The Life of the Linguistically Deficient: Idioms Are a Tough Nut to Crack

02-20-15 - Archer Idiom Meme 1Living in a country whose language you don’t speak can be a bitter pill to swallow, and sometimes it can be hard to carry off. Frankly, languages that you’re not fluent in can be a minefield. That’s why, when speaking our elementary Turkish, or speaking to those whose English isn’t second nature, we’ve got to keep our heads in the game. We don’t want to tick someone off by accident, and since some people can be a bit touchy, we don’t want to put ourselves between a rock and hard place just by letting something slip.

Isn’t amazing how much we rely on idiom?

We are slowly picking up Turkish, although since it’s an immersion experience, the grammar is still entirely hazy. Often I’m just going off of patterns that I’ve seen or constructions that I know have worked, even though I’m not quite sure why you’d have to append that particular suffix to the word. My guess is that we sound like three year olds. We have a three year old niece and nephew, so I have some idea of what we probably sound like. Hence the fact that we rely quite a lot on English, which is thankfully widely spoken. Generally it’s spoken fairly well, but there are some things to look out for.

02-20-15 - Archer Idiom Meme 2The hardest thing for me is avoidance of idioms. I tend to speak more slowly to those whose English I know is a second language, largely because I think about my words much more methodically than I normally do. (Which may be a good habit for me anyway, since I’ve been known to put my foot in my mouth. See! Idiom!) On the other hand, I’m incredibly happy to learn the local idioms, since I find them fascinating. And, like any idiom, they often don’t make much sense at first blush. (Another one!)

My search for idiom began with my search for a reply to the phrase “hoş geldiniz,” which is somewhat formal “welcome!” that you’ll hear upon entering almost any shop. I knew how to say hello in Turkish – “merhaba,” if you’re curious – but it seemed a bit off. Turns out a proper response to hoş geldiniz is “hoş bulduk.” Literally that means something like “we came well” or “we found it well,” or perhaps something more like the phrase “well met” from the “hail fellow, well met” exchange found in older English.

Interested, I kept looking, and I found a few idioms that I really like:

“Adam sen de!” – This means something like “take it easy,” or “don’t worry about it.” Literally though, it means “you’re a man too!”

“Keçileri kaçırmak” – This means something like “to go nuts,” or “to freak out.” Literally it means “to help the goats escape.” I may continue to use this one in English.

“Dağ doğura doğura bir fare doğurmuş” – This one is pretty poetic, actually. It is equivalent to saying something like “what a letdown!” Literally it means “a mountain tried and tried, but gave birth to a mouse.”

These are fun and all, but it doesn’t quite give you a sense of why I’m so cautious when it comes to idiom in my own speech, so let me offer an example. When Turks are offering condolences for something that is going wrong, they might say “geçmiş olsun,” which is used similarly to our “get well soon.” It is a way of saying something like “I hope you can put this behind you quickly.” However, literally it means “may it pass away.”

Now consider what would happen to a Turk in America if he literally translated his idioms:

American: “My dog is very sick, and I’m not sure he’s going to make it.”
Turk: “May it pass away.”

Hopefully that sheds enough light on the subject for you to get a grasp of the heart of the matter. Or something.


  1. Ann Hoedeman · · Reply

    You really let the cat out of the bag regarding Turkish idioms!


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