Idioms and Economy of Language

I was talking with a co-worker about my limited facility with Japanese and my interest in improving my facility with that language. During the course of our conversation, she mentioned a fascinating aspect of Japanese for expressing certain idioms or proverbs. That’s were I learned about yoji-jukugo (四字熟語), which are idiomatic expressions made up of four kanji characters. These idioms are written only in kanji only and have no kana between them.

One such example would be the Japanese equivalent of the idiom, “two birds with one stone.” This is rendered as isseki nichou (一石二鳥) (literally, “one stone, two birds”). There are many more yoji-jukugo, many of which have similar versions in English (and many other languages besides).

The Chinese equivalent from which yoji-jukugo originate are called chengyu (成语). The same idiom above has a similar chengyu that translates as, “two birds, one arrow” (yī jiàn shuāng diāo, written 一箭双雕). Another one I like is sān rén chéng hǔ (三人成虎) (literally, “three men make a tiger“), which refers to how a repeated rumor may be erroneously accepted as truth.

There are lots of examples of these idioms including a chengyu of the day. You learn something new every day.

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Language Impressions

Today I read an interesting perspective on Dutch language, particularly the rather unique ‘ij’ sound in that language. But more than that, it’s a poetic take on the way language seems to feel. (via Snarkmarket)

“There’s something slightly disturbing about the visual scan of the language (I don’t even know what the term is for that: you know when you see a page, or a sign, written in a language and you have an immediate impression of the content of the text? This works also in your native language: look at a page from, like, Dickens, and you can sort of get the Shudder of the Text, or whatever, anyway, what I mean is that some languages, like French, always seem to bear a melismatic philosophy behind the page; German, an authority, Amharic, a crooked delight…) … with Dutch what I get is a sort of childlike pornography: hoog, sneeuwt, poesje, standplaats. But I’m obsessed with it: there’s nothing better than having an old school diagraph still kicking around like an appendix.”

I like the word melismatic in this context, as though the words on the page were the notes and the meaning of the page was the word or melisma. It’s a new one on me even though I subscribe to A.Word.A.Day and occasionally test my vocabulary at FreeRice.

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