Sunday, June 7, 2015

My Mother's "Third" Language . . .

I read a blog recently that reminded me so much of my mother and her "third" language. My mother's first language was the Sicilian dialect of Italy, her second language was Brooklynese, a corrupted form of English. Her third language was Italian and American Idioms and Proverbs. I acquired all three at a very early age from my mother because we were together virtually 24/7. My mother loved to use idioms and proverbs to make her point or for special emphasis. You could not argue with her because these expressions were so well known and widely used that they must be true, right?

For example, my mother would ask me or my brother to help her with something or she would need help and we were blind to it. It could be something as simple as helping her carry groceries, drying a few dishes, etc. When we didn't rise to the occasion, as most kids don't, she would pull out her popular Italian expression: Two parents can take care of 100 children, but 100 children can't take care of two parents." Did I mention my mother had a Ph.D. in guilt? Another one of her Italian expressions was used when we would would tell her we would finish something later. Postponing anything never sat well with my mother as she thought we would never get back to it. She was probably right. "There's an old expression in Italy, while you are dancing keep dancing." I interpreted that to mean once you sit down and take a break you won't get up again.  Then, if one of her friends or family asked her to do something and she really couldn't help them, we would hear: "You can do 100 good things for people and they forget it, but if there is one thing you can't do, that's what they remember." When we would take big helpings of food (and my mother always knew exactly how much we could eat) she would tell us, "You're eyes are bigger than your stomach." Of course my mom was always right. And God forbid I didn't get 100 on a test, just a 95, and I told her about all the kids who got less than me, she would always say, "Look at the ones who did better than you, not the ones who did worse."

My mother was never at a loss for an English idiom or proverb either. They rolled off her tongue in practically every conversation. "It's raining cats and dogs!" "Absence makes the heart grow stronger." "Actions speak louder than words." "Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies," "Better safe than sorry." "Easier said than done." There are just too many to count. These nice and neat little packages of wisdom spiced up many of our little talks. Without even knowing it, I was using them myself and with my slipping memory I sometimes confuse two and combine them much to my daughter's delight. Apparently she has them instilled in her too and she immediately recognizes when I make a mistake and corrects me.

Now you might think that's all there is to it, but no. About seven years ago I took a French class in college on proverbs and idioms, expecting to learn a few from the French culture. Seems that most cultures have their own ways of saying the same identical things. So the professor gave us a list of French proverbs to translate into the English! Now my "third" language, which I learned from my mother, came in very handy. I had no trouble running down almost the entire list and finding the English equivalent for the French proverb. However, most of my young classmates had never heard of the English proverbs and even when they heard them they had no clue what they meant. One asked me, "What does kick the bucket mean?" I explained that one and a few more and she just looked perplexed. Nothing made sense to her. How can they figure out the equivalent proverb when they never heard of them before? I kept raising my hand, all by myself, to give the answer the professor was looking for. Finally I was embarrassed and said she could call on me if she needed a response. Half way through the exercise she turned to me and said she should have let me teach the class that day.

I thought to myself that it's a shame these young people have no clue about all these proverbs and no use for them either. They just shrugged them off and were happy to move on. Most of these tiny bites of wisdom are easy to remember and still apply today. They are timeless. Many cultures thought enough of them to have their own variation to express the same piece of wisdom. They must have been appreciated and passed down from generation to generation for a very long time, but like with many other traditions and values in this day and age, they have fallen to the wayside.

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