Why do the same expressions exist in multiple languages?

Photo: Getty Images

By Alexia Underwood

An Arabic professor of mine at Berkeley, who was famous for his offbeat sense of humor and extensive knowledge of languages like Aramaic, Sumerian and Ugaritic, loved to talk about the difficulty of learning — really learning — a foreign language. “The first 10 years are the hardest,” he would often say. Students usually responded with laughter. But he wasn’t exaggerating.

As any second-language learner will tell you, idioms are the toughest nuts to crack. Attempts to translate English phrases like “I’ve got time to kill” or “he kicked the bucket” directly into another language just don’t work, and may be met with blank (or sympathetic, or potentially enraged) looks.

The Oxford English Dictionary (third edition) defines “idiom” in a few different ways: It’s an expression, phrase or grammatical construction that’s used in a distinctive way, but it often applies to a group of words that have an established meaning together that’s different than the individual words on their own. For example, English speakers understand that the idiom “he’s playing with fire” means he’s doing something dangerous.

Most people would say that idioms add character and zest to language. In English alone, we reportedly have over 25,000.

But as with anything, they can become victims of overuse. George Orwell took a dim view of this type of language, writing in his essay Politics and the English Language that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms…”

Still, understanding the casual idiomatic phrase in another language goes a long way; in Egyptian Arabic, saying “his tongue is long”(lisanu ṭawil / لسانه طويل) means that you think someone is rude, while saying that a woman is “like the moon” (zay el ’amr/زي القمر) means you think she’s beautiful. There would be no end to the confusion if you attempted to translate literally the pictures we create with words.

And that’s why it’s all the more surprising when you stumble across the odd, translatable phrase. The English idiom “in the same boat,” doesn’t mean that we’re actually in the same sailing vessel, but that we’re in a similar situation. It also translates word for word into Arabic (fi nafs al-markab / في نفس المركب) with meaning intact. (Another way to say this in colloquial Egyptian is “we’re in the same air” (ehna fil hawa sawa / احنا في الهوا سوا). It’s a snippet of a phrase, barely noticeable, unless you’re intently focused on learning the language, deconstructing it and then laboriously building new sentences from the ground up.

As I continued on my course of language study, I came across shared proverbs or sayings as well. The English phrase “out of sight, out of mind,” often used to indicate that someone has forgotten about a thing or loved one, had an equivalent in Arabic: “what’s far from the eye is far from the heart” (al-bʿaīd ʿan al-ʿayn bʿaīd ʿan al-qalb / البعيد عن العين بعيد عن القلب). “Love is blind” has an equivalent as well (at least in the Egyptian dialect of Arabic) — “the mirror of love is blind” (mirayat el-ḥub ʿamiya / مراية الحب عامية).

It turns out that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of idiomatic phrases that are shared across multiple languages.

Image from an edition of Kalīlah wa Dimnah, circa 1210, via Wikimedia Commons.

Elisabeth Piirainen, a German linguist and scholar, calls them “Widespread Idioms,” or WIs. According to her research, the phrase “to get on someone’s nerves” exists in no less than 57 European languages; to “live in/be in an ivory tower” exists in at least 35 European languages and others — and to “shed crocodile tears” occurs in 45 European languages, but also Arabic, Swahili, Persian, various Indian languages, Chinese, Mongolian and more.

How do we account for this?

Some linguists have put forth a theory of “spontaneous metaphorization” — that the human experience makes us naturally hardwired to turn real-life encounters and situations into the same literal constructions across cultures, continents and languages. (This can also be called polygenesis.)

Others chalk it up to a shared ancestral language.

Yet another theory argues that shared idioms owe their existence to calques, or loan translations, or when a speaker of one language takes a phrase from another and translates it literally. (An example would be the English “flea market,” which came from the French marché aux puces.)

Pirrainen, whose book Widespread Idioms in Europe and Beyond is one of the most comprehensive research studies to date, writes that these shared phrases are most likely due to a combination of factors, but says that “common narrative traditions” are responsible for at least half of her identified list.

Case in point: “To shed crocodile tears,” which means to insincerely express emotion about something, appears in the Panchatantra, a collection of animal fables that appeared in Sanskrit in the third century but is based on narrative tales that are actually far older. (Arabic readers would recognize some of the stories from the collection of animal tales Kalīlah wa Dimnah; and for readers of English, some of the stories share a strong similarity with Aesop’s Fables.)

She also points out that educated elites corresponding in a shared language like Latin probably increased the spread of idioms as well, at least for European languages.

Image from an illustrated Syrian version of Kalīlah wa Dimnah, circa 1354, via Wikimedia Commons.

Theories aside, I don’t know if there’s a phrase to express my delight upon learning that these shared fragments of language exist. As I traverse a seemingly endless ocean of new vocabulary, it’s like sighting a bit of familiar land that tells me that I’m not in such foreign territory after all.