Thursday, 16 July 2009

Hey man, your ankles are swelling…Idioms of the world!

In celebration of Bastille day, the recovery of my mobile phone and the bringing of cheese from America, I had a few friends over for dinner last night. It was one of those “Model United Nations” moments, when we realized everyone was from a different country. I should have made everyone sit at different tables and discuss trade negotiations over pesto but I was not that cruel.

Besides learning that Indonesia has 17,000 islands (17,000!!!!!!! How many years would it take to visit every one at a rate of one per day? Just think of it!), I also learnt a great deal about Indonesian, German, French and “American” expressions and idioms. 

I learnt that while in English we say “your ears are burning” when someone is talking about you and in Indonesia, they say “the wind is blowing into your ears”, the French say “your ankles are swelling”.

We learnt that while the French say “speak of the wolf” and the English and Germans say “speak of the devil”, in Indonesia they say “Long life to you!” Indonesians are obviously a lot nicer than the rest of us.

It was also noted that in English we like to talk a great deal about our backsides: “You’re full of shit”, “You’re talking out of your ass”, “I’m freezing my ass off out here!” “When the shit hit the fan”. All this bears the question, what is wrong with us?!?

 There were low points to the evening, like the moment I discovered the French expression: “The first one out of bed owns the future”. I much prefer the English equivalent: "The early bird catches the worm". As a vegetarian, I don’t care much for the availability of early morning protein, whereas the future is something to get out of bed for! I wonder if I would have been different had I been brought up in France...

The French do have some good one liners. For instance (literally translated here for added effect) “Those that resemble assemble”. In English we say “Birds of a feather flock together” but then again, we also say “opposites attract” so we clearly do not have a clue about anything…

 Then we got to talking about the Indonesian language: Bahasa. It sounds like the most amazing language in the whole wide world. Here are a few examples…

First of all, they don’t have plurals. This may not seem like a particularly inspiring fact among non-Arabic speakers, but in Arabic every noun has both a singular and plural form and some of them are really difficult to remember! To make things plural, Indonesians just repeat the word, so while one person is an Orang (orang-utan meaning man of the jungle), people is Orang-Orang and every day is se hari hari (Hari=day).

Lovely lovely!

Second of all, Bahasa doesn’t have different tenses. You just say when you have done something. I go to the shop today. I go to the shop tomorrow. I go to the shop yesterday. I go to the shop now as we speak.

Are you equally convinced that Bahasa is the best language in the world and should immediately replace English as the lingua franca of the world?


OK, how about this: there is no feminine, masculine, no cases, no sentence order, no bizarre spellings (it sounds like its written, ilhamdulilah!). Thank you God for every one of those 17,000 islands… I am learning Bahasa as soon as I leave this country.

Finally, I learnt that in Pakistan there is an expression “Without a moustache, you are nothing”. I think this could equally apply in Sudan, land of Freddy Mercury impersonators.

I sometimes like to play a game in Sudan. When I have been indefinitely abandoned in a waiting room full of people eating Fatour and playing solitaire on their computers, I play a little game I like to call “find the non-man”. It basically entails searching the room and surrounding area for a man without a moustache. He is the “non-man”. When you find him, you silently mock him and pat yourself on the back for winning the game. You then return to your seat and attempt to move pencil holders with your mind. 

Anyhow, the whole point of this post is that I learnt a very useful expression this morning which relates to the name of my blog “Whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, or crazier".

Bright and early, I went to an NGO to interview their human resources manager about her organization’s recruitment policies. She was “a bit” late so I had the opportunity to play a quick game of “find the non-man” and talk to the lovely receptionist.

We began our discussion with talk of weddings (a topic of much conversation in Khartoum). I told her about a friend that I knew that had recently got married after quite a long tough life. She had married someone from a very different culture (and religion) and her wedding had not been traditional. She said she thought my friend was “abnormal” because she was anti-traditional and she had married a non-Muslim. I said that I thought this was because she had had such a tough life, and she had therefore become strong.

I told her that we have an expression in English: ” “What ever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”. 

She then told me that Egyptians have another expression:

“The gun that doesn’t kill you makes you crazy”.

I couldn’t believe it! It was my expression… my hard fought expression…and apparently it’s Egyptian! Ya salem!

Had my time in Egypt instilled in me this idea that hardship makes you crazy? Is that the essence of Cairo life distilled into one single lucid sentence? With the car horns honking in your subconscious as enlightenment fills your mind?!

When I think back on my life, I wonder whether hardship has, on the whole, made me stronger or crazier as an individual. Am I slowly getting madder as the years roll on by or stronger? I can’t decide. Perhaps I have become both…

So I ask you this: are the strongest people in the world the craziest? Or are the craziest people in the world the strongest?



  1. Bengali typically doesn't have plurals or gender either.

    I bought a "Teach Yourself Indonesian" book, and it's under 200 pages. I support their language.

  2. No,I'm not convinced. I'll stick with Esperanto. Esperanto nouns don't have a gender, there is an accusative case (indicated by the letter 'n' and used for direct objects, there are no bizarre spellings.

    Importantly, Esperanto speakers are scattered all over the globe.

  3. I see that Barack Obama wants everyone to learn another language, however which one should it be?

    The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish. Yet this leaves Russian, Mandarin Chinese and Arabic, out of the equation.

    It is cerainly time to move forward and teach a common, non-neutral international language, taught worldwide, in all schools and in all nations.

    I would personally prefer Esperanto.

    If you have a moment have a look at A glimpse of the language can be seen at

  4. "The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish. Yet this leaves Russian, Mandarin Chinese and Arabic, out of the equation."???

    Brian Baker, are you blind? I am British and I am learning Arabic!

    Plus, you say you want us to embrace a "non-neutral international" language... I guess that was a mistake...

    Personally I don't prefer Esperanto. If I am going to spend years learning a new language, like I have done with Arabic, I want to communicate with people who are different from me. To me, that is the whole point of learning a new language, having to enter a foreign culture and grapple with new realities, like religion, history, sense of humour... I want to learn languages with homes that I can visit. I don't want to learn a language that allows me to communicate people that have the same value system as me, which seems to be the thing that unites Esperanto speakers. So far the only home for esperanto seems to be the comment section of my blog and y'all are writing in English!

    So I have to say... sorry, not learning Esperanto any time soon. It's a nice idea but practically it's a big "malesh"!

    yalla adios!

  5. and Jason: I am glad to hear it. I love those "Teach Yourself" books. If I was more disciplined, I would speak Greek, Bulgarian, Chinese and French... perfectly!

    One day we will just be able to upload languages straight into our brains...or better yet, maybe we will all learn to communicate through the medium of musical theatre and dance.... inshallah!

  6. I came across this blog by accident and I want to compliment Laura for her ability and style of conveying her message which I think was basically to hear views on tough life- whether it makes people stronger or crazier and I came to know so much more about Indonasia, Bahasa and non-international neutral languages...thanks to all you thinkers.
    back to the subject--If one goes thru the stories of triumphs of the leaders, successful men and women including the thing stands out...they never gave up trying. in the process they got killed or got stronger or crazier. but today if there is hope they are a big reason for us normal people to think and try to get over the situations that test us. I saw this movie shawshanks redemption ( pls see it if you havent)...A person would have gone crazier if not mad with what happens in life..and this movie shows that if there is hope will see more stronger people than crazier people...

    Comment on languages: It is very nice view of having a universal simple language. however, we ought to remember that the world is so much an interesting place because of the different cultures and thoughts and evolutions and languages are simply not means of communication but in them they carry all that belongs to that country, continent or group. In my view language is so much more personal and one of the very strong ways to connect with people at a personal level...and i like the way they are although it is so much difficult for me to just learn one more language.

  7. Thanks anonymous! I also love the shawshank redemption. Great film.

    I don't think all forms of craziness are necessarily bad though. It depends on how it affects your life and relationships with the people you love... but some of the most beautiful artists or thinkers are soemthing strange going on between their ears. Have you read Foucault's book on madness- it is brilliant!

    I agree with your comments on languages. It is fun to enter new cultures. To me, that is half the joy of languages.

    Anyhow, thanks for your comments.