“They were trying to pull the sheep over our head, and something got lost in translation.”

It certainly did! This was overheard in passing recently, and I couldn’t help but smile. I don’t mean to mock, because I believe the individual who said this was under stress and therefore liable to make a slip. But it was funny. Ah, but I could see where they were coming from.

If you think about it, it’s actually not very different from the correct They tried to pull the wool over our eyes. You just need to swap wool for sheep, and eyes for head. And of course they’re similar to each other: wool is part of a sheep, and eyes part of a head, after all. It goes to show how when we speak we’re only one step away from madness at any time. A lot of people like to think they’re free to use English in any way they want, but if you think about, simply changing two words for two very similar words makes an idiom sound completely meaningless. Partly of course that’s because idioms are quite unique, and their words are not always obviously related to their meaning. Changing them just a little bit can therefore make them unrecognisable, because the meaning of the individual words isn’t important.

But even in normal speech, we have to tread a narrower path than we often think. We can say I’m going to work, but how about I’m travelling to work? It doesn’t work at all, does it, because it sounds unnatural, even though there’s strictly not much of a difference being the words going and travelling. But no-one says travelling in that context, and we therefore don’t either. No matter how much of a rebel we might like to think we are, we still conform when it comes to language, because mutual, and speedy, communication is crucial. And even if we were to say I’m travelling to work, and someone understood our meaning, it would still interrupt the flow of conversation by confusing the listener.

Of course though, the person talking about sheep being pulled over their head wasn’t deliberately using different words. It was just an innocent slip of the tongue, which we can all relate to. They’re interesting things, such slips, and seem to have no regard for a speaker’s mastery of language. English is literally my day job, but if I’m in a situation where I’m speaking to an audience at length, I’ll make a few little slips. I think it’s a sign of how our brain and our mouth can operate at different speeds. And of the fact that no matter how unconsciously we speak our native tongue, we still have to put words together to form sentences. Usually we’re not remotely aware of this, but sometimes we’re going along even more unconsciously than usual, and suddenly hit a point when our idea of what we want to say has run far ahead of our ability to put the necessary words in the right order, or even to think of the right words.

This is a process any of us who speak at least a second language are familiar with. We know what we want to say, but can’t think of the words or structures we need, or simply don’t know them. And even though there’s a huge difference between how we use our native tongue and a learned language. But in many ways, the processes we use are the same, just at a much greater speed and with much less conscious thought with our native tongue. I find it comforting, as that similarity makes me think at some point my French might come almost as naturally me to as English (though I’d be happy if it were as good as my Irish). Then, no-one will be able to pull the sheep over my head.


Image: https://benziher.wordpress.com/tag/the-shepherd-carries-the-lamb-on-his-shoulders/

3 thoughts on ““They were trying to pull the sheep over our head, and something got lost in translation.”

  1. My daily commute is 55 km. If that’s not ‘travelling’, I don’t know what is. Also, when the train arrives at Central, a recorded message says ‘Thank you for travelling on Sydney Trains’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, I think that definitely qualifies as travelling! Now I feel petulant about grumbling about my current 20-minute cycle, but I’m pretty sure I’m much more likely to get rained upon, even in summer!


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