November 6, 2015 2:58 pm
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‘It’s all Greek to me’. This is what an English speaker might say when they don’t understand something at all. In this context the Greek language is used as a metaphor for ‘something incomprehensible’.

So that got us thinking here at EuroTalk… if an English speaker uses Greek, what does a Greek speaking person use? And in fact how does this expression translate in other languages?

Greek-02-English

Well as it turns out there is a (somewhat complicated sounding) term for this – ‘language of stereotypical incomprehensibility’. So Greek is the language of stereotypical incomprehensibility in English.

Other languages have similar expressions and they usually pick as a metaphor for ‘impossible to understand’ a foreign language with an unfamiliar alphabet or writing system.

To answer our original question: in Greek the language used as a metaphor for incomprehensibility is Chinese.

Chinese actually turns out to be the most popular choice as a synonym for ‘I do not understand’ and is used in many languages, including Albanian, Arabic, Bulgarian, Catalan, Dutch, Estonian, French, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Ukrainian.

Greek itself follows closely, and is used as a language of  stereotypical incomprehensibility in: English, Afrikaans, Norwegian, Portuguese, Swedish, Spanish, Polish, Persian.

(Bonus fact: the origin of the phrase in some European languages can be traced to the Medieval Latin proverb, ‘Graecum est; non potest legi’, which translates to ‘It is Greek; it cannot be read.’)

Greek-03-Latin

Sometimes the language of incomprehensibility is not a specific human language at all. For example a Chinese (Mandarin) speaker would use something that translates roughly to ‘Ghost’s script’, ‘Heavenly Script’ or ‘Sounds of the Birds’. And a Cantonese speaker might say, ‘These are chicken intestines.’

Greek-04-Cantonese

And how about a constructed international language, such as Esperanto? As a tongue-in-cheek reference, an Esperanto speaker would say ‘That’s a Volapük thing’, Volapük being another constructed language (with about 20 speakers).

How about you? What language do you use to mean ‘incomprehensible’? And is your language used by any other languages as a synonym for ‘impossible to understand’?

Bonus points question:

What does a person whose mother tongue is Greek, but who also speaks English, say in English when they want to say ‘It’s all Greek to me’?

Nikolay

 




3 Comments

  • Stela says:

    Very nice post, Nikolay, very interesting for people fascinated by languages such as myself.

    To answer your first question, in Bulgaria we use a phrase with a meaning similar to ‘It’s all Patagonian to me’, which got me thinking… Does such a language even exist and where the hell is situated Patagonia?

    After some research I found out that Patagonia is a region in South America, which covers half the area of Chile and one third the area of Argentina. The language most widely spoken there is Spanish. However, Welsh Argentines speak Patagonian Welsh, a dialect of Welsh. So I guess the latter is what Bulgarians refer to by saying ‘It’s all Patagonian to me.’

    I’d be very interested to read what other nationalities employ as their language of ‘incomprehensibility.’

  • Galina says:

    Great post, Nik!

    It’s a really amazing subject – idiom translation!

    In Ukraine in this situation it’s a person who is talking and feeling that others don’t understand a word usually asks “Am I speaking Turkish to you?”
    It’s not the same idiom though it describes the very same situation but from the opposite perspective. It as well uses a difficult foreign language to express incomprehensibility.
    And in colloquial Ukrainian this question expresses irritation if others don’t follow/obey the instructions or orders.

    Looking forward to your next post!
    Galina

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