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The Devil is in the Minimal Pairs

Communicating in any foreign language can be an arduous task, especially when the language you are trying to speak contains phonemes 1 that are absent in your L1 2. This is the case and struggle of Spanish speakers when they learn English, and my dad is no exception…

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These amusing happenstances occur because the devil is in the minimal pairs: two words that have a very similar pronunciation, but differ from one another by one phoneme in the same position in each word:Expat Gone Foreign, linguistics comics, phonetics, IPA, English, phonology, language

Whereas Spanish has one phoneme for <i>, English has a long /iː/ and short /ɪ/ one. No wonder Spanish speakers are confused when they start learning English. This madness would the phonetic equivalent of going to bed with two feet and waking up with four. One needs some practice to figure out how to navigate the world with additional extremities – or extra phonemes one had never had before.

To make matters worse, you will stumble upon words that contain the same graphic vowels, yet each one is pronounced differently:Expat Gone Foreign, linguistics comics, phonetics, IPA, English, phonology, language

But don’t fear, dear language learner! All it takes is a bit of practice, and you can train your ear to the different phonemes of the English language with online resources like this super cool interactive phonemic chart. If you are unsure how one word sounds, look up the pronunciation in dictionaries that include the IPA transcription and sound clips, like WordReference.

In conclusion, I think English learners should get more credit for their Herculean efforts.Expat Gone Foreign, linguistics comics, phonetics, IPA, English, phonology, language

In fact, anyone who stumbles upon words like these ↑ and doesn’t give up, deserves a standing ovation.

Hilarious German Idioms

If you have been learning a foreign language for a while, the following scenario might sound strikingly familiar: you are reading a book or carrying out a conversation, and suddenly a bizarre expression comes up. You know all the words, but their combination doesn’t make any sense.

Well, the good news is that your language skills are solid enough to understand literal meanings. The even better news is that you are ready to move to the next level: the fascinating realm of idioms! 3

Idioms are established word combinations that have a figurative meaning 2. They are vastly used in everyday conversation and rely on language devices 3 to describe something more vividly and paint a more colorful, striking picture. And let’s be honest: some idioms are pretty amusing. Which is why today you are in for a treat: a cartoonized compilation of hilarious German idioms.

Here we go, hold on to your seats!Expat Gone Foreign, language comics, idioms, German, lustige RedwendungenAre you going through a rough patch or a harsh situation? In German, you can use the very visual idiom “I’m sitting in the ink”. Sounds messy, doesn’t it?

Expat Gone Foreign, language comics, idioms, German, Redewendungen, WurstPretty much like Germany cuisine, the repertoire of German idioms is fairly smeared in sausages. “That is sausage to me” conveys in a very colloquial manner that you couldn’t care less about something. Legend has it that this expression originated among butchers, who – uncertain of what to do with slaughtered animal scraps – decided to stuff the low quality leftovers into sausages. This practice gave way to the idiom, which is used nowadays to express that someone doesn’t really know what to do or just doesn’t care.

Expat Gone Foreign, language comics, idioms, German, deutsche Redewendungen

Back in the day of ancient warfare, fearful soldiers took advantage of the ubiquitous swirling dust to flee the battlefield without being noticed. Hence, the idiom “I make myself out of (the) dust” comes in handy when you run away from an unpleasant situation or leave in a hurry without notifying anyone.

Expat Gone Foreign, language comics, idioms, German, alemán, Deutsch

Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up every day without worries, and indulge in daydreaming and life’s little pleasures? Unfortunately, “Life is no sugar-licking”, meaning that life ain’t easy. This idiom is similar to “das Leben ist kein Ponyhof” (lit. Life is not a pony farm). Schade!

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If your German friends refer to a place as “What is this for a juice shop?”, they are not exactly talking about a cute lemonade stand. Quite the contrary, for a Saftladen hints at crummy establishment or dinky joint. That lemonade doesn’t sound as enticing anymore, does it?

Expat Gone Foreign, language comics, idioms, German, Phraseologismen

We all have that one irritating acquaintance who constantly asks for favors or that insufferable boss who keeps piling more tasks on our shoulders. But enough is enough! “The devil I will do” is the German equivalent of “I’ll be damned if I will!” or “when hell freezes over”.

Expat Gone Foreign, language comics, idioms, expresiones fraseológicas

If you find something nonsensical or rubbish, feel free to describe it as “such a cheese”. This idiom is used throughout Germany, but its etymology is unclear. Some suggest that the particular – somewhat stinky – smell of certain cheeses may have given this dairy product the idiomatic connotation that it has today.

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The idiom “(there) you look stupid out of the laundry” implies that someone has a puzzled, surprised or downright dumb facial expression. This idiom seems to date back to the Second World War, during which soldiers who weren’t so bright were tasked with collecting dirty laundry. If you picture the soldiers strolling through large piles of dirty clothes, with their befuddled faces popping out of the mountains of laundry, it’s easy to understand why this idiom is still in vogue today.

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Whenever someone drives you up the wall or exasperates you big time, let them know by saying “you bring me to the palm tree”. Imagine what a great deal of anger and distress someone must feel in order to climb atop a palm tree!

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Last but not least! This is one of the first German idioms that I learnt, and it still makes me chuckle. In German, you are not insane, you just “don’t have all your cups in the cupboard”. There’s no consensus on how this goofy expression originated, but popular belief connects the word Tasse to the Yiddish toshia, which alludes to common sense. Whereas English speakers lose their marbles, crazy Germans are short of cups. Simply genius!

All good things must come to and end, but if you are interested in this topic, let me know and I’ll put together a second batch of idiomatic illustrations. What are your favorite idioms? Do you know hilarious expressions in other languages? Leave a comment and share with your friends.

Auf Wiedersehen!

The Finno-Ugric Enigma

When you arrive in a new country and speak none of its language, you might find yourself in somewhat awkward situations. This is basically what happened to me on my first day in Finland: the Finno-Ugric enigma of non-anthropomorphic signs in restrooms.

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When I first arrived in Finland, “sauna” and “perkele” were the only words of Finnish that I knew. Of course everyone in Finland speaks English, but that didn’t stop me from getting myself into embarrassing situations. Up until then, not knowing the local language hadn’t posed any problems in getting around Europe 4.

I could always resort to the few Romance and Germanic languages that I already spoke to figure out the situation. Lost in an Italian town? Mix Spanish and Latin. Interacting in Denmark or Sweden? Pull out German. To my surprise, the althochdeutsch 2 literature courses really came in handy when deciphering the Morgunblaðið in Iceland.

Finnish however, belongs to the Finno-Ugric linguistic family, along with Estonian and Hungarian. How do you crack a language when there are no similarities or linguistic strings to pull from? I knew all the letters, but their combinations didn’t make any sense to me. How do you navigate life when you can’t even read? I felt almost illiterate, but also genuinely intrigued by the Finno-Ugric enigma. And it was then, in a coffee shop in Turku, that I decided to learn Finnish, the beautiful language of the bazillion cases and insane grammar categories. ♡

What about you? Why did you decide to learn a particular foreign language? Leave me a comment!

If you are into Finnish, check out Poronkusema and the Finnish Linguistic Landscape.

Tú, usted, vosotros

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Tú, usted, vosotros, vos. You, you, you, you. No wonder native English speakers attempting to speak Spanish may want to flip tables. When it comes to delving into a foreign language, the toughest bits to grasp are the ones that your L1 3 conceptualizes in a different manner. In this case, the English pronoun <you> correlates with several variables in Spanish 2. That’s quite the challenge for a native English speaker to comprehend, let alone use correctly in speech. So, when do you use which one? Let the Linguiputians 3 explain:

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Are you talking to your friend or acquaintance? Use . Are there more than one? Use vosotros. Are you addressing your boss, an elderly person, a big fish, or an aristocrat with a monocle wearing a wig? Use the formal and reverential usted 4.

If you are unsure about whether to use tú and usted, pay attention to the people around you and how they address each other. When in doubt, just use usted at all times unless you are talking to a child. Better to be safe than sorry, amirite?

You might be thinking: hold on, if tú has the plural vosotros, what happens if you talk to more than one monocle-enthusiast, wig-wearing aristocrat? I’m glad you asked.

Expat Gone Foreign, tú vosotros usted vos, Spanish, español, language comics, historic linguistics, Latin, español

In this case, we ought to use ustedes, the plural form of usted. In addition, if you address multiple female friends or acquaintances, pick vosotras – as opposed to the plural masculine pronoun vosotros.Expat Gone Foreign, tú vosotros usted vos, Spanish, español, language comics, historic linguistics, Latin, español

“Waaaah! The Linguiputians are making my head hurt!” – I know, too much information. Let’s recap before we move on to the fun part:

Expat Gone Foreign, tú vosotros usted vos, Spanish, español, language comics, historic linguistics, Latin, español

Whereas English is quite happy with its functional and simplistic <you>, Spanish seems to be a master hoarder of personal pronouns. But how did we get here? Well, it all goes back to the original language.

Expat Gone Foreign, tú vosotros usted vos, Spanish, español, language comics, historic linguistics, Latin, español

Latin had two personal pronouns for the second person: <tu> and <vos> 5. The pronoun <tu> worked in the same manner as the modern-day Spanish tú 6, and <vos> had two usages: plural 7 and reverential 8 – pretty much like the current French <vous>. Quaint, uh?

The Castilian folks inherited these two pronouns from Latin, and used them happily throughout the Middle Ages. However, a few things happened to vos. First, having only one word for both “y’all” and “Your Highness” was somewhat ambiguous, so they came up with vosotros (vos + otros) 9 in the 13th century. So, at this point we had:

Expat Gone Foreign, tú vosotros usted vos, Spanish, español, language comics, historic linguistics, Latin, español

Additionally, vos – originally reserved to monarchs and nobles – became an ubiquitous trend. Everyone was tweeting about it: #LinguisticChange, #ImVosToo. Everyone wanted to be a vos. It became so overused among peasants and their family members that, in the 17th century, the pronoun had lost its deferential usage. It was basically a “you” to address your king, lord, trusted blacksmith, spouse, fellow farmer, dad, sister, uncle, lover, cattle and stray dog 10.

Expat Gone Foreign, tú vosotros usted vos, Spanish, español, language comics, historic linguistics, español, Linguiputians

Monarchs and overlords weren’t pleased. They needed to flaunt their power and wanted a linguistic device that separated themselves from their subordinates. That’s when the plebs came up with deferential formulae such as “vuestra reverencia” 11, “vuestra señoría” 12 or “vuestra merced” 13 in order to keep their masters happy.

As it always goes, artifacts we manipulate the most, wear out faster 14. These formulae were not an exception. Their phonetic surface morphed after years of prolonged, recurrent usage. It went down more or less like this:

Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, Uve van Haven, Vos, tú, usted, vosotros, Spanish pronouns, pronombres personales español

Whereas most of these formulae were rendered obsolete, “vuestra merced” turned into usted, the reverential pronoun that made its way to present-day Spanish 15. That’s how Peninsular Spanish ended up with tú, vosotros and usted, and the pronoun family lived happily every after.

Expat Gone Foreign, tú vosotros usted vos, Spanish, español, language comics, historic linguistics, Latin, español

Oh, right. Not only did vos lose its deferential value, but it also became quite derogatory in its final stages, and left to address folks of inferior status. Vos wasn’t cool anymore 16. By the 18th century, it had vanished into thin air.

Expat Gone Foreign, tú vosotros usted vos, Spanish, español, language comics, historic linguistics, Latin, español

Sorry, my bad. Vos was no longer around in the Iberian Peninsula because it had become a globetrotter of sorts. It joined the Spaniards who crossed the Atlantic during the 15th and 16th centuries. But vos didn’t travel around the vast continent all at once, nor did it stick everywhere it went. Some regions embraced it, some leaned towards tú, and some kept both.

And that’s why vos is nowadays alive and kicking in no less than seventeen Latin American countries. Vos is predominant in some regions (e.g. Argentina, Nicaragua), absent in others (e.g. Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico), and some have a the three-tiered system – vos-tú-usted – that reflects the degrees of respect and familiarity (e.g. Honduras, Chile) 17.

And that’s also why – in my opinion – Spanish is one of the richest, most vibrant and fascinating languages on this rich, vibrant and linguistically fascinating planet of ours.

Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, Linguiputians, Vos, tú, usted, vosotros, Spanish pronouns, pronombres personales español