Catalan idioms, a tough nut to crack

The weird and wonderful expressions pose a challenge to any language learner but one well worth the effort 

Children in Tarragona demonstrate with banner: 'For a country for all, school in Catalan' (by R. Segura)
Children in Tarragona demonstrate with banner: 'For a country for all, school in Catalan' (by R. Segura) / Neil Stokes

Neil Stokes | Barcelona

February 19, 2020 06:26 PM

This article is the second in our series of the Catalan lanaguage celebrating International Mother Language Day. You can find the first, on the history and current day standings of the language, here. You can find the third, on people's experiences learning Catalan as a foreign language, here.  

If languages were not already hard enough to learn, over time they accrue idiomatic sayings that decades and centuries later often make little sense and almost seem perversely designed to make life difficult for the unsuspecting language learner.

Like English, Catalan is rich in such idioms and phrases, and anyone valiant enough to tackle the language will at some point have to contend with a barrage of similes and figurative allusions enough to make one's head spin (you see what I did there?).

It is normal for people in the early stages of learning a foreign language to first translate what is said to them in their heads before considering how to respond, and while that works fine most of the time, it tends to go out the window (and again!) when it comes to idioms.

For example, if someone tells you in Catalan that you are "tocat de l'ala", literally translating it will leave you wondering what the hell they are going on about. "My wing is damaged?" you might ask yourself, wondering if the person speaking to you is right in the head.

In that case, lacking smarts or being a bit crazy, or to use an English idiom: "nutty as a fruitcake", is exactly what they are accusing you of being. One of the biggest problems with idioms is that literally translating them often doesn't help you to understand them.

Idiomatic meeting points

Yet, that is not always the case, and staying with the theme of wings, you might hear the phrase: "amagar el cap sota l'ala" ("hide your head under your wing"). If you have a context, it's not too much of a stretch to realize it's the same as "bury your head in the sand".

In fact, there are a number of common idioms in Catalan that might not be exactly the same as in English, but are near enough to be able to figure out. For example, "an arm and a leg" in English is "un ull de la cara" in Catalan, or "an eye from your face".

Similarly, "kill two birds with one stone" in English is "matar dos pardals d'un tret" in Catalan, or "shoot two sparrows with one shot", while "a hard nut to crack" in English is "un os dur de rosegar" in Catalan, or "a tough bone to gnaw through".

At this point, you might be thinking that this idioms business is not so bad. "Ploure a bots i barrals" (Raining wineskins and barrels)? Easy, "raining cats and dogs"! "La pilota és a la teva taulada" (The ball is on your roof)? That's "the ball is in your court", simple!

Idioms that make you scratch your head

If only it were so simple, but the fact is that probably most of the idiomatic sayings in Catalan do not correspond so neatly to their English equivalents, and in some cases they can seem as bizarre as a painting by Salvador Dalí that has to be explained to you.

Who would have said that "anar amb peus de plom" (walking with lead feet) would be the same as "walking on eggshells"? Surely if you want to proceed with care and caution, having feet made of lead is not likely to help, although no doubt you will go more slowly.

Meanwhile, it arguably requires an extra leap of imagination to see how "treure les castanyes del foc" (taking the chestnuts off the fire) has the same gravity as "saving the day", although it could depend on what importance you give to chestnuts.

Then there is "anar de vint-i-un botons" (wearing 21 buttons), "entre naps i cols" (among turnips and cabbages), "guanyar-se les garrofes" (earning yourself the carob pods), "beure oli" (drinking oil), and "baixar de l'hort" (coming down from the allotment).

Without a clear context, and perhaps a helping hand, it is not so obvious that these phrases mean being dressed-up, in summary, earning a living, getting yourself into difficulties, and not being aware of what is going on.

No escape from idioms

It would be nice to be able to opt out of idioms when learning a language, as there are plenty of other structures and words at the learner's disposal that provide perfectly good alternatives for getting your message across.

Yet, in defense of idioms, a pain in the ass though they may be (sorry, they're hard to avoid), they are a major part of what makes a language so rich and fascinating, reflecting the history, culture and lifestyles of the societies that they grew out of.

Idioms might not be your cup of tea and tackling them might seem like biting off more than you can chew, but there's an argument to be made that you can only really ever say you've learnt a language once idioms have become part of your linguistic toolbox.

So, if you're learning Catalan (or English for that matter), don't be afraid to get stuck into these often weird and wonderful expressions. After all, it's really just a case of taking the bull by the horns, or should that be "agafar el bou per les banyes"?