One of the issues I like gathering, as I trawl by the languages of the world in my analysis for my books, is native equivalents to English phrases. The phrases we name idioms are sometimes cautionary. They’re handed down by the generations. And they’re exceptionally common. Everyone has a model of “coals to Newcastle” and “too many cooks”. But every tongue chooses to precise these concepts in its personal, usually eyebrow-raising, culturally informative manner.
“Carrying coals to Newcastle”, as an illustration, in Russian, turns into “going to Tula taking his own samovar”; in Hungarian, “taking water to the Danube”; in Spanish, “oranges to Valencia”, and in German, a phrase that appears additional afield: “eulen nach Athen tragen (taking owls to Athens)”.
Calling somebody out unjustly? That’s the pot calling the kettle black. Or, in French, the hospital that mocks charity; in Korean, “dotori kijaegi (comparing the height of acorns)”; and in Arabic the extra parochial “the camel that cannot see its own hump”.
A very telling instance offers, intriguingly, in languages. In English, we are saying “it’s all Greek to me”. In Spanish and Hungarian, it’s “Chinese”. In Polish, it’s “a Turkish sermon”. And for the Czechs, “a Spanish village”.
Similarly, “too many cooks spoil the broth” turns into, in Hindi, “zyada jogi math ujaad (too many saints can ruin the monastery)”. In Mongolian, “one hundred goats for sixty billy goats”; and in Mandarin, “seven hands, eight feet”.
Swahili advises you “not to curse the crocodile before you’ve crossed the river” (so, “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched”). In Turkish, it’s “don’t roll up your trouser legs before you see the stream”. In Danish, “don’t sell the fur before the bear has been shot”; and within the Kikuyu language of Kenya, land of the Nyiri Desert, “having rain clouds is not the same as having rain”.
Similarly, the thought behind “when pigs fly” exists around the globe. Many cultures use unlikely animal exercise to dismiss hyperbolic statements, and every one chooses its personal beast. There’s the Bulgarian “in a cuckoo summer”; the French “quand les poules auront des dents (when hens have teeth)”, and the Spanish “when frogs grow hair”.
Also represented again and again is the thought of it “raining cats and dogs”. In Afrikaans, it rains “old women with clubs”; in Czech, it rains “wheelbarrows”; in Danish, for some cause, “shoemakers’ apprentices”; in Greek, “chair legs”; and in Persian, “like the tail of the horse”.
Perhaps my favorite clutch of phrases from around the globe describes somebody who’s not very shiny. In English, there’s the scathing “sandwich short of a picnic”; in French, “he has a spider on the ceiling”; in Italy, he’s “lacking some Fridays”; and within the one which will get my private vote, there’s the Dutch “he got a blow from the windmill”.
So many of those concepts not exist exterior these phrases – previous girls with golf equipment; village idiots too near the windmill. It’s a part of what makes language so valuable. The phrases of our ancestors retain clues to who we as soon as had been, and to the distinctiveness every of our cultures as soon as represented, in a far-less-homogenous world. The extra of that historical past we lose, the extra nervous I change into. As jittery, they’d say in Puerto Rican Spanish, as a crocodile in a pockets manufacturing facility.
(Adam Jacot de Boinod was a researcher for the BBC sequence QI and is the writer of The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World)