|from the May 14, 2004 edition -
twists and turns of new phrases By Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
One of the most
frustrating aspects of having inadequate skills in a new language is
losing the use of idioms. I miss them almost as if they were boring
but cherished longtime companions who have gone away.
I admit that I didn't say "it's raining cats
and dogs," for example, all that often back in southern California.
But the idiom's familiar presence was always hovering in the
background, available. Coming in out of a downpour here in southern
Italy, however, if I try a literal Italian translation of the saying
I provoke only stares of consternation. To express the same idea in
idiomatic Italian, I must say instead, "it's raining as if God sent
it." Not bad, really; I like it. It has the gist. But for me, the
nonnative speaker, the saying arrived only yesterday. The
reflexiveness integral to any true idiom may never arrive for
Now approaching the third anniversary of my move here after I
married a native Italian, I can describe my progress toward fluency
in the complex grammar and gradations of this language and its
umpteen dozen dialects as "piano, piano" - to use a popular
expression for our "slowly, step by step." My progress is far too
"piano," in my opinion, but it's certainly better than it was in my
early days here.
I remember just a few months after I arrived when we went to the
birthday party of the young daughter of a friend. I had recently
enrolled in a beginning Italian class at a school in Rome. The class
was four hours a day, four days a week. I was eager to test my
progress, though it was meager.
When the pretty little birthday girl dutifully presented herself
for introduction, politely kissing me on both cheeks, I took a deep
breath and told her my name and asked hers.
A dead pause followed. By the confused look on her face, it was
clear I wasn't speaking any kind of Italian she recognized. My
husband quickly came to the rescue, repeated what to my ears sounded
almost identical to what I had just, said and all was well
It's the pronunciation, of course. Italian, with its fully
sounded vowels and double consonants (also pronounced), is not only
a challenge to American speakers, but also a challenge to our
untrained ears. It's an audio mystery. The double consonant was a
complete surprise to me. We certainly have them in English, but who
bothers? In Italian, it's most important to bother or you'll risk
My own minor calamity occurred while I sent my soon-to-be husband
an e-mail for New Year's soon after we met. I intended to wish him a
Happy New Year using the Italian expression " Buon Anno!"
after consulting with an American friend who knew some Italian
phrases, I carelessly ignored my recently purchased bilingual
dictionary, glowingly typed " Buon Ano!" and hit the "send"
button. Only afterward did I learn that my friend had neglected the
double consonant in her pronunciation and that I had sent greetings
to my beloved for a "happy bottom"!
This pronunciation dilemma is a two-way street. The complaint I
hear most frequently from the many Italians I meet who have spent
years in school studying English is the impossibility of their
understanding anything Americans say when we speak to them.
This is true for all languages to some extent, of course. But
from what I hear, the offense is especially egregious in
American-style English. We engage in a kind of mushing when we
enunciate. More accurately, we don't enunciate, which eliminates
intelligibility for the nonnative speaker. This is especially true
for an Italian, accustomed as he is to a more musical rhythm in
How disappointed my husband was one day when he pointed to a
roadside area near our home and said "Aye you ka leap toose" and I
stared at him blankly. I neither recognized the word "eucalyptus"
nor the trees lining the roadway.
Returning to the lost idioms: Although I do mildly mourn their
absence, I enjoy discovering the variety in this linguistic area.
Sometimes comparable idioms are similar, with perhaps only a change
in body part separating them. For example, where we say, "you're
pulling my leg," the Italians say, "you're pulling my nose." And
instead of "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it," the
Italians admonish "not to bandage one's head before breaking
For anyone who loves language and imagery, though, the real
pleasure occurs when the idiom expresses the same idea but
structures the concept in a different way. Take the Italian version
of our cryptic "looks count." Choosing personification and lending
more majesty to the expression, the Italians say " vero è che
l'occhio vuole la sua parte," translated literally, "it is true
that the eye wants its share."
Learning a second language to the level of fluency is, for me,
sheer hard work. But I'm not such a nincompoop that I don't
appreciate the privilege of the task and its benefits. It gives me a
greatly expanded view and experience of language, its origins and
structure. It also helps me see my own language in a fresh light and
with greater appreciation.
Observing the reactions of some Italian friends recently after I
told them the "cats and dogs" idiom - and watching as they laughed
and mimed to each other the incomprehensible experience of being
pelted by cats and dogs falling from the sky - brought the saying to
life for me for the first time. I still can't use it here and be
understood, but then nothing's perfect.
Or, as the Italians say, " la perfezione non è di questo
mondo" - perfection is not of this world. There's that Italian