Lowlands-L: Beyond the Pale: A border-crossing guide for language learners
Lowlands-L: Beyond the Pale: A border-crossing guide for language learners

False Friends
Words To Avoid
Words to Confuse
Words I Love
Words I Hate
Vive la différence!

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Wee Donald Angus. "Please, Sirr, what time wull it be?" - Literal Gentleman. "When?" Cartoon from Punch (Project Gutenberg eText 16727, Wikimedia Commons) supposedly using Scots but may be supposed to satirize Scottish Highland English, quite likely “Scotch” made up by an English person


Learning another language is a challenge that some people love and other people dread. To some people it is an exciting adventure, to other people a journey into foreign territory where they feel much more insecure, inadequate and vulnerable than at home. Most of them realize that another language comes with another set of culture, history, and ways of seeing, thinking and doing. This may be the most exciting part for some and the most daunting part for others.
“And then you hit the witness with an instrument?” -  “Nah, Mr. Judge. Oy’ve nevvah owned no piano.”
Cartoon by Heinrich Zille (1858–1929) who often used working-class Berlin German to demonstrate social divides (Wikimedia Commons)

In any case, foreign language learning can be likened to venturing into foreign countries. Some people love it and some hate it. I happen to belong to the former type. I remember my first border crossing into a neighboring country when I was a child. I felt disappointed that things were not radically different the moment the border was behind me. But little by little I realized that most things actually were at least a bit different from the way they were at home. Similarly, the language, although closely related to mine, held many surprises. Words that were clearly related in both languages were used differently, had different meanings, and the equivalents of some words that were “bad” at home were perfectly fine here, or it was the other way around.

So I discovered what most other members of Lowlands-L have discovered: learning a language that is closely related to your own or to another language you know well has its own special challenges. Yes, understanding a closely related language comes pretty easily, at least when you read it and understand strange expressions within the context of what you do understand. Speaking and writing it is another matter.

Because the new language seems fairly familiar, we are more tempted to “wing” it, to translate literally from one of the languages to another, oftentimes with incomprehensible, strange, funny or embarrassing results. Why, something you think you said correctly may even violate social etiquette, may be a case “beyond the pale”! This has happened to most of us. If it happens to you, don’t feel discouraged by it! Yes, you have “gone out on a limb” by making up a foreign expression. But if you end up “beyond the pale” you are not likely to end up “in the doghouse.” Most listeners will make allowances for you as a learner of their language, just as they are likely to forgive you for committing a social faux pas in their culture. Nevertheless, it is no fun, and you may say to yourself, “I wish someone had told me.” Well, we have decided to try and tell you within the context of Lowlands languages and their close associates.

This week our long-standing member Jonny Meibohm came up with the bright idea that we share relevant experiences and discoveries with you. And this is why we have started this presentation, in time for our thirteenth anniversary. We hope you will find it both useful and entertaining.

There are the following categories:

· False Friends


These are expressions that are clearly related but have different meanings in different languages.


· Soundalikes


These are expressions that sound alike in different languages but are not related.


· Words To Avoid


Some expressions may be quite all right to use in one languages while their equivalents in other languages are unacceptable.


· Words To Confuse


Some expressions that seem related are not and are easily confused with each other by learners. Other words seem to be used interchangeably but ought not be. There’s usually a method to the madness.


· Words I Love


Some people are in love with certain expressions. In this chapter they will announce their love to the world.


· Words I Hate


Some people detest certain expressions. In this chapter they will have an opportunity to let off some steam.


· Vive la différence!


Some related expressions “act” differently in different languages, and the variety among them may seem baffling and interesting.

You are welcome to send us comments and/or to contribute to this collection (with a focus on the Lowlands languages). If you do, please drop us a line under the subject line “Beyond the Pale” at lowlands.list(a)gmail.com (replacing (a) with @). And please provide your name (or write “Anonymous”) and also your town and country.

Thanks, and have fun learning and sharing!

Reinhard “Ron” F. Hahn
Co-Founder & Chief Editor, Lowlands-L, March 23, 2008

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