Summertime linguistics

06 Sep 2017


Motivated by the book I am currently reading (Constructing a language by Tomasello), I have initially intended to write about the origins of language and language universals. However, seems like the spirit of summer still lingers over me, so I decided to write about cross-language expressions that can be heard in a bar or on the beach during those hot summer days.

One of my preferred ways to kill time on highways while driving south to reach the Adriatic coast is to guess where people come from based on their licence plates. Arguably, this can be fun for a few minutes, but as soon as the “harder” ones are cracked (LV is Latvia, UA is Ukraine and not United Arab Emirates) this becomes rather repetitive as most tourists come from the same European countries.

A more interesting version of this game is to guess where people come from based on what they said, especially when things they said sound a bit odd. While guessing based on their accent can usually be pretty accurate, in a written language reverse engineering the original language of a sentence or a phrase can be quite a challenge. A tourist looking for an otel is probably looking for a hotel as the letter h is not pronounced in French. Sometimes it is hard to ear those words (to quote my French teacher). A person might appear in a rush when asking “How late is it?” though they are probably just asking for time since “Wie spät ist es?” is a way to do so in German. Also, if someone says that humid weather is making them ready, it probably means that it is making them feel exhausted and tired (i.e. something like done, from German fertig). In such a state (and there were many of those this summer), they might want to move to be under a shadow, which means they are probably looking for a bit of shade (in German that’s the same word: der Schatten).

One of my favorite expressions is: “I only understand train station”. It is a literal translation of the German phrase “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof”, which is used in situations where one has no clue what is going on (e.g., in a conversation). I thought this one might mean something along the lines “I am lost in this city and the only word I know is train station which is where I came from”, but the Internet says it has to do with tired WW1 soldiers who associated train stations with going home, so in that state “train station” was the only word they could/wanted to hear in a conversation.

Although saltery might sound like a valid translation of the Croatian word solana it does have a very different meaning, so a salt factory might be more accurate. Talking about hungry eyes when seeing someone ordering way more food they can eat makes sense in Croatian, but such a phrase can easily confuse English speakers (and apparently is well known to fans of Dirty Dancing, though, in a very different context). Ordering “kava s mlijekom” will get you a coffee with milk in Zagreb, but on the coast people might correct you and ask if you want a “macchiato” (or as locals would write it, makijato) which is an Italian word meaning marked or stained. Finally, Croatian, being a Slavic language, does not have articles so occasionally they might slip from a sentence, such as when I ask my friend to “pass me book”.