Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Maya eating oatmeal for the first time yesterday
When I first arrived in Italy, I had horrible heartburn. I had gobbled up my 6 week rations of Rolaids quickly. Someone lent me some Prilosec but I was going to need some of my own. After a few days, I finally got a ride to the next town (Castelvecchio) where there was a farmacia. I had less than a weeks' Italian under my belt. I was hoping the farmacista spoke English, which he did not. They have the power to write prescriptions. I brought my Italian-American roommate with me for help. I did not know the word for heartburn. My strategy was to repeat American names for heartburn remedies until he got the hint. It would have been useful if I knew the generic names but I didn't. My roommate told him I had agita. Now I knew that word from watching The Sopranos. Everyone was always giving Tony agita, which from the context seemed to mean severe aggravation. I was afraid the farmacista would think I had some mood disorder. No ho agita! Well it turned out that agita in Italian-American does mean heartburn. When Americans are annoyed with a person or a situation, they say they are having a headache; Italian-Americans say they are having heartburn. But the farmacista was Italian, not Italian-American. It is not clear if he knew IA slang. In my huge Italian dictionary I got from the company when they were getting rid of all their real books (to be replaced by virtual books which take up less space), there is no such word as 'agita'. Heartburn is 'bruciore di stomaco'. I did get a drug in the end, which wasn't as effective as Prilosec, but it made my stay much more pleasant.

English is a difficult language to learn in part because there are just so many words. But sometimes one word means so much else: like the word hot. Hot can mean opposite of cold, spicy, attractive, stolen or popular depending on the context. If you feel not so hot, you mean you are getting sick. A co-worker liked to grow unusual vegetables and share them with us. He had some peppers that looked like normal green bell peppers but were very 'spicy'. He gave out samples cautioning that they were hot. To a German exchange worker, he added helpfully the word "heiß". But heiß does not mean spicy and the German took a big bite and needed lots of water.

In Germany, I struggled to find the words for 'free water' meaning water I didn't have to pay for. I knew the word 'frei' from Arbeit macht frei but I wasn't sure it had the same double  meaning. The 200 ml of water ended up costing 7 euros. 500 ml of beer at the same place was 1 euro.

In general, if you want to communicate effectively with non-American English speakers, idioms should be kept to a minimum. Asking them How do they like them apples? is confusing if there are no apples on the table.

My friend in CA has lots of foreign born students who communicate with her via e-mail. One was asking per usual whether he would need to know this and this for an up-coming test (wouldn't want to study anything more than necessary). She replied
You betcha!
Now if this exchange was in person, he could see the smile on her face but from the e-mail, he thought she was calling him a 'bitch' and was very insulted. He thought she was very angry with him even though he had asked a question politely.
And of course there are British idioms vs American ones with the hotel clerk in Canterbury, England asking me how would I like to be knocked-up in the morning?

No comments:


Blog Archive