The responses are rolling in — with examples of words and funny expressions that we use to liven up our language but actually make no sense to someone from another county.
One friend wrote, ” Getting your head around a language is understanding the culture.” I agree. Only by understanding the background of the speaker can you truly understand what they are saying. For example, the adage attributed to Native Americans about walking a mile in another’s moccasins. To understand that, you first have to know what moccasins are.
My friend shared her frustration with learning Kayah, a tonal language native to Southeast Asia, spoken by a group of refugees where she lives in Texas. She wrote, “TOE is both yes and no. Yes is said high and no is said low. NGO is both tears or word. PREH can be person or again. If you use the wrong tones you can be telling them, “no again word,” which gets very confused looks, when you are trying to say, “Yes the person cried.”
Spanish has its share of tonal variations. Si‘, with an accent, means yes, but without means if. El with an accent on the e means he and el without the accent means the. Vino can mean come or wine.
Esta means this; accent the first syllable though (ESta) and it means this one (not that one), but place the accent on the “ta” and it is a form of the verb to be — esTA mal (it is bad.)
English has a fair share of tonal, or just plain confusing, words also. Read, for example — I read (reed) a book today, but I read (red) it yesterday. You, can mean one person or a group of people; with the exception of the deep South, we have no word for you all. And then there is here and hear.
And if you really want to have some fun, analyze the meaning of common idioms. What in one language is part of our cultural heritage and perfectly understood, makes another wonder “Que?”
Here are just a few:
Right now — How is now right? Can it be left (or wrong) too?
I’m under the weather — Do you need an umbrella?
He’s over the hill — Which hill?
See you — Well, of course, I am standing right here.
Time will tell — Time talks? Do you have a talking watch?
Hit the books — Why? What did they do wrong?
Feel free — At no cost? Great! But feel what?
Knock it off — What do you want me to knock off?
Go figure! — Figure what?
Get on the ball — It keeps rolling out from under me.
Go fly a kite — But it’s storming!
Day in, day out — How is that?
Look up (something) — If the book is on the lower shelf do I look it down?
To each his own —Own what?
Polished off — Your plate needs polishing?
Stand corrected — And if not corrected do I sit?
Run over — Won’t that hurt?
Cut him off at the knees — That must really hurt!
Noodle on those for a while.
Played this classic Abbott and Costello skit for my English students this week. It is the perfect example of how confusing the English language can be.
Don’t die laughing!