When starting out with language learning, it’s tempting to assume a one-on-one correspondence between your native and target language for everything you come across. It seems like a simple game of equivalencies: X equals Y. But you quickly learn that it’s not always as simple as that. Different languages carve the world up in subtly different ways.
It’s most obviously the case with content words. For instance, ‘sad’ in English covers both the person feeling the emotion, and the situation causing it. In Greek, it’s two words: λυπημένος (lipiménos, the former, with a Greek passive adjective ending) and λυπηρός (lipirós, the latter). Now that would have scuppered Elton John’s sad sad situation.
But function words differ, too. Grammatical categories that have lexically crumbled into each other in English remain resolutely separate in other languages. Take the word where. In English, you can use this as an interrogative:
Where is the bank?
And you can use it as a relative:
I know where you are.
Same word, two completely different functions. It leads English monolinguals to assume that they’re equivalent, identical. For sure, their function is related – both referencing place – but they’re performing different jobs, respectively standing in for missing information and joining two clauses.
Càit a bheil e? (Where is he?)
Tha fios agam far a bheil e. (I know where he is.)
Hvor er du? (Where are you?)
Jeg vil være der du er. (I want to be where you are.)
But when a question is implicit, the relative is just hvor, as in English:
Jeg vil vite hvor du kommer fra. (I want to know where you come from.)
Interesting tidbits of language, for a geek like me / us. But they serve as a reminder to delve a little deeper into usage using a resource like Wiktionary when you learn a word that seems to correspond neatly to one in your native language(s).
It may be less than half the story!