Much of the fun in learning a new language is being able to communicate and connect with others on an entirely new level. But while reaching a new level of understanding is awesome, the journey usually involves a lot of misunderstandings as well. Naturally, languages develop notable ways to express these inevitable misunderstandings. These expressions often reference other languages and become common within the culture. In English, one such phrase happens to be, “It’s all Greek to me.” With our curiosity piqued, we decided to take a deeper dive into the origin of this idiom and others like it.
It’s pretty well documented that “It’s all Greek to me” can be traced back to the Latin proverb, “Graecum est; non potest legi,” which means, “It is Greek, it cannot be read.” Shakespeare also famously used a form of this phrase in Julius Caesar. Since then, the idiom has become a part of the American English lexicon.
Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, investigated this phrase and others like it on his blog, Language Log, and summarized his findings in a handy chart which we've reproduced below. According to Liberman, English isn’t the only language to use Greek as a reference. Spanish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Persian are among those that also blame the Greeks for incomprehensibility. But if all of these languages reference Greek, then which language do the Greeks use?
Mango linguist and native Greek speaker Lilia Mouma recently wrote an awesome piece about the beauty of the Greek language. She mentioned that since Greeks can’t say, “It’s all Greek to me,” they say, “It’s all Chinese to me,” instead. In fact, Chinese seems to be the reference point for many other languages as well. Liberman found that Russian, Hebrew, Portuguese, Lithuanian, and French are some of the other languages that point the finger at Chinese. Perhaps this is because of the Chinese language’s notorious contrast with those from the West
Going off of Liberman’s research, we asked some fellow Mangos, friends, and family if the other languages they speak have similar sayings conveying unintelligibility. (You can check out what they said in the video above.) What we found largely jived with Liberman’s research, with a few notable additions. For example, Flemish and Ukranian (both absent from his chart), also refer to Chinese. And while they don’t have an exact equivalent to the American English idiom, when Arabic speakers can’t understand something they say it sounds like Hebrew. Additionally, while we couldn’t confirm that Mandarin speakers call incomprehensible language “heavenly script,” we did hear that they may actually compare it to the sound of birds chirping.
All this talk of misunderstanding doesn’t mean language learning is full of missed connections. In fact, our hiccups and missteps humanize the learning process and bring us closer together in our quest to achieve our language goals.
Are you ready to embark on your journey? Get started by finding Mango at library near you.