If It's All Greek to Us, What's It To Them?

Almost everyone is familiar with the saying “it’s all Greek to me”. We use it to mean that something is utterly incomprehensible, whether it is a foreign language film without subtitles, the incoherent speech of a lunatic, or calculus.

According to World Wide Words, the phrase probably comes from the Latin phrase “Graecum est; non potest legi,” which means “it is Greek; it cannot be read.”

It was commonly used by monks translating books in medieval times. Most of them knew Latin, but not Greek. Hence, whenever they encountered Greek text, they copied it as best they could with the notation “It is Greek; it cannot be read.”

The phrase was also famously used by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, and he is often believed to have originated it. However, the World Wide Words article points out that it also shows up in the work of Thomas Dekker, in a play written the year before Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar.  So, either Shakespeare borrowed it from Dekker or they were both drawing on a common saying of the time.

Have you ever wondered how “It’s all Greek to me” translates in other languages and cultures? Many languages have similar expressions.

According to Omniglot, Greeks themselves say “It’s all Chinese to me” or “It’s all Arabic to me”.

In Europe, Chinese is commonly used as the archetypical incomprehensible language, and the phrase “It’s all Chinese to me” shows up in Dutch, Portuguese, Lithuanian, Hungarian, French and Catalan, among others.

In many Eastern European languages, including Croatian, Czech, and Serbian, the equivalent phrase is “It’s a Spanish village to me.” In Finland, it’s “Hebrew,” and in Hebrew it’s “Chinese.”  France has three different equivalent phrases: “It’s Chinese to me”, “It’s Javanese to me” or “It’s Hebrew”.

Then there are some truly odd-sounding translations. For example, if a German-speaking person has no earthly idea what you’re talking about, he may say “I only speak railway station.”

In Chinese, something incomprehensible may be described as “heavenly script,” “ghost script” or “chicken intestines.”  Well, I suppose chicken intestines are pretty incomprehensible, now that I think about it.

4 replies
  1. Annette Lang
    Annette Lang says:

    Congrats for your great blog!
    Just a little comment about the German version. The German expression is: “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof”, which means “I only understand railway station.” The expression seems to go back to World War I, when exhausted soldiers were desperately waiting for the permission to go back home. That’s when railway station got their symbolic meaning of being allowed to go home. “I only understand railway station” thus meant: “I will not listen to you until you mention the railway station allowing me to leave the front”. The expression then evolved from this first meaning of not wanting to listen to not understanding of what somebody says.
    Have a look at this link:
    http://www.wer-weiss-was.de/theme143/article906056.html

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] This post was Twitted by K_International – Real-url.org […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *