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Polish by birth. I currently live in Chile. First story short-listed for the Irish Independent/Hennessy Awards, Ireland, 1996. Since she went back to writing fiction in 2020, more than 80 of her stories, flash fiction and non-fiction, have been accepted for publication. She has recently won 1st prize in the International Human Rights Arts Movement literary contest for her story about Victor Jara, a Chilean folk songwriter.


Trigger Warning

As a trilingual person who can effortlessly switch between English, Spanish, and Polish (with a smattering of rudimentary German, Russian, and French), I’ve always been fascinated by languages, their idioms and expressions, and how they convey dozens of cultural subtleties and concepts. Learning and mastering a new language is like exploring alternate universes through vocabulary and syntax while also discovering the intricacies of communication across cultures, some of which differ from mine. The concept that the same emotions can be conveyed in multiple ways is intriguing and motivates me to find out more about their roots.

Since discovering the vast (and free!) realm of YouTube audiobooks during the pandemic (when it was: “Slept, awoke, slept, awoke, miserable life“—to quote Kafka…), I’ve listened to over two hundred volumes in English and Spanish. These were works that I had previously labeled as tedious and abandoned by chapter two, including Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” (671 pages!) and Garcia Marquez’s “Love in Times of Cholera.” Listening to rather than reading them helped me appreciate the intricacies of these literary masterpieces, and the narrators’ expressive performances have breathed new life into them, making them more engaging than I could have imagined.

A few weeks ago, I came across a book in Polish, my native language, that piqued my interest. I immediately traveled back to my childhood, reestablishing a connection with the rich cultural background that had shaped me. The subtle references and familiar terms brought back a nostalgic appreciation for the beauty of my country’s verbal turn of phrase. I rediscovered terms that I had not used for over four decades, considering that when I speak on the phone with my sister at least twice a month, our conversations are pretty mundane and deal with holidays, haircuts, recipe swaps without fancy ingredients, and the occasional “by golly, has it been that long since we met?” In Polish, of course!

While listening to the first Polish book in years, I came across words that are exclusively our inventions, for example, “węglowodany,” which means carbohydrates in the majority of civilized languages, as well as several terms I had no idea originated elsewhere, including “remedium” and “boazeria” from the French “boiserie” or “wood paneling” in English.

Perhaps even more interesting was discovering idioms without literal translations that still have the same meaning in the other two languages I speak. The Polish saying “siedziec jak na Tureckim kazaniu” (“listening to a Turkish sermon”) translates as “It’s Greek to me” in English and “It’s Chinese to me” in Spanish. Digging deeper, I discovered that a Chinese person would complain that it was “chicken innards” to them, whereas something incomprehensible to a Finn is spoken in… Lack of comprehension for Croats, Serbians, and Macedonians is like visiting a “Spanish village,” while a Bulgarian would accuse the speaker of talking “Patagonian.” Having been to both the Chilean and Argentine sides of Patagonia, I can confirm there is no such language!

These linguistic connections reveal the remarkable links between cultures and dialects while also highlighting significant distinctions because language is more than just a means of communication; it reflects the diverse and complex tapestry of human lives, history, and cultural values.

Nothing captures this better than the English phrase, “It’s not my cup of tea.” For the ordinary Brit, tea is more than just a beverage; it reflects their identity and social status. Associated with refinement and sophistication, it is usually consumed accompanied by proper etiquette and pleasant conversation. Tea is important to British culture and daily life, whether sipped in opulent tearooms or modest homes. Throughout history, tea has been served in gold-rimmed porcelain cups with a splash of milk or thin slices of lemon, while dock and field workers drank it from tin pots after eating thick slices of bread with strawberry jam. Watered down and of poor quality, tea was served at orphanages and almshouses around the country. No self-respecting Englishman or Englishwoman could go through the day without at least one cuppa, be it the finest Oolong or the vilest tea dust. Even today, the British firmly believe that a comforting mug, milky and sugary, can solve or mitigate any minor or major calamity. Saying that something is not “their cup of tea” illustrates the beverage’s cultural significance in British society.

So would a Pole say, “It’s not my shot of vodka!” in the same situation? Certainly not, even though vodka has a similar cultural significance to tea in Britain. A Pole would confess it was not their “fairy tale” (To nie moja bajka). Despite thorough investigation, I have been unable to determine the expression’s origin. I believe it originates from the rich heritage of folklore and storytelling deeply ingrained in Polish society.

A Spanish speaker, whether in Madrid, Bogota, or Buenos Aires, might say, “It’s not a saint I’m particularly fond of.” The expression can be traced back to the deep influence of Catholicism in Spanish culture. Saints are revered, and each town and village typically has its own patron. This statement suggests that the individual lacks an emotional connection with the subject at hand, much like not having a personal bond with a specific saint.

However, some expressions are the same in multiple languages. One of them is “let our hair down,” which means allowing ourselves to have more fun than usual. One can find this phrase in English, French, Polish, Spanish, and German. The phrase “break a leg” is used worldwide to wish someone good luck in a performance or endeavor, and it can be heard in theaters worldwide.

One of the most interesting expressions I have come across is “Otra cosa es con guitarra,” which literally translates to “It’s a different story with a guitar.” It is commonly used in Chile, where I currently live. In other Spanish-speaking countries, people would say “del dicho al hecho hay mucho trecho,” meaning ” it’s a long distance from saying to doing” or “easier said than done.” These expressions highlight the cultural diversity within the Spanish language and show how idioms can vary from country to country. The saying’s alleged origin is the story of a musician who confronted a viewer who criticized his performance. According to the tale, the musician handed the spectator a guitar and challenged him to play better. However, the viewer quickly realized that playing the guitar was much more complicated than he had imagined, thus giving rise to the expression. This reminds me of the gauntlet thrown by the Beatles: “Take a sad song and make it better.” So far, nobody has…

Language is a curious tool that not only allows us to communicate but also reflects the diverse attitudes and experiences of different societies. It reminds us that it is not only about words but also about the narratives and values they contain.

As the medieval poet Geffrey Chaucer once declared in Troilus and Criseyde using the now obsolete Middle English, “But at the laste, as every thing hath edne,” which means that all things must end, so does the word limit for this essay. I can then conclude that, while it is nice to ramble on about language usage, each person must explore and embrace the richness of their language, knowing that there is always more to learn and discover. Yet whether the readers choose to take advantage of this piece of writing to expand their linguistic horizons is ultimately up to them. All I can say is, I do me, and you do you, because it is not my circus and not my monkeys.

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