The English language is complex.
I don’t mean that it’s special, all languages have complexity and I am ashamed to say that I have struggled to learn any language other than my own native tongue.
I was very lucky to attend schools that considered learning an extra language something that should be started very early, and so even my first years after Kindergarten had elements of learning French. I was taught french from the age of 6 or 7 right up until I took my exams at the age of 16. These were called G.C.S.E’s for those who aren’t familiar with the English schooling system, and French was compulsory. I am reasonably pleased that I got a B. To this day, I can only spout a lot of French vocabulary and say some purile sentences, (for example, “je voudrais un petit cochon d’inde s’il vous plait” which means I would like a little guinea pig please) which would never convince someone that I had received an extensive education in it. I do feel slightly ashamed that my brain retained so little of this valuable education.
I also learnt Russian for a year at school. This was very difficult, as it doesn’t use the latin alphabet but the Cyrillic, based on Greek. It took most of the time to be able to understand how each letter is pronounced. Again I can remember some vocab, and some phrases but no more.
It did come in handy when we had a short trip to see St. Petersburg. I was able to say “Thank you” in russian to the customs official who looked at my passport, which actually got me a surprised smile. Also being able to read cyrillic, although not necessarily knowing what the word meant, was handy. I remember reading out the letters of a shop sign “Farmacia” and realising it was a Pharmacy, or Chemist. That came in unfortunately and unexpectedly useful on the trip.
Anyway, back to my original point, Languages, and particularly the English Language is complex. What makes the English language particularly complex is that it is Mongrel language, I mean no insult, I am as patriotic as the next man, but facts must be accepted. English has a smattering of Anglo-Saxon, which is similar to ancient German, it also has a huge Viking influence. It also has influences from Latin, Norman French and Middle French not to mention all the borrowed words from Empire days, like Bungalow, Pajamas, the list of these are endless.
We also have an absolute plethora of sayings and phrases, as can be easily seen if you have read any Shakespeare or other English authors. These phrases, as I suspect phrases in any language, do not translate at all well.
My Grandmother (or Nan as I called her) was particularly knowledgeable when it came to odd English phrases that not many people use and wouldn’t translate very well. Growing up my Mother (Mum) would often have to translate these into simple English for me to understand.
I remember she always used to greet me (and others) with “How’s your belly off for spots?” – This apparently meant “How are you?”
I also remember giving her a bunch of flowers I had picked from the garden, a couple of Daffodils and possibly an early tulip. She responded “What’s this in Aid of?”
“She means, what was that for?” My Mum would translate for me, after I had stood there dumbfounded for the longest time.
One phrase in particular that is often used to describe that situation when someone who you haven’t seen for a long time, is no longer foremost in our thoughts. We forget to invite them to a party or forget their birthday. The phrase is “Out of sight, Out of Mind”.
It captures the meaning in English very well, but broken down and translated literally the meaning would never survive.
I remember hearing a story, that was supposed to be true, but it could well be apocryphal, of a speech made at the United Nations in New York.
Someone was describing a situation that had occurred in Japan involving some diplomatic disagreement with the Ambassador for the United Kingdom. The phrase “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” was used in excuse for this oversight, what ever that had been.
This was translated into Japanese literally as “Invisible lunatic”, Out of sight = Invisible, and out of mind = Someone insane, a lunatic.
This always struck me as the epitome of why Languages, being so complex, they do not always stand up well to translation. You get the words fine, but the meaning is lost to the winds.
Language is so much more than just it’s words.
Copyright: Kristian Fogarty 21/March/2018