When I first heard that we were going to be facilitating a Conversation & Culture meeting on idioms, I was a little skeptical. Idioms are those weird phrases that you never remember learning, but seem to use on a regular basis. Though seemingly fun and quirky, idioms are actually kind of terrifying when you have to explain them to a non-native English speaker. Sure, some of them make sense—the meaning of a “broken heart,” whether you’ve heard it before or not, is pretty obvious. But how do you explain phrases like “straight from the horse’s mouth” or “the cat’s out of the bag?” In my experience with Conversation Partner appointments that were centered around idioms, I’ve noticed that it’s a little difficult to give the writer an idea of their logical base when they may not even have one. I’ve often found myself floundering when trying to explain idioms to non-native speakers. It’s not necessarily their meaning that becomes clouded, but why we even use them in the first place.
For those of you who don’t know, Conversation & Culture is an event that CMWR holds each week. Though anyone is welcome to join, Conversation & Culture’s main purpose is to foster an environment for cultural exchange between international students and the members of CMWR. We generally don’t focus on topics that have to do with language or grammar itself, but idioms are a special case; they’re often heard in casual conversation, and to somebody whose first language isn’t English, they can be terribly confusing. During our meeting last week, one writer mentioned that some of the idioms we were discussing actually existed in his native language as well.
For some reason, I found this absolutely fascinating. How did the meaning of these odd phrases maintain themselves through translation? English speakers seem to have an infinite amount of idioms at their disposal. Do they exist as much in other languages as they do in ours? I decided to do a little bit of research to make myself feel better about the ridiculousness of the English language, and why we have to create so many different ways to say what we mean.
Idioms in Other Languages
Idioms are common in the English language (because we have to make everything more difficult than it already is, obviously), but Omniglot has some fascinating examples of idioms that exist in foreign languages. Here are some ones that I thought my fellow word-nerds might enjoy. Keep in mind that, like with many phrases, the meaning of these idioms may get a little lost in translation:
Armenian: Stop ironing my head! = Stop annoying me! (as in repetitively asking or talking about something)
Cheyenne: Are you still riding the goat? = Separated from your spouse
Czech: To walk around hot porridge = To beat about the bush
Dutch: I sweat carrots = I’m sweating like a pig
Finnish: To make a bull out of a fly = To make a mountain out of a molehill
Hebrew: At the end of the world, turn left = It’s in the middle of nowhere
Russian: To hang noodles on one’s ears = To tell lies / talk nonsense
Omniglot has loads of other idioms in a lot of different languages, so if you’d like to check out more (or their multilingual pages, which might provide more accuracy), you can take a look here. And if you’re itching for even more idioms, this list of 10 fascinating idioms in other languages has some super cute pictures to go along with it.
Moral of the story?
Don’t be afraid of idioms! In your next Conversation Partner appointment, if a writer brings them up, it’s good to keep in mind that they exist across languages. During our Conversation & Culture meeting, it was fascinating to learn from some of the writers about idioms in their own languages, or ones that are similar to popular English idioms. Exchanging ideas through the use of idioms is a great way to learn more about other cultures and how meaning can be translated in a variety of ways. Regardless of language, idioms are just another testament to the complexity of the human mind: we’re too infatuated with expressing ourselves to do it in only one way.