“Meow means woof in cat.”
I have moved around quite a bit during my life, so I’ve experienced firsthand the challenges posed by language differences and I’m not just talking about understanding languages that are not English.
It took a few years of working and socializing with British people to realize that every time they called something I did “brilliant,” they weren’t referring to my intellect. I had a British student who referred to the juice packs in her lunch box as “Ribena.” It took me awhile to realize it was a brand name in the U.K., not a pet name or a non-English word. I never heard my British friends use the term “Bob’s your uncle” but when it popped up in British mystery novels, I looked it up. It means “your success is guaranteed” and relates to some long ago Prime Minister’s use of favoritism appointing his nephew to a political position. It’s a good example of needing to know the local context to understand an expression. If I said, “Bob’s your uncle,” I would merely be telling my American kids about my brother.
And I didn’t have to cross the pond to be bewildered either. Growing up in New York, I caught lightning bugs on summer nights and quenched my thirst at the park by drinking from a water fountain. I also drank treats like sodas, egg creams and shakes, ate heroes, and enjoyed ice cream in Dixie cups or in cones with sprinkles.
When I moved to Massachusetts, I had to translate. Kids caught fireflies and drank water from bubblers. Soda was tonic but the tonic of gin and tonics was tonic water and gin was bought at packies, not liquor stores. Shakes were frappes, heroes were grinders and nobody seemed to know what an egg cream drink was. The ice cream cups were called Hoodsies and cones didn’t have sprinkles; they had jimmies.
As a young adult in New York, I went into “The City” (Manhattan), rode the subway, drove around traffic circles, and traveled uptown, downtown or crosstown. In Massachusetts one goes into “Town” (Boston) to ride the T. One drives around rotaries and the streets are alphabetical or seem to go willy-nilly around town. For beach vacations, New Yorkers go “down the shore.” In Massachusetts, people go “down the cape” or “up the coast.”
I live part-time in Maine and English there has quirks of its own. I described one example in my book, Maine Roots Run Deep, when a teenager from away meets an old man who’s a native:
“… ‘Before we get stahted, we need somethin’ ta quench ahr thirst. A friend was up ta Bangor t’other day and got me some Moxie. Int’rested?’
‘Best soft drink in the world.’
… I’m curious, so I say, ‘I’ll try some Moxie.’
‘Young lady, you are in for a true Maine experience. Moxie comin’ right up!’
… The old man looks at me, screws up his eyes, and says… 'You’re not only kind, ya have moxie.’
I’m confused. ‘Well, yes, you gave me a Moxie to drink.’
‘I mean the other kind of moxie. Moxie the drink is spirited, so a person with spirit or pluck or gumption, for that matter, is said ta have moxie.’ He gets a mischievous smile on his face and adds, ‘Course, the naysayers claim it takes courage ta drink that soda, so ‘moxie’ can also mean courage.’”
Traveling out west has taught me new meanings for some words. In New England, “The People’s Republic” refers to liberal-leaning Cambridge, Massachusetts, but in Colorado it refers to Boulder, a town whose inhabitants are often referred to as “granolas.” On the east coast, a “gaper” is a person who stares, but in western ski towns, a gaper is a skier or snowboarder who is clueless. Hikers in New England try to bag 4,000 footers but out west they climb 14ers. The western U.S. also introduces new words and a visitor soon wonders about the differences between plateaus, mesas and buttes and whether or not a wash, an arroyo and a gulch are the same.
The optimal way to learn languages other than English is to not only learn the words but to understand their idioms. Literal translation of a foreign idiom doesn’t explain the meaning. Likewise, literal translations of our expressions can lead to some confusion. For example, when my husband wanted to tell an Italian colleague that he was knowledgeable and competent, he said he was “sulla palla” (literally “on the ball”). The reaction was a puzzled expression until it was explained. Oddly, the Italian expression should have been "in gamba" which literally means “in the leg.” Neither the English nor the Italian idioms make much sense to me.
“Break a leg,” an English expression for good luck, would be met with a wince by many Italians. Their expression for good luck, “In bocca al lupo” (in the wolf’s mouth) is equally perplexing to English speakers.
I explored the quest for English-Italian communication in my book, Upheavals at Cuma in an encounter between two teens:
“… I feel a light touch on my arm and turn around. He puts his finger to his lips as if to say, ‘Don’t tell anyone’ and hands me the ‘pesca.’ I offer the two coins but he refuses. He points first to me and then to himself and asks, ‘Amici?’
At this point, I’m freaked and I try to give the ‘pesca’ back. All I know is that ‘amo’ means love, and I don’t even know this kid!
His frown returns and he runs his fingers through his hair as if he’s frustrated. Then his large brown eyes light up in sudden recognition. ‘Amici…friends, no?’
In German, idioms are sometimes related to their food. For instance, someone who got lucky “had a pig” (Schwein gehabt). If they don’t care and think “it’s all the same to me,” they say “Das ist mir Wurst” (It’s a sausage to me).
When we fall in love with someone, we say we are “head over heels” but the Germans are “Hals über Kopf” (throat over head). Theirs is more of a tossup of the usual order.
If a German tells you they have “Die Daumen drücken” (thumbs pressed), it’s the same as our “fingers crossed. When we cross our fingers, the thumb does press against them, so it a difference of where a culture focuses.
Cross-cultural communication seems to be a theme in my books and I explore it again between a German and American teen in White Flutters in Munich:
“… ‘I wonder if German fish speak the same language as American… or Greek… or Russian fish. Don’t you sometimes wish that people had a universal language and understanding?’
‘Du bist sehr tief.’
‘See? That’s what I mean… no universal understanding! I have no idea what you just said. It’s exasperating!’
‘I don’t understand this exasperating but if you had just asked me, I would have translated. I said, you are very deep, meaning…’
'I know what it means… and for your information, exasperating means irritating.’ Then, noticing the look of incomprehension on his face, I add, ‘You know… upsetting…’
‘The fact that even you, with your good English skills, can’t understand everything I say, emphasizes my point. As for me, I’m pathetic. I’m living in a country where I can’t understand much more than food and hotel words!’
‘You know what I think? I think that Freundschaft… friendship… is a universal language. We can use it to help one another understand German and English, no?’”
I think it’s important to learn the language of the places you spend time in but one thing I’ve learned is that real universal communication is not verbal. The things all people understand are smiles, tears, laughter, music, art, and body language. Combining all of those with words is ideal.
Have you had to communicate in an unusual way?