How do Germans say it?

Published 18th June 2013
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After reading my colleague’s blog on everyday phrases which are part of the history of the English language, I simply had to add my two pennies’ worth!

When we speak a language, we often don’t consciously reflect on what we say. Speech comes naturally to us. It has been learnt and we instinctively select appropriate terms and phrases in a manner which results in a grammatically coherent utterance. It is often not until we embark on the experience of learning a new language that we begin to look more closely at our own language. Using one to aid the understanding of the other. How is something said in German or Spanish, or whichever language it is that you are learning? Is it said in the same way? Can I say something verbatim? Obviously between, for example, Germanic or Romance languages there are many similarities, however the wonderful nature of languages never makes learning it a dull journey!

When thinking of why we say what we do, I always find phrases and idioms so interesting to consider. Under normal circumstances I would never advocate translating literally from one language into another, especially in the case of idioms! However to not, would be to deny yourself such linguistic enjoyment! If I consider German idiomatic phrases, there are certain ones, which immediately jump out at me and these often appear in my family’s Denglish-speak!

If you wish to say in German that you are confused, it is very likely that you will hear ‘Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof’. A literal translation, even a Google translation (I just tried it!) would be ‘I only understand train station’. I’m guessing that the actual meaning of being confused would be more fitting for the receiver of such a statement if they heard this version! One origin of this phrase has been attributed to exhausted soldiers returning from their duty in WW1, to whom the train station symbolised their return home – unable to think of anything but the train station.

When exclaiming that someone has been lucky, a German would most certainly utter the words ‘Du hast Schwein gehabt!’ literally meaning ‘You had a pig!’ Definitely no literal equivalent in English for this porky idiom! Its origin has been attributed to a phrase harking back to the Middle Ages, when the loser in sporting competitions would receive a pig as a consolation prize, thereby receiving ‘a prize’ without earning it.

Last but not least and remaining with the animal theme is ‘Hast du einen Vogel?’. Correct translation: ‘Are you crazy?’ Literal translation: ‘Do you have a bird (in the head)?’ Most German speakers would complement this phrase with a vigorous tapping of their temple with their index finger. No doubt a favourite road rage gesticulation frequently seen on the Autobahn! It was believed that people suffering from mental illness had small animals or birds nesting in their head – so the folklore goes.

Aren’t languages fascinating! But be warned, literally translating idioms into another language is an activity best kept for personal enjoyment, do not attempt this in the workplace!

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