Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Pizza Porridge, Please

So, I’m in the Netherlands, and I’m trying to learn Dutch. It’s not an easy language, but it does have those little threads of enchantment that keep you hanging on. One is the idioms. Dutch is rife with them. I often have to stop a conversation to say, “Okay, I was following you until the monkey came into it.” But then that’s because here when one says, “Kwam de aap toch uit de mouw,” (the monkey came out of the sleeve), they’re not talking about an actual monkey. They’re saying, “Ah, the truth has come out.”

Some of their idioms are similar to ours, and I can deduce their meaning easily. Het paard achter de wagen spannen. The horse stands behind the cart. While our sayings tend to be phrased as cautionary advice (we wag a finger and say, “Don’t put the cart before the horse”), the Dutch tend to simply observe that the horse is in the wrong place. And while we may know our own idioms, we rarely use them in daily speech. They’re things our grandmothers might say. Not so in Dutch, where idioms are an active part of the modern language.

Here are some of my other favorites:
Hij is met zijn neus in the boter gevallen. He fell with his nose in the butter. Meaning, he fell into the right place; he was lucky.

Zij zetten the bloemetjes biuten. They set the flowers out. Meaning, they’re partying.

Daar kun je naar fluiten! You can whistle after it. Meaning, it’s gone (often used about money).

Het staat als een paal boven water. It stands like a pole out of water. Meaning, it's obvious.

Daar lust ik wel pap van. I’d like to make porridge out of that. Meaning, I suppose, that something is so good you just want to mash it up and eat it.

I asked my husband, “So can you say that about anything you really like?”

“Yeah,” he said, “you could say that about pizza if it was really good.”

“Yuck, pizza porridge.”

"It's an expression," says my husband. "Nobody thinks about what it literally means."

Except us foreigners, that is, who keep wondering how these Dutch can eat such disgusting porridge and why so many people are pleased to have butter on their noses.


Michelle said...

My mom teaches English as a second language to adults, and I've thought about idioms and odd words in our language too. I went with her once to a county fair on a field trip, and looking around the food stalls, I wondered what the foreigners thought. "You did talk to them about the food, right?" I asked. She hadn't. I wondered about all those students befuddled about chili dogs, elephant ears and cotton candy.

Sarah said...

I loved this post, Lisa! You learn so much about a culture from its idioms. I was in the Curry library last year and saw a book about idioms of American Sign Language. I so wanted to get it, but it was in Reference and I had to run.

I should look that up...

Alison said...

Which brings me back to my friend Lars the exchange student from Sweden. Someone called him Babycakes and he started calling her Adult Pie.

Funny how we can't see in our own language that which is confusing and makes no sense to others.

I think that is true for culture in general, we can pick on and judge other people's customs and religions etc because we are seeign it as an outsider. We don't see those things in our culture.

We should at least try to understand how it could be that someone from another culture would see it differently. And therefore remember that there is always more than one way to look at something, even if we don't see that at first.

I guess in the Netherlands they have butter on their noses while here in the USA we have bloody noses from having our noses to the grindstone....

Alison said...

I am a volunteer reader for Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic.

I never know what I will be asked to read.

Recently I was reading a book of American customs written for new immigrants to the USA. Wow, it was interesting to see what is normal or obvious to us written as if it is a strange custom somene needs to be counselled about.

For example, you can be early for a doctor's appointment but not late. You can be late to a party but not early. Etc.