English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) is the English used by people who have different native languages and use English as a language of communication. It provides rich ground for research as its users are multilingual and are able to call on many different languages as they converse.
Marie-LuisePitzl decided to focus on the use of idioms in ELF. These are metaphorical phrases (e.g., too many cooks spoil the broth) which can’t be directly translated into other languages and keep the same meaning. She found that there are two main ways that idioms manifest themselves. Sometimes they seeped into conversation, without speakers or listeners being aware of them. At other times, however, they were explicitly mentioned by speakers; for example, at times a foreign idiom was directly translated into English and at others, the speaker used the language of the idiom to say it.
An example of the first type is don’t praise the day yet, said by a Polish speaker when in conversation with German speakers. It probably draws on the Polish expression Nie chwal dnia przed zachodem słońca ‘Don’t praise the day before the sunset’. As this saying is virtually identical in meaning to the German phrase: Du sollst den Tag nicht vor dem Abend loben ‘you should not praise the day before the evening’, it becomes part of a multilingual idiom ‘pool’ shared by German and Polish speakers via ELF. The participants in the conversation understand these ‘translated’ idioms even if they don’t have equivalents in English.
An example of when the idiom is explicitly discussed is in the following conversation involving Maltese, Serbian and Norwegian speakers:
Speaker (Serbian): “the point of the whole things about quotas it’s a very good idea but in the same time it’s … how to say it in English like knife with double blade?”
The speaker draws attention to the idiom immediately by introducing it with how to say it in English…, the pronoun it suggesting that she’s thinking of an idiom in her own language. Indeed, both German, Serbian and English have similar idioms (in English a double-edged sword) to express something that has both advantages and disadvantages. The speakers don’t worry about the accuracy in English and show no insecurity about using this un-English version in their multilingual context.
Sometimes Pitzl found idioms being used in their original language within ELF conversations. In the following example, Maltese and Serbian speakers discuss their different cultures, specifically smoking habits. The Serbian speaker says that Serbians smoke a lot and comments, ...we have a proverb like Italians...fuma come un turco (= smoke like a Turk). It is interesting that the language the speaker chooses for the idiom is not her own or her Maltese listeners’, but Italian. Through this choice, she communicates not only that she is multilingual but also that she’s aware that her listeners know Italian (Maltese contains about 50% vocabulary of Italian origin), signalling her closeness to her listeners and drawing on their multilingualism.
So, ELF is incredibly creative and tolerant; there’s no need to mind one’s, how do you say it, “Qs and Ps”?
Pitzl, Marie-Louise (2016). World Englishes and creative idioms in English as a lingua franca. World Englishes 35(2):293-309.
This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle