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English Language & Linguistics

English Language


Idioms - English As She Is Spoke

An idiom is a form of words characteristic of a language. greek idiom phrase book
They are most common, though not limited to, colloquial language. So while English uses "tip toes" French uses the idiom "a pas de loup" or, on the feet of a wolf. This does not transliterate precisely into English, it needs to be translated more generally.

Incidentally, let's not forget that translating from one language to another is always an approximation as the cultural meanings of words are rarely the same.

The ability to use idiomatic language is a sign of fluency. Equally, the use of the idioms of one language while attempting to speak another is not only a sign of lack of fluency but a source of humour for the native speaker.

There can be no clearer example of this than the book English As She Is Spoke (1883) by the Portuguese Pedro Carolino, described in a foreword by Mark Twain as

" written in serious good faith and deep earnestness, by an honest and upright idiot who believed he knew something of the English language..."

Wikipedia opines:

"It is widely believed that Carolino could not speak English, and that a French-English dictionary was used to translate an earlier Portuguese-French phrase book"

The result is hilarious incompetent yet understandable "English." It is also worth reminding ourselves that any non-native speaker (and a few who are native) is vulnerable to confusing idioms when attempting another language. We can mock this author only because he pretends to be an English speaker and publishes a phrase book.

A facsimile of the whole book is here and examples from it are given on wikipedia here.

We shall only give a few more examples here :

a take is better than two you have (a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush?)

the dog than bark not bite (the dog that barks does not bite)

he go to four feet (he is crawling / on all fours)

  • Read some examples from the facsimile edition and from those given on wikipedia.
  • Comment linguistically on the non-fluency features, explaining where possible reasons for the error.
  • Give a corrected version and explain and advise the writer how to avoid the error in future.
  • In your view is it more advisable for a non native speaker to learn idioms by rote or to use plain unidiomatic language? What is lost and what is gained by each approach?

Unidiomatic translations into English are not exclusive to 19th century phrase book authors. In the Italian "Guida Delle Aree Interne Del Piceno" written by the Comunita Montana dei Sibillini and provided with précis translated into English, French and German, there are many examples where the translation has taken phrases and sentence structure too literally. For example:

  • The bond that the province has developed with this road is the base of regression or progress that followed each other during the various historic phases.
  • Castelluccio rises at the centre of a great depression surrounded by reliefs that touch abundantly two thousand metres.
  • The Marche, a region characterised prevalently by a hill orthography and consequently by a toilsome agriculture, (but not however coarse), by a droughty climate in the summer and mild in the winter ...

As these extracts are from a précis only the lengthy original is available in Italian, however it seems likely that the translator reaching for an Italian-English dictionary selected Romance vocabulary rather than Germanic wherever there was a choice.

  • Comment linguistically on the translated version.
  • Give a more natural version and explain and advise the writer how to avoid the error in future.



 See also