Idioms, Idiosyncrisy & Idiocy
It never ceases to amuse and intrigue me how figurative language and idioms vary wildly and dangerously between languages. I say dangerously because the unwary can be very easily deceived by the ‘literal’ or ‘word for word’ meaning. Apparently in Mark 6, Herodias ‘kept/held John in her heart’. But in Nyankpa idiom we verified that means she nursed a grudge against him.
Right at the end of Mark 6 we hear that the disciples were amazed at Jesus walking on water because they hadn’t learned anything from him feeding 5000 hungry guys. Instead their hearts were hard. The Hebrew ‘hard heart‘ idiom runs through the whole Bible. And we use that idiom in English too. Unfortunately though the individual words might be the same, the actual meaning intended is quite different. In English it means unsympathetic doesn’t it? But mostly in the Bible the ‘literal’ hard hearted really means ‘unrepentant’ or stubbornly unresponsive to God. Apparently in another Nigerian language Fulfulde, in such situations they would say ‘hard headed’… which also has a different meaning in English, doesn’t it? What fun! No, really it is.
Scientific Excursus: I guess for the scientists among us it’s a little like Chemistry: both hydrogen and oxygen are nice gases with their own uses and properties, but put them together and the meaning (behaviour, uses) of H2O has nothing to do with the uses and behaviour of its constituent parts. How much less should we be surprised then when something parallel happens in language.
The pity is that while our mother tongues tend to shape our perceptions of idiomatic meanings and the way we divide up the world, people are rather too quick to assume they know what the words someone else uses mean. Words like ‘hard’ and ‘heart’ are apparently easy to translate, and so the idiom ‘hard hearted’ has been faithfully transferred from Hebrew and Greek into English in most Bible translations, one word at a time. Diligent pastors studying the Bible realise that the idiom isn’t being represented perhaps quite so helpfully and so after enough decent sermons, established Christians may get the ‘actual meaning’ of an idiom like ‘hard hearted’ beaten into them as special ‘Bible talk’. And thus another part of our life has become segmented into Christian stuff, and the rest of life.
And apologies: while this is related to my writing on why literal is meaningless, I haven’t actually finished writing that.