German idioms involving the head

Stiff ears and eating hairs: 5 quirky German idioms to get your head around

Here at AJT, we know that language is more than just words randomly put together to form a sentence. Language is a complex and diverse organism that manifests itself not only acoustically but also visually.

In one of our recent voice over projects it became obvious that a proper translation, foremost a written task, sometimes relies on more than just plain text. Body language and facial expression can completely change the meaning and, therefore, translation of a text. As non-verbal communication is mainly expressed via the face and its features, like eyes, ears or nose, we thought we’d use this opportunity to take a look at some German idioms that centre on one of the most important body parts for communication: the face.

Halt die Ohren steif! – Keep your ears stiff!

In German, this phrase is used to tell somebody to persevere and to keep up with the good work. An equivalent expression in English would be ‘chin up!’ In everyday language it is also used as a way of saying goodbye to a good friend. The origins of this idiom may refer to animals like horses and dogs whose ears are stiff when they are fully awake and alert.

Jemanden die Haare vom Kopf fressen – to eat the hair off somebody’s head

If, like me, you have family and friends who love to eat and drink, particularly when someone else has provided and paid for the food, this is your ‘go to’ expression. Jemanden die Haare vom Kopf fressen basically means to eat someone out of house and home.

Ein Auge zudrücken – to press an eye shut

This phrase means that you are leniently overlooking or tolerating an error somebody else has made. In cases where a person’s faux pas is especially bad it is also common to ‘press both eyes shut’ – beide Augen zuzudrücken.

Das ist jemandem ein Dorn im Auge – It is a thorn in someone’s eye

This rather hurtful expression refers to something that you dislike, which makes you angry and is simply intolerable. It originally stems from the German translation of the Bible as many idioms and proverbs that are now used in everyday conversation originated there.

Sich an die eigene Nase fassen – to touch one’s own nose

If you ever come across somebody who does not practice what they preach, you are well advised to use this expression. It basically means that you yourself should do the things you tell other people to do. This phrase may derive from a Norman custom duringcourt proceedings. A Norman who had wrongly offended someone would have to touch his nose while he revoked the insult in public.

Hungry for more quirky idioms? Read about sausage-related German expressions, buttery French sayings, and peculiar Dutch expressions.


Eagle eyes and monkey business

Eagle eyes and monkey business: how animals are perceived in different languages

It is commonly known that different cultures perceive and treat animals in entirely different ways: whereas dogs are seen as food in some parts of China, they are the most beloved pets in Western Europe. Cows are considered holy in India, but are the core ingredient of almost every hamburger in Great Britain. But apart from religious beliefs and dietary preferences, our perceptions of animals are mirrored in human languages.

We tend to associate certain characteristics with certain animals. Animal metaphors are common in most languages. They are often used in emotionally charged situations, when ordinary literal speech fails to express one’s feelings, and they usually evoke a strong emotional response. So let’s have a quick look at animal metaphors in English, German and Spanish, and what they tell us about the characteristics we associate with certain animals.


Rats really don’t seem to come off well in any of the presented languages. In German they use the phrase “Eine linke Ratte sein” (to be a left rat) as a swearword to designate a person as a fraud or to point out that a person is devious. In Spanish the idiom “Ser una rata” (to be a rat) means that someone is a cheapskate, and in English they embody people who run away as soon as a situation gets tricky as in the saying “like rats abandoning a sinking ship”.


Apparently, we think of chickens as cowardly: in German they express this notion with the idiom “Feiges Huhn” (cowardly chicken) and in Spanish they use “Ser una gallina” (to be a chicken) for someone who is afraid of doing something. Likewise in English the behaviour of intending to do something, but eventually not doing it out of fear is often described with the idiom “to chicken out”.


Fish are versatile creatures. For one thing, we all seem to agree that fish are more comfortable in the water rather than out of it, even though the same concept is expressed slightly differently in different cultures. While in English, the idiom “To be like a fish out of water” means that someone feels awkward and out of place, in Spanish “Estar como pez en el agua” (to be like a fish in water) and in German “Sich wie ein Fisch im Wasser fühlen” (to be like a fish in water) it expresses that someone feels rather comfortable. But fish seem to have loads of other qualities: in Spanish, fish are labelled as forgetful “Tener la memoria de pez’’ (to have the memory of a fish), in German they are considered to be shy and the exact opposite of being talkative “Stumm wie ein Fisch” (to be as mute as a fish) and in English they are just plain weird “fishy”.


Donkeys are perceived in different ways: In German, donkeys are said to be very hardheaded as expressed in the saying “Stur wie ein Esel” (to be as stubborn as a donkey). In English, it’s possible to utter this sentiment with the saying “to be as stubborn as a mule”. But donkey metaphors are also used in other contexts. Apparently, donkeys are often engaged in boring work and have to perform hard labour as enunciated in the idiom “donkey work”. In Spanish, however, donkeys are seen as rude and having crude manners. At least that is the meaning of the expression “Ser un burro” (to be a donkey).


So, goats don’t seem to have an easy life: in German they are generally thought of as being stupid “Dumme Ziege” (stupid goat) and in English they usually play the fool, expressed in the saying to “act the giddy goat”. Similarly, in Spanish they say “estar como una cabra” (to be like a goat), which means that someone or something is acting a little strange or out of the ordinary.


Apart from being elegant strong animals, we all seem to think that eagles have excellent vision. The expression “eagle eye” exists both in German “Adlerauge” and in Spanish “ojos de aguila”.

Cats and mice

Now cover your ears or eyes if you are a cat lover, but those cuddly bundles of fur can be rather nasty – at least seen from the perspective of a mouse. Instead of simply killing hunted-down mice without further ado, cats tend to play with their unlucky victims for a while. The setting of this unfair battle has been used to describe the situation in which someone leaves somebody else in the lurch, in all of the presented languages: in English that would be “to play cat and mouse with someone”, in German they say “mit jemandem Katz und Maus spielen” and in Spanish it is “jugar al gato y al ratón”.


Last but not least, let’s have a look at the contradictory perceptions of monkeys in the presented languages: whereas in Spanish they stand for being pretty “Ser mona” (to be a monkey) in German they form part of an insult “Affengesicht” (face of a monkey). In English, however, they are used to express foolishness, like in the idiom “monkey business”.

What are your favourite animal metaphors? We’d love to hear from you!

German new orthography

Changes to the German orthography rules

As translators, we like to keep up to date with new developments around all things language. After all, we have a responsibility to know the tools of our trade. It’s no surprise then that here at AJT, we were excited to hear that the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung (Council for German Orthography) recently published a revised version of the German orthography rules.


The Rat is an international committee that observes how German is used across several German-speaking countries, and publishes authoritative rules based on its observations. This year, the Rat shared the following new insights into the contemporary use of German.


The big star of the revised rules is the Eszett (ß). I’m stressing “big” here, since officially, up until now, the ß was an exclusively lower case letter. From now on, writers have the option to use the all new capital ẞ.

The ß is a letter that you won’t really have come across unless you read and write German. Here is an example of how, when and why we use it:

  • floss = past tense of fließen (to flow)
  • Floß = raft

The “o” in example 1) is short, because it is followed by two “s”. “floss” is pronounced just like in “candy floss”.

The “o” in example 2) is long, because it is followed by “ß”.

You might wonder what we did in the past, when we had to write a capital ß? We just used double S. This was not ideal. After all, as examples 1) and 2) above show, writing “ss” or “ß” may not only change a word’s pronunciation, it can also change its meaning.

From an administrative point of view, there was another issue: On official IDs, names are often written in all caps. So anyone with an ß in their name would regularly see their name changed, as the Eszett was replaced by two S. According to his ID, Herr Groß would then officially be Herr GROSS.

Quick tip: The Unicode Standard for the capital ẞ is U+1E9E.


The second batch of changes concerns certain words borrowed from other languages:

a) A couple of words were removed from the Rat’s word index. These are words for which either the original spelling or the Germanised spelling were acceptable. It used to be ok to write:

“Ketschup” and “Ketchup”, or

“Majonäse” and “Mayonnaise”.

Today you may only eat your “Pommes” with “Ketchup” and “Mayonnaise”.

b) A couple of variants now enjoy the same status as the existing official spellings:

“Canapé” and “Kanapee”

“Entrée” and “Entree”

“Soirée” and “Soiree”

c) Some spellings that were only officially accepted in some countries, have been accepted for general use:

“Buffet” and “Büffet”

“Casino” and “Kasino”


By default, the first letter of German adjectives is lower case. Nowadays, it is quite common to capitalise adjectives in order to stress this first part of a collocation. It’s a simple way of highlighting that there is more to a collocation than meets the eye.

The revised rules describe in which instances the adjective should be lower case or start with a capital letter and when it can either be lower case or start with a capital letter.


These are the main changes that the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung is offering up to writers of German. Now it’s our turn to decide if and how we want to implement these revised rules. Are we making a clean cut with the double S to permanently switch to the capital ẞ? Do we favour a “Soirée” at the “Casino” or an “Entree” from the “Büffet”? As always, it will be interesting to see how – based on our choices – the German language will change its appearance in the future. We’ll keep an eye out for you!

Sources: (Orthography rules including the changes, in German) (Word index including the changes, in German) (Press release, in German) (Report about the changes, in German)


Like herrings in a barrel - Dutch idioms

Like herrings in a barrel: 5 quirky Dutch idioms

Although I am a native Dutch speaker and have lived in the UK for many years, I still have the occasional embarrassing steenkolenengels (literally coal English) moment.  Also called Dunglish: the popular term to describe the mistakes made by some native Dutch speakers when speaking English. The Dutch term steenkolenengels goes back to the early twentieth century when Dutch port workers used a very basic form of English to communicate with the personnel of British coal ships.

Of course there is nothing more hilarious to my British friends and family when I use Dunglish, especially on such occasions when I attempt to translate a popular Dutch expression literally. ‘You what!?’

The Dutch language is full of idiomatic expressions. Their origins are often found in our rich nautical and maritime history and in our everlasting battle with water. Others have animal themes, refer to parts of the body or find their origins in Scripture. Here are some of my favourite Dutch idioms:

Nu komt de aap uit de mouw (Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve)

This means that the truth is finally revealed or you have seen a person’s true colours. According to a Dutch dictionary of idioms, het Groot Uitdrukkingenwoordenboek van Van Dale (2006), this goes back to times when street artists would literally hide a monkey in their coat or sleeves as part of a magic trick. 

Haar op de tanden hebben (to have hair on one’s teeth)

To be very strong or assertive. Apparently people used to think there was a link between body hair and strength! The more hair, the stronger the person. Therefore if someone had hair on such an impossible place as their teeth, they must have been very strong indeed.

Ben je van de trap gevallen? (Did you fall down the stairs?)

You might be asked this question after a visit to the hairdressers. Originally the saying was: ‘did you fall down the stairs and break your hair?’

Als haringen in een ton zitten (to sit like herrings in a barrel)

You don’t need a big imagination here. It means being in a crowded place.

Een ezel stoot zich in het gemeen niet tweemaal aan dezelfde steen (a donkey doesn’t bump into the same stone twice)

You won’t make the same mistake twice. Similar to the English expression: once bitten, twice shy.

For more quirky idioms, check out our Utterly Butterly blog in which Théo shares five of his favourite buttery French idioms and Anja’s It’s all about the sausage blog which explores sausage-related expressions in German.

nautical vocabulary in every english language

10 English expressions with nautical origins

Here at AJT, we live and translate by the sea. Every day we’re inspired by our relationship with the ocean, so we thought it might be fun to have a look at where some of the nautical terms found in our daily vocabulary originated. Some expressions have quite an obvious nautical connection: to know the ropes (to understand the procedure), to batten down the hatches (to prepare for a crisis), to be a loose cannon (to be out of control or unpredictable and likely to cause damage) or to give something a wide berth (to keep a safe distance) – you can quite easily see the connection there.

But there are plenty of other less apparent terms which you might not immediately associate with Britain’s seafaring past, so here’s our top 10:

1. To overwhelm

We can find ourselves overwhelmed in all kinds of ways. We might find ourselves ‘overwhelmed’ with emotion, or our football team completely ‘overwhelmed’ by another side. It also conveys the sense of being inundated or overpowered by something, and we may feel ‘overwhelmed’ by our workload, or a delicate flavour might be ‘overwhelmed’ by a much stronger one.

But closer to its original Old English nautical meaning of to capsize or founder (in fact ‘whelm’ comes from the Old English verb ‘qhelmen’, to turn upside down) is the notion of being submerged or drowning beneath a huge mass of something, especially water – a small sailing boat could easily be ‘overwhelmed’ by huge waves – and in this way we continue to use ‘overwhelm’ in the way it always has been.

2. To be groggy

If you’ve ever woken up from a poor night’s sleep or suffered from a heavy cold, you’ve probably found yourself feeling a bit dazed and weak, a bit ‘groggy’ perhaps?

But ‘groggy’ was first used to describe sailors who had drunk too much ‘grog’, a watered-down rum and water mixture ordered by a British Admiral in the 1800s. His nickname being “Old Grogram” due to the type of coat that he wore, naturally the term ‘grog’ was born, and it is still used today to describe an alcoholic drink. But whereas back in the 19th century ‘groggy’ described the state of being intoxicated, today we would refer to a person as drunk, legless or plastered, using ‘groggy’ to describe the feeling the day after indulging in a night of excess.

3. To be aloof

We can describe a person who comes across as distant or withdrawn and who may be seen as unapproachable and perhaps standoffish (or detached), as ‘aloof’.

‘Aloof’ actually originates from an old Dutch word ‘loef’ which meant ‘windward’ and was used when an individual vessel within a fleet would sail higher to the wind meaning it was drawn apart and sailed further away from the rest of the fleet.

4. To pipe down

If a person tells you to ‘pipe down’, they’re telling you in no uncertain terms to stop talking and be quiet!

In nautical terms, though, ‘pipe down’ was the name given to the last signal each day from the bosun’s pipe or whistle. The bosun, or boatswain, being the foreman of a ship’s crew, would sound the the ‘pipe down’ signal to signify time for lights out and silence below deck.

5. To fathom something out

When a person is attempting to come up with a solution to a problem or to work something out, it can be said that they are trying to ‘fathom it out’.

In nautical terms, a fathom is a six-foot (1.8-metre) measure used to determine the depth of water at sea with ‘to fathom’ being the act of taking the measurement. So, when you’re ‘fathoming something out’, you’re trying to get to the bottom of it – which makes perfect sense, when you think about it.

6. To be taken aback

We are said to ‘be taken aback’ when we find ourselves taken by surprise by something we really weren’t expecting.

However, the phrase originates from a nautical situation in which a ship finds itself heading up into the wind with its sails pressed back against the mast (said to be ‘aback’). With the wind on the wrong side of the sails the ship finds itself forced astern (backwards), a perilous situation for the crew.

7. Something is in the offing

When something is ‘in the offing’, it’s imminent, it won’t be long before whatever is expected to happen, happens.

A sailor, though, would know that the ‘offing’ is the part of the sea that can be seen from land, although not that part nearest the shore. If a long-awaited ship was ‘in the offing, its arrival was imminent, and it’s easy to see how this sense has been carried through to its present-day usage.

8. By and large

‘By and large’ is a general term used to refer to the bigger picture – ‘By and large’ this blog post is a very informative read; It’s been a great holiday, ‘by and large’.

However, at one time sailors would use ‘by’ to mean ‘into the wind’ and ‘large’ to mean ‘off the wind’ so a phrase such as ‘by and large this ship handles quite nicely’ means that the ship sails well, both into the wind and off the wind, which seems like the best of both worlds to us.

9. Hand over fist

We use ‘Hand over fist’ to refer to a steady and rapid gain and it’s most often used when talking about money – to make (or lose) money ‘hand over fist’.

However, the phrase started out life as ‘hand over hand’, a British nautical term for the act of moving quickly up a rope or hoisting a sail, which was a matter of pride and competition among sailors. It is thought that American sailors subsequently changed this term to ‘hand over fist’.

10. The cut of one’s jib

The ‘cut of one’s jib’ is used to make reference to a person’s, usually well-dressed, appearance – you may like ‘the cut of someone’ jib’.

In nautical terms the jib is the triangular sail stretched in front of the foremast. Warships often had their jib sails cut thinly so that they could maintain point and not be blown off course. If a captain sighted thin foresails on a distant ship he might decide that he didn’t like the ‘cut of his jib’ and would then take the opportunity to escape.

So, whether you’re a landlubber (an inexperienced seaman who would probably fare better on land), or a bit of an old salt (an old, retired or experienced sailor), we hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post as much as we’ve enjoyed researching it.

Are you a fellow ocean lover? Follow our hashtag #translatebythesea on Instagram!

Just another lunch time in Newquay 😎 happy weekend everyone! #newquay #cornwall #translatebythesea

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Chambers Dictionary of Etymology
The Chambers Dictionary

Careers for foreign language students

Top 10 jobs using foreign languages

I am an Upper Sixth Form student studying French, German and Italian. I love learning foreign languages and hope to pursue this passion at university. Not only are modern language skills highly desirable in the eyes of employers, but they also enable you to gain a better understanding of the world in general, through learning about different cultures, histories and politics. In the following blog I have gathered some examples of career pathways that languages can take you down, hopefully highlighting the fact: languages can take you anywhere.

Journalist with the BBC

One of the best skills you can have as a journalist is the ability to speak a foreign language. Often, employers will favour those with a modern language degree than those with English language or literature graduates- thus leading to more rapid employment. Even possessing some conversational skills can be highly sought after, as it enables journalists to pursue lines of research that may have otherwise been made impossible due to a language barrier. Interviewing abroad is far more likely to be successful if the journalist can speak the interviewee’s mother tongue, as they can more easily connect with one another. The BBC is a co-operation that is always searching for journalists with modern language skills- for example, in October 2016 they were looking for a Senior Broadcast Journalist with French skills to coordinate their BBC Africa coverage. Without modern language skills, such a prestigious job opportunity would be not be available.

Linguist for Waverly Labs

Knowledge of foreign languages can also facilitate a career in a scientific domain; namely linguistics. This is the study of the science of language, which includes phonetics, language acquisition and syntax among many others. Often, such careers are carried out in research institutions or high-tech companies. One such example is working for Waverly Labs, in their development of a smart earpiece called “Pilot”, which is designed to instantly translate languages and talk in your ear (much like “Babelfish” from the popular film ‘Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy’). This earpiece will initially translate latin/romance languages, but there are plans to expand into other language families in the future. Linguists could combine a language career with computer science to ensure that “Pilot” translations are as accurate and natural as possible.

Language analyst at MI5

Possibly the most exciting job on the market for linguists, MI5 is constantly looking for people able to speak, understand and listen to many different languages and dialects (in October 2016 alone there were five job openings for language analysts at MI5). Not only are excellent language skills required, but also a deep understanding of the culture, history and politics of different countries is essential. Although they may not lead as action-packed a life as James Bond, language analysts still play a key role in keeping our country safe.

Interpreter for the United Nations

Interpreters are indispensable in the world of politics. An organisation that relies heavily on the skills of its interpreters is the UN. They have to instantly and perfectly relay information from one language to another, thus allowing the UN to function. UN interpreters work in teams to interpret meetings, for bodies like the Security Council and the General Assembly which deal with a plethora of topics: anything from finance to human rights. Therefore, requirements for this job include a perfect command of one official language (English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese and Russian) and oral comprehension in two further official languages.

Buying Manager for Lidl

A company that has grown exponentially, Lidl is now considered a Times Top 100 employer. It has a Junior Buying Manager scheme for talented young graduates – an opportunity which could be exploited by young graduate linguists. This is a competitive scheme, due to the high starting salary (of £36,000) and various extras, such as a fully expensed company car and private medical insurance. Although fluency in German is not essential, it is preferred so, when Lidl is faced with two equally accomplished candidates, a bilingual German/English speaker is more likely to be hired.

English Language Assistant for the British Council

There is a growing demand for native English speakers to teach English abroad. On top of being paid a teaching salary, the British Council may sometimes pay for your accommodation and even flights. Placements can be undertaken in a vast array of countries, from Mozambique to Venezuela – such exciting opportunities for travelling makes this is a popular choice of placement year for students studying modern languages at university. Some form of language skill is a pre-requisite (except for placements in China), as it enables the English Language Assistants to immerse fully in the culture of the country for the duration of their placement.

UK Civil Servant through the European Fast Stream

To apply for this job, fluency in another language is not necessary, but at least a C grade or above in an A-level EU member state language is expected. It is a four-year long scheme, which will allow you to work both in the UK and in mainland Europe. Almost every department of the UK government is involved with the EU in some way, so there are many different fields available to specialise in, like, for example, the writing of a new border control agreement for the Home Office. Post-Brexit, this job is more important and relevant than ever, as young linguists will be key in negotiations between the UK and the EU to foster the development of a mutually beneficial relationship.

‘Voice’ of the 2016 Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games

8,000 linguistic specialists were required in the summer of 2016 to help translate the Olympic atmosphere into over 30 languages for representatives of over 200 countries. These linguists had a range of roles, from organising press conferences and cultural programmes, to accompanying athletes to and from events. Candidates can be as young as 18 years old and, although this is a voluntary role, it would provide a rich insight into different cultures for any linguist. Other advantages include free food, transport and training for the role. It is certain that such skills will also be needed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Translator with Anja Jones Translation Agency

Translators are vital in translating the written word in a way that makes sense in different languages, specialising in fields ranging from legal and political translation, to app and website translation. This helps avoid confusion and a misrepresentation of meaning across languages, enabling people from all nationalities to understand what has been written. One of the many industries that translation is important for is the business world. For example, when companies want to expand across borders, translators (like those at Anja Jones Translation Agency) are crucial in relaying the brand identity to maximise the chances of a successful establishment in the market.

Why should you study modern foreign languages?

All of these examples should have shown what amazing career opportunities foreign language skills can create. If this has not convinced you to start learning a language, then here is another reason: it’s fun!

This article was written by Eddie Sidebotham as part of his work experience week at AJT.

The challenges of translating poetry

To quote Robin Williams’ brilliant character John Keating in Dead Poets Society, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race […] poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

Besides being what keeps us going as a species, poetry is also one of the most intimate, subjective and creative forms of expression. As such, it is probably the most challenging type of work a translator can come across. Both form and substance are to take into account when trying to render the beauty of a poetic text.

What makes a poem so difficult to translate?

One word: metaphors. Besides having found their place in our everyday conversations, metaphors are an essential element of poetry. They can be used as a way to make ideas sound more lyrical, to communicate them without naming them, or even to make rhyming easier! But metaphors can rarely be translated literally: they either have a direct equivalent in the target language (every translator’s dream) or they don’t, and it gets more complicated. A lot of the time, metaphors from different languages call on different elements to express the same ideas: when English people complain about it raining cats and dogs, French people exclaim “il pleut des cordes!”, literally “it’s raining ropes”… (As to deciding which one makes the more sense, your guess is as good as mine). Metaphors, much like jargon or slang, take their roots in a place’s culture or history. Therefore, something like “Turkeys voting for Christmas”, expressing the idea of a metaphorical death wish, will make sense to American, British or French people, but maybe not to person from Italy, for example, where fish is the traditional Christmas dish.

Although metaphors are more common, some poets also make use of what is called conceptual synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon involving two sensory elements of our body. In practice, it can be found in formulations like “a loud-coloured shirt”, which brings an aggressive, garish colour to mind. Another way for words on paper to activate our sense of hearing is to make use of certain sounds. For example, a poet can render the noise of water by using words such as splash, splatter, spill! The study of linguistics shows that this is only one example of several groups of letters that refer to a specific sound. However, they won’t necessarily evoke the same sound in every language, and could be lost in the process of translation.

What role does the translator assume when translating poetry?

Is the translator a mere means of transfer or is he an artist himself? Should the poem be adapted to sound fluent in the target language or keep its original personality, running the risk of sounding alien to its target audience? These questions have been asked by generations of translators and don’t only apply to the translating of poetry, but to all of its forms (with the exception of technical translation).

The one advice for a translator to take from this article is to be as familiar as possible with their field of work. Practice makes perfect, and exploring not only the practical aspect of a type of translation but also its theory is a good way to deliver a translation of quality. And when translating poetry, explore the text first, what emotions it carries and which formal means are used to do so, and remember there is no perfect interpretation. As Edmund Wilson said, “no two persons ever read the same book”!

If you would like to hear more about metaphors and synesthesia, you can watch James Geary’s interested talk during a TED conference:


Grammatically speaking: Different approaches to grammar

When it comes to communicating with each other, grammar plays a role of the utmost importance; without grammar, we would be unable to construct intelligible sentences. However, as an active part of any language, grammar is bound to evolve with time, and not everyone experiences this change in the same way. Find out if you side with prescriptivists or descriptivists.


Whose side are you on?

Imagine you are queuing in a supermarket, and you notice a sign above the till that reads “10 items or less” (instead of “fewer”, which, as English grammar books will tell you, should be applied for quantifiable, or countable, objects).

Now, if reading that sign made you want to throw your groceries out of the window, chances are you have prescriptive views. Linguistic prescription (or prescriptivism) is the idea according to which a language should have one proper form, with an established set of rules that should not be transgressed, neither in writing nor in speaking. In the eyes of prescriptivists, breaking these rules equals being in the wrong. A few centuries ago, when writing started gaining importance as a means of communication, a standardised language had to be created, as a way for people in different parts of a country to understand each other. Unsurprisingly, the language used by people in power, or high in society, was the one chosen to fulfil this role. With time, it became recognised as the “proper” language: linguistic prescription was born.

If, on the other hand, the admittedly incorrect sign doesn’t bother you, you are most likely to be a descriptivist. Indeed, descriptive linguistics, as the name indicates, describes language phenomena rather than advocating them. Descriptivists recognise the fact that language belongs to its speakers, and that it is bound to change: they believe content is more important than form when it comes to sharing information. In other words, as long as the person you are speaking to can understand you, proper use of grammar is not of prime importance. To descriptivists, breaking the rules is simply evolution.

So in the end, who’s right?

Although it might seem that the two schools of thought contradict each other, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and we need both of them in order to study linguistics as well as to learn new languages. According to the web-based publication Ethnologue, there were as many as 942 million English speakers in the world in 2015, but only a little over one third were native speakers! The remaining 600 million are scattered across hundreds of countries, with their own culture, references, and accents, which inevitably get incorporated into the way English is spoken and written. Hundreds, if not thousands of different world Englishes exist, and descriptivism studies all of them as an observer.

However, in terms of language learning, prescription has the advantage of creating a standardised language, even if it does get renewed every so often – let’s consider the fact that the proper spelling of “bird” was “brid” in Old English. This standardisation not only makes communication a lot easier when travelling to other countries, it has also allowed English to become the “Lingua Franca” in most countries, meaning it is the language the most widely used between speakers from different countries.

Which school should translators choose?

As a marketing translator, the best choices come from observation. The grammar used by your client reflects their personality, their brand, and they want all of their customers to experience this brand in the same way, no matter which language they speak. However, what could be acceptable in one language is not necessarily acceptable in another. It is thus very important to adapt the tone and grammar in the target language. Read their content carefully and ask yourself, “Do they use abbreviations? Are they making up words to suit their products?” If so, you can feel free to be creative in your target language if it sounds acceptable. If not, always think about you own experience as a customer to think about what your target audience might expect from this brand.

Always remember, choosing words is like choosing an outfit. Do not translate a suit into shorts and flip-flops!

French idioms about the sea

A sea of French idioms

With summer only one month away and the sun making a comeback in Cornwall, it’s difficult not to feel the call of the sea. This is why Anja is taking Team AJT on an exciting surf lesson today. So let’s celebrate the beauty of the Newquay seaside with idioms from across the sea. It will also be the very first time surfing for most of the team so wish us luck!

Here is a list of water-related French idioms you might not know:

Un vieux loup de mer = An old sea bass

This idiom dates back to the eighteenth century and, surprisingly, it does not refer to the fish but to quite a different animal: the wolf (the French word for a sea bass being loup de mer and the one for wolf being loup), an animal that was then seen as solitary. So you may ask yourself what the link with the sea is in this idiom… Well, there are two possible interpretations for this one. Some will say that sailors, as wolves, lead a solitary life while at sea and therefore would have trouble fitting in when they return. Others will argue that this relates more to the courage and determination of sailors.

Nowadays, the idiom un vieux loup de mer is used to name a hardened and experienced man, who can sometimes also be somewhat bad-tempered.

Rester le bec dans l’eau = Being left with one’s beak in the water

If you’ve ever been left high and dry, this is an idiom for you. Here, the bec, or beak, refers to the mouth of a person who’s left with nothing after strongly desiring and being promised something for a very long time. While this is not certain, eau, or water, could also refer to another idiom: mettre l’eau à la bouche or make one’s mouth water.

Nager entre deux eaux = Swim between two seas

Another idiom inspired by sailing, this one is a reference to boats sailing between two seas and which, while being tossed around, still manage to stay on course.

Nager entre deux eaux is used to talk about someone who, in times of conflicts, doesn’t side with anyone and remains neutral. Alternatively, this idiom can also have a negative meaning when it is used to refer to a person who is hesitant and isn’t honest about their thoughts.

Une mer d’huile = A sea of oil

Une mer d’huile is a calm sea, without any waves. This idiom dates back to Ancient Greece, when Greeks used to pour oil into the sea. As oil and water don’t mix, the oil would stay on the surface of the sea, which, as a result, gave the impression of a calmer sea.

Se noyer dans un verre d’eau = Drowning in a glass of water

Back in eighteenth-century France, to say that someone se noierait dans un verre d’eau was to refer to a person as so unlucky that they could have actually died from drowning in a glass of water. Today though, it is used to talk about a person who is incapable of facing any hardship, even the smallest one, without feeling overwhelmed.


For more French and German idioms, have a look at our past blog posts Utterly butterly: My favourite 5 French idioms all about butter and German idioms: It’s all about the sausage.

Honing your language skills: Learning through translation

The majority of people nowadays speak a second language. After all, it is quite a useful talent in our globalised world where you are more and more likely to meet speakers of a foreign language. You may be required to become bilingual either because of your job or because you are moving to another country. Or you might choose to learn a language to broaden your horizons: maybe you want to read a famous book in the language it was originally written. Or, on your next trip to the Black Forest, you want to order your “Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte” in German without getting a bemused look in reply. Whatever your reasons for learning a new language, if you want to improve your language skills, you will have to get a lot of language practice done. If you are looking for an alternative to the usual methods of language practice, you might want to try translation. Why? The magic word is “research”.

The translation task – should you choose to accept it – requires you to know your vocab and helps you achieve this aim. When translating a text, translators (and all you language learners out there) have one very important aim: to understand what the author is trying to say. But it is not enough to merely understand the gist of a sentence. Before you can get to work, you have to make sure that you understand the meaning of every word in the text – both the dictionary definition and the contextual meaning.

When you are faced with unknown words, contexts and subject matters, you’ll need to put on your researcher’s hat and do some digging. You’d be surprised where that research can lead you. I’ll give you an example:

I once had to translate a short French text about cheese. Somewhere towards the end, the author declared in a seemingly jokey way that there are more than 246 varieties of cheese in France after all. This didn’t make any sense to me at all. Did somebody claim that this was the case? And even if they had, why was this reference funny? After some lengthy research into the subject of French cheese, French national identity, the history of France (Général de Gaulle and the 1960s) and the writing style of this particular author, I finally found the answer! It was a reference to a famous quote by the former president of France. He had asked in 1962 how one could possibly govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese. Apparently, this was his way of saying that there are lots of different people living in France and that, as a politician, it’s really difficult to make everyone happy. So when the author used de Gaulle’s cheese metaphor to talk about actual cheese, it was a French “insider joke” that readers would only be able to understand if they are familiar with French culture and history.

The original quote, including context and explanation, was easy enough to find, but the extra bit of reading I did around the topic gave me some additional insight into French culture and history – all of which also strengthened my French language skills.

Translation, and the research it entails, compels and helps you to go the extra mile in order to understand what the source text is saying. Your translation needs to accurately reflect the original text – you can’t skip words just because you don’t understand them. This may sound like a lot of work, but it can actually be very rewarding: if you don’t understand a word, you can’t go on with your translation, so you have to keep digging for those important nuggets of information. You read your way around and into a subject until you become somewhat of an expert on the matter.

Translating texts, researching information and reading articles in a foreign language is so much more fun than learning long vocab lists by heart or working your way through dry grammar exercises – it’s a fun way to discover new words, improve your language skills and learn about new things (even if it’s just about cheese). And with all this concerted effort for just one text, you’d be hard pressed to forget the words you researched! So why not give it a go?