Saturday, 27 September 2014

English as She is Writ

When one looks at a language from outside one notices the sheer oddity of some of its words, and especially its idioms. One can’t really do this if one only has one language; one can’t ‘get outside’ it because our very thoughts are linguistic. Even our unconscious, if we are to believe Freud as re-interpreted by Lacan, is linguistic. But if one knows a second language well enough to think and even dream in it, then the strangeness of one’s first language is thrown into relief.

I am reading the Harry Potter books with a Greek girl; ostensibly to help with her English but mainly for our pleasure. She already knows enough to pick up many of Ms Rowling’s grammatical infelicities, but there’s a lot I have to explain. Magical terms, for instance. After I had spent some minutes explaining what a troll is, with much reference to bridges, the Billy Goats Gruff, and Norwegian Folklore, Anastasia fluttered her eyelashes and said ‘But surely there are no such things?’ and I had to remind her we were in Hogwarts. Specifically, in the girl’s toilets where Hermione was being terrorised by said troll, so a little later I had to explain, in Greek, what a Bogey is. I was interested to note that the word(?) ‘Eurrgh!’ is, it seems, international.

Greeks find it hilarious that the English say it’s raining ‘Cats and Dogs’. It is one of the few examples of Greeks being closer to reality than the English that they say it’s raining ‘Chair-legs’. All languages have strange idioms of course, but I hope I won’t have occasion to explain the difference between a ‘Dog’s Breakfast’ as in ‘You’ve made a right dog’s breakfast of that’ and a ‘Dog’s Dinner’ as in ‘She was done up like a dog’s dinner’.

Here are some dogs waiting for me to get their dinner:

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