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"Buenos dias", "buenas noches" -- this was the first words in a foreign language I heard in my life, as a three-year old boy growing up in developing post-war Western Germany, where the first gastarbeiters had arrived from Spain. Fascinated by the strange sounds, I tried to get to know some more languages, the only opportunity being TV courses of English and French -- there was no foreign language education for pre-teen school children in Germany yet in those days. Read more

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Idiom Analysis

Date Submitted: 05-Jun-2009
From: Israel A Cohen
Subject: Idiom Analysis
Contact Email: click here to access email
Institution/Organization: Innodata-Isogen

Notice: I am interested in the computerized analysis of idioms (defined narrowly as phrases whose meaning cannot be determined by the semantic analysis of the 'words' in them).

Most idioms are formed by direct transliteration of a (usually) foreign word or phrase into words that look / sound / feel like common words of the target language, such as cat, dog, bag, beans, bucket, etc. An example would be "face the music," attested in the US since the 1940s, where "music" is probably the transliteration of Yiddish MuSKoNeh = inference, deduction, hence, consequences, from Hebrew MaSKaNah with the same meaning.

Some idioms are foreign idioms that have been translated. These are more difficult to analyze because one needs to know not only the language of the source but also the foreign language into which the transliteration was made, which may or may not be the same. Additional intermediate translations should not affect the result.

'By the skin of my teeth' is the translation of a Hebrew idiom in the biblical book of Job 19:20. Using 3 to represent the letter aiyin (which had an ancient G/K-sound, as in 3aZa = Gaza), the Hebrew phrase is B'3or SHinai. That phrase is a pun on the word B'QoSHi which means "barely, hardly, with difficulty."

'Count sheep !' to go to sleep is probably the translation of the Hebrew pun S'PoR KeVeS on the Latin phrase sopor (as in soporific) quies (as in quiesent). This idiom has been retranslated back into Israeli Hebrew as LiSPoR K'VaSim = to count sheep (plural).

I would appreciate contact with linguists who are working on the computerized detection and comprehension of idioms.

Best regards,
Israel 'izzy' Cohen