Chapter 10
No Stumbling over Idioms

Copyight © 2002 Sylvan Zaft.  Here is the tenth chapter of Esperanto: A Language for the Global Village.  You may make electronic copies and paper copies for your personal use, and you may freely distribute verbatim copies which include this notice provided that you do not charge for these copies.  You may not post this material to any site. You are invited to insert links to this site. For any other use, including publication, you must first get permission. 

It is very easy to make a mistake speaking a foreign language.  People often get a good laugh out of the way foreigners butcher their language.  I remember once overhearing a conversation in a waiting room between a girl who was going to start high school and a much older woman who might have been her grandmother.  The girl said she was interested in taking French.  The older woman warned her, “Oh, they don’t teach you the kind of French that they speak in France. When you go over to France and speak French the way they teach you in high school, the people just laugh at you.” 

Funny English

Native speakers of English are usually very patient with people from other countries who do not speak English well, but they enjoy a good laugh once in a while at the way non-native speakers mess up the language.  A number of collections of these gaffes exist.  Here are a few from Richard Lederer’s Anguished English:

A sign in a Swiss hotel read: “Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in the bedroom, it is suggested that the lobby be used for this purpose.”

A Tokyo bar offered “Special cocktails for ladies with nuts.”

In a Finnish washroom a sign explained, “To stop the drip, turn cock to right.”

And a Parisian dress shop offered “Dresses for street walking.”

On the one hand these are very funny.  On the other hand they show how difficult it is to learn English as a foreign language.[1]  The poor Japanese who wrote the line for the Tokyo bar was obviously unaware that the word “nuts” is not only used to refer to things like almonds and pecans but also to testicles.  The teachers of English in the Japanese schools which he attended probably never taught him that lesson in any of his many long years of study of the English tongue.  The writer of the sign for the Parisian dress shop did not understand that “walking along the street” means something quite different from “streetwalking” which means looking for customers on the street for prostitution.

Claude Piron has discussed this terrible difficulty of English as a foreign language in his book about the language problem, Le défi des langues.  He presents a number of examples, similar to those of Lederer, not from the point of view of an American or an Englishman having fun with a foreigner’s inadvertent howlers, but from the point of view of the foreign student who has studied English diligently for many years and who comes up with what seems to be a perfectly sensible sentence in accordance with the rules of the language but who suddenly finds native speakers of English laughing at him.  The particular group of words which he put together happened to have a special meaning which he did not intend at all.

In one of his examples Piron refers to the sign in English at an airport in Moscow that read, “If this is your first visit to Russia, you are welcome to it.”  The writer of the sign intended a warm greeting.  He did not realize that while the phrase “you are welcome” is warm and friendly, if you add the word “to it” you come up with a phrase which is sarcastic and derogatory.

Another of Piron’s examples is about a sign in a Norwegian bar which said in English, with great politeness, “Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar.”  The writer of that sign knew that “to have” means “to possess.”  He was not aware that in the phrase “to have a child” the two words “to have” have quite a different meaning.  There, as every native speaker of English knows, the two words mean “to give birth.”

In a speech given in Paris Piron referred to the unpleasant experience of a woman minister of the Danish government who remarked, “I’m at the beginning of my period.”  Native English speakers broke out laughing because she seemed to be talking about her menstrual period.  She had in fact been referring to the period of years for which she had been chosen to serve her country.

It is very difficult to feel comfortable speaking or writing a language when you have to be continuously on guard lest your most commonplace utterance provoke raucous laughter. English, the world’s most widely used international language today, is filled with linguistic traps because of its vast number of idiomatic expressions.  The same is true of French.

French Idioms

As a student of French I have a number of collections of French idioms such as Denoeu’s 2001 French and English Idioms and Hérail and Lovatt’s Dictionary of Modern Colloquial French.  In the latter book I learn that the French word cuisine, which I know ordinarily refers to cooking, has the idiomatic meanings of “underhanded scheming”, “falsifying of accounts”, “tricks of the trade” and, in one expression, “making a racket.”  There are related English idioms for some of these meanings such as “they cooked up a plot to get rid of the boss” or “they cooked the books.”  I also learn that gendarme, which I thought only meant a kind of police officer, also means “a bossy woman”, “smoked herring” and “excrement.”

As a reasonably diligent student of French over a period of more than fifty years, I was completely unaware of these meanings.  The average Frenchman, I am sure, is not.  If someone says that they enjoy having “gendarme” for lunch, he will know that they are talking about a kind of fish.  And if someone says that during a long hike they had to walk off the road and go into the woods to plant a “gendarme” he will not think of a secret burial of a police officer.

6000 Hours a Year

When you learn a language to use every day for the rest of your life, such as your native language or the language of a country you have moved to, it makes sense to take the time to learn all of these special meanings of words and expressions so that you do not wind up saying something stupid.  In learning your native language you pick up an enormous number of idiomatic expressions automatically because you normally use that language every day of the year during sixteen waking hours as well as your hours spent dreaming in it at night.  The daytime use alone works out to nearly 6000 hours a year or, in twenty years, some 120,000 hours.  During this time you are constantly practicing your native language.  You think in it, read in it, speak in it, hear it, and you are constantly updating and perfecting your knowledge of all of its distinctive features.

Most people use an international language only occasionally, when they travel, when they read something in it, when they correspond with someone in another country, when they encounter a visitor from another country.  They may go days or weeks at a time without using it.  But when they have occasion to use it again, they want it to be there.  They do not want it to be so complicated that it is very easy to forget.

Some years ago I spoke with a woman from Yugoslavia who was studying in the United States.  She had been an Esperantist far longer than I had.  I asked her about her ability in Esperanto and how easy it was for her to speak it.  She said that when she attended an international Esperanto convention after a long layoff, her Esperanto was somewhat rusty at first but by the second day she was perfectly fluent again.

If a person has learned Esperanto well and has not merely dabbled in it, the language will come back fairly quickly after a layoff.  If it is practiced for just ten minutes a day, full proficiency will be retained.  One of the reasons for this is that students who have learned Esperanto can speak it with confidence.  They do not have to be afraid that when they put ordinary words together such as “welcome”, “to” and “it” they will be saying something laughable.  In Esperanto words retain their ordinary meanings.  The language is almost completely free from idiomatic phrases.  All of the phrases that have a special, idiomatic meaning in Esperanto can fit on an index card.

Some have argued that this lack of colorful idioms is a shortcoming of the language.  However, it saves hundreds or even thousands of hours of study.  Just as Esperanto gets along perfectly well without a complex system of expressing the concept of you and without a wealth of irregular verbs and without a rich variety of ways of spelling its twenty-eight sounds, so Esperanto gets along perfectly well without the many thousands of idiomatic expressions which abound in other languages.  A great wealth of idioms is appropriate for a language which its speakers use 6000 hours every year.  After all, the speakers are constantly practicing them. This abundance of idioms would be a powerful impediment to communication in a language that is learned for occasional use between speakers of different native tongues 

Many Englishes — Many Germans

There is another problem with learning the idioms of the English language, and that is that the idioms are often very different in different kinds of English.  The foreign student who learns Standard American English will run into difficulties when visiting Britain, and the foreign student who learns Standard British English will run into difficulties when visiting the United States.  One way to deal with this problem is to get a good British/American dictionary such as the British/American Language Dictionary of Norman Moss.  There the foreign student of English learns that pecker means “courage” in Standard British English but “penis” in Standard American English.  In Britain foreign students may properly say “Keep your pecker up” but they should be very careful not to repeat this British idiom in America.  As a house guest in Britain a woman may politely ask her hosts “Please knock me up in the morning” but she should be careful not to say this in America where, instead of meaning “to wake someone” to knock up means to get someone pregnant.

These are only two amusing examples of the differences between the two standard forms of English.  When you think of all of the other forms of English — Cockney, Appalachian, Jamaican, Papuan and so on — knowing one of the two forms of Standard English may not be enough for effective communication everywhere in the English-speaking world.

For example, a French woman who had studied English for years was able to communicate fairly well in London.  However, when she found herself in villages far from London, she could not understand what people were saying.  An American spent a week in Scotland where his wife had some business.  The Scottish people whom he met understood him perfectly well.  After all, they had heard Standard American English on shows like “Dallas” on the telly and they had seen lots of American films in their local cinema.  Unfortunately the American had not watched a lot of Scottish dramas on TV and he had not seen a lot of Scottish movies, and so he could not understand what they were saying.  If everyone in the world had studied Esperanto for just a year or so, the American could have switched to Esperanto and they all would have understood each other perfectly well.

One rather curious advantage of the use of Esperanto by individuals who speak different variants of the same language is indicated by William Auld, a Scotsman who is a leading poet, editor and translator.  Auld describes a long friendship he has enjoyed with an American Esperantist.  Through the years whenever they have met they have conversed in Esperanto. They have spoken with each other in a common language which they speak in the same way. Because they speak English quite differently, Auld believes that their friendship would not have developed so deeply had their communication been in the different native dialects.  When an American hears English spoken with a Scottish accent or when a Scotsman hears English spoken with an American accent, associations immediately come to mind, perhaps on a half-unconscious level.  Sometimes they lead to pre-judgments.  All of that is avoided when individuals converse in an international language that does not have different national dialects.

Just as there are many different Englishes which are spoken so there are many different Germans which are spoken.  The vast majority of the Swiss are native speakers of German, but they have their own German dialect.  Most of the time they speak a Swiss German that is completely unintelligible to students who have thoroughly mastered High German, the standard form of the language that is taught in foreign universities.  A similar situation exists in many parts of Germany.  On formal occasions and when they are speaking with people from other German-speaking areas the Swiss will speak High German.

A huge advantage of Esperanto as an international language is that you will not find dozens and hundreds of different local Esperantos.  People may speak the language well or poorly but they do not speak in many different dialects nor do they use large numbers of bewildering idioms. This is because Esperanto is constantly and almost exclusively being used for international communication and so any tendencies towards dialectization are met with incomprehension and are abandoned.  Something similar occurs when someone introduces an idiom, usually a word-for-word translation from their national language.

The Problem of Idioms

An idiom is an expression in a language which cannot be understood even though you know the meaning of each individual word in the language.  The English expression “It’s raining cats and dogs” is an example of an idiom.  Foreigners who have carefully studied English and who know the correct meaning of each word in this little sentence, unless they have learned the special idiomatic meaning of the sentence, will only be puzzled by it.  This kind of thing happens all the time in national languages.  It is almost unheard of in Esperanto. One of my favorite French idioms is “Il m’a posé un lapin.”  Here are the meanings of the individual words:
Il = He
m’ = to me
a = has
posé = put
un = a
lapin = rabbit
This little sentence has no more to do with a rabbit than the English sentence “It’s raining cats and dogs” has to do with cats and dogs.  It is the exact equivalent of the English sentence, “He stood me up.”  It means that he had agreed to meet me and he deliberately did not show up. The English sentence “He stood me up” is also an idiom.  It has nothing to do with taking a person who is sitting or lying down and causing them to stand up. English is filled with little phrases that take a perfectly common verb and then add a preposition to create an entirely new meaning for the verb.  Some examples are “she let me down”, “he turns me off”, “she runs around a lot” and “I won’t put up with it any more.”  Such phrases are the bane of foreign students of English.

Confusing Prepositions

Let us make up a little example to show how confusing the idiomatic use of prepositions can be.  These examples come from English but they could just as easily come from any one of a large number of unplanned languages.

Imagine that someone who knows a little English is visiting an American who meets him in New York.  They travel together.  At first they go by plane to Toronto.  The American tells his friend, “We have to hurry up now.  It’s almost time to get on the plane.”

From Toronto they travel to the city of Windsor by train.  When they leave Toronto the American says, “Let’s get on the train.”

From Windsor they make their way to Detroit where they travel to a suburb by bus.  The American says, “Let’s get on the bus.”

In the Detroit suburb they are met by some relatives of the Americans in a car.  After they chat a little bit, it’s time to go.  The foreigner decides to take the bull by the horns and try out the new English expression which he has learned.  He proudly says, “OK, now, let’s get on the car.”

He learns in a hurry that while it is very good idiomatic English to say “Let’s get on the plane” and “Let’s get on the train” and “Let’s get on the bus” the sentence “Let’s get on the car” does not have an idiomatic meaning, only the literal meaning of climbing on top of the vehicle, something which he did not intend at all.

Here are some other sentences involving prepositions, few of which will make sense to the foreign student who has not learned them specifically:


I feel under the weather.

A strange feeling came over me.

He can’t get over her.

I’m not into that kind of thing.

I was relieved when he finally came to.

You’re putting me on!

She really ran him down, right in front of the kids.

I ran into him the other day in the mall.

He runs off at the mouth.

Run through that again for me.

He ran up a big bill.

He worked up a good sweat.

He chatted her up.

Why shouldn’t it be “A strange feeling came into me” or “A strange feeling came at me”?  Well, the language just is not that way and so each of these usages must be learned individually. Foreign students have to learn each of these usages individually and that demands enormous amounts of time.  Worse yet, even when foreign students learn thousands of such idioms unless they can practice the language continuously they will soon forget them.

Some of these idiomatic expressions are specific to certain dialects of English.  For instance, the last one, “He chatted her up”, is nonsense in Standard American English.  In Standard British English it means to talk with someone in a flirtatious or seductive way.  “To go up” in British English, but not in American English, means to enter a university.  American politicians run for office while British politicians stand for office.

The average foreign student of English never becomes really comfortable in the language. Foreign speakers who use English only from time to time as an international tongue have to speak slowly and deliberately and search for words.  The words never come rapidly and automatically, as they do in their native tongues, as they do in English to the native speaker of English.  Foreign speakers always have to be on the lookout so that they do not fall into one of the tens of thousands of nasty little traps of the language.

The student of Esperanto does not face this kind of problem.  If students spend a few hundred hours seriously studying the language and not thousands of hours, they can become fluent in it and speak it well and not have to worry about idioms tripping them up.

[1] Native speakers of English do not need explanations of these examples.  Explanations are provided primarily for readers who learned English as a foreign language.
Chapter 11  Word Formation in Esperanto