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June 12th, 2013

Linguistically Mistaking Phrases

I've been back from my vacation and the Preserving Software summit at the Library of Congress for more than a week now, but still haven't blogged about anything, and I recently didn't blog too much at all, mostly because I always fear it takes up too much time. In the last few days, I decided I'll do shorter posts but do them more often, so I hopefully get to communicate more of what's going around in my head (thoughts on that summit will follow as well when I get around to them). Here's the first installment of this, let's see how it goes.

I just listened to a "Fireside Chat" (sorry, only available to Mozillians) with Brendan Eich, conducted by Pascal Finette. One thing that did strike me there was the use of two phrases, by each of them, and their chances of being mistaken from the point of view of English/German crossover.

Pascal, a native German (his accent gives that away as well), is using "a couple" (e.g. "of times", etc.) in many questions in this interview. Now, the interesting thing there is that in German, we're using "ein paar" (which literally translates to "a couple") a lot, usually meaning "an undetermined amount larger than one but smaller than 'a lot'". We are very tempted to use this the same way in English, as it comes very naturally to us - but in US English, I notice that "a couple" usually means "(more or less) exactly two", so when we mean "some probably between 4 and 7 times", we may end up saying "a couple times" and the US English native speaker understands "twice". Oops. We better had said "a few times". I learned this in detail when I requested to stay "a couple weeks" in the office around a work week and thought there would be later discussion of how many weeks exactly, when the other side was "OK, he wants two weeks, he'll get two weeks". Note that in German there is "ein Paar" (different capitalization) which means the same as "a couple", but in most cases we just say "zwei"/"two" so it can't be mistaken.

On the other side, Brendan starts the reply to some questions with "that's a good question" - which, as I learned over the years, is a usual phrase to compliment the person the question came from and say that this is an important issue to ask and talk about. Now, in German, this literally translates to "das ist eine gute Frage" - which we usually say when we recognize that it's an interesting question but we still need to think about this and don't have any really fitting answer, often coming up with one as we go on this. If you're a native German speaker, be aware that English speakers don't usually have that connotation to this phrase, actually they're often happy someone asked this because it's something they have thought about long and hard and have come up with a really good answer for already. If you're not a German speaker, be aware that those who are might understand it this way and be surprised or take your answer as weaker instead of stronger as you intended.


I'm sure there's tons of other misunderstandings between phrases in different languages for sure, I'm mentioning those two because I heard them in this "chat", it's (the) two languages I know quite well, and they're even in the same language family (in linguistics called "Germanic languages") - and still run into things like that.
I'm always interested about such nuances, if you have any to share, feel free to comment here or blog about them yourself, here in this global Mozilla community, it's always nice to learn from each other! :)

By KaiRo, at 17:41 | Tags: English, German, languages, Mozilla | 8 comments | TrackBack: 0

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