely different writing system, it’s important to understand that each language organizes reality in a unique way. Grammatical systems can be widely variant and cultural categories that exist in one language don’t match up or even exist in another.

This is one of the reasons it is often impossible to translate word for word between two languages.

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For instance, in English we have two words for institutions of higher learning, college and university. But Spanish speakers use only one word “universidad” for the same category. A “colegio” is a high school.

Knowledge of another culture is also what makes learning another language interesting. One way to learn about another language and culture is by looking at sayings or proverbs. In English we say “raining cats and dogs” to refer to heavy rain, while in French one says tomber des hallebardes, meaning, “to rain axes.” In Germany people say regnet Bindfäden, or, “It’s raining strings” and in Italian one hears piovere a catinelle or “Raining basins.”

Another example from English is “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” which in German is expressed as Auf allen Hochzeiten tanzen wollen, “Wanting to dance at all the wedding parties.” The Italian equivalent is as humorous as it is unforgettable: Non puoi avere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca, or “You can’t have a full wine barrel and a drunk wife.” In Spanish, one can say No se puede estar en misa y en procesión — “One cannot be both at mass and in the procession.”

We often hear “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched,” while in Spanish, this idea can be expressed by saying No venda la piel del oso antes de haberlo cazado — “Don’t sell the bearskin before you’ve hunted it.” In Italian they say Non dire Quattro se non l’hai nel sacco, meaning “Don’t say four if you don’t have them in the bag.” And in German this idea is communicated by saying Man soll den Tag nicht vor dem Abend loben — “Don’t praise the day before evening.”

In English when someone teases another person or playfully gets them to believe something false we say that they are “pulling one’s leg.” In French they say monter un bateau à quelqu’un — “to build a boat for someone,” while in German the saying is Einen Bären aufbinden — “to tie up a bear.” Italians say prendere in giro — “to take someone for a turn.”

It’s not surprising to learn that there are many ways to describe saying the wrong thing. In English we say “to put your foot in it” or “to put your foot in your mouth.” The French say se mettre le doigt dans l’oeil, or “To put your finger in your eye.” The German equivalent captures the imagination with Ins Fettnäpfchen treten, “To step in the fat bowl.” And in Spanish it’s not uncommon to hear meter la pata, “To put one’s paw in (it).”

This makes the Spanish adage En boca cerrada no entran moscas — “Flies don’t enter a closed mouth” a unique but effective way to say “Silence is golden.”

JULIA PALMER is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is