Friday, June 14, 2013

Scandinavian language lesson, 1

One of the friends I made on-line, a Filipino nurse in Norway, commented on the seeming illogic of Norwegian idiom here:
The web post invites us to puzzle over the expressions
"tørr bak i øret" , literally "dry behind the ears", but meaning "of advanced years"
"holde i sjakk", literally "keep in check" but meaning to keep under control
"svart i øye", literally "black in the eye", but meaning in a rage
I don't know Norwegian, but perceive the similarities with English, apart of course from the grammar and structure of the words.
English has an expression "wet behind the ears" which means very young, newborn in fact. The reference is to the amniotic fluid that covers newborn puppies, foals, etc. The mother usually licks them "dry" with her tongue, removing all the birth gunk and allowing the clean saliva to dry off naturally. I can see how this expression might have originated in a culture where farming and keeping livestock played a major part. To be "dry behind the ears" would be the opposite. I don't think English has a counterpart to the Norwegian expression, though. Or maybe there is -- in some village in Yorkshire, previously inhabited by Vikings. James Herriot, can you help?
"Holde det i sjakk" doesn't translate to "hold it in chess," as the original post suggests, but to "hold it in check," i.e. to control, which is English, though admittedly so much a part of the language one hardly notices that it is, in fact, idiomatic. I guess "check", "checks" (as in plaids) and "chess" have a similar etymology.
"Svart i øye" could refer to the tendency of the pupil to dilate under intense emotion, causing pale-eyed people (like the original Norwegians) to turn dark-eyed for a moment or two. Reminds me of the English expression "eyes darkened with passion", found in romance novels and the like, and which I often found, to my great amusement, in the work of my creative writing students at the University of the Philippines -- writing about men and women in a contemporary milieu. As most Filipinos have black or brown eyes, I don't think passion would darken them, except figuratively. I like logic in all things.
Language is all about practices and lived reality.
And really, the Scandinavian languages are not as impenetrable as some native speakers would have us believe. Knowing English gives you a key to a few of the locks in the mighty series that keeps Nordic people (oh, okay, to be fair, Danish people, as for the most part my experience is limited to Denmark) secure in their strongholds of exclusivity.
When my husband and I discuss language, it is often a journey of mutual discovery --that an expression in his native Danish has an English counterpart, and vice versa.