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Ancient Greek Translation

In 1896, students from Oxford University on backpacking trip stumbled upon a rubbish dump in the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus. To modern archaeologists, the contents were about as far from rubbish as you can possibly get: thousands of pieces of Greek papyri, dating back to the period after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt.

The students collected the papyrus fragments and brought them back to Oxford, but due to the sheer number of fragments, translation has been slow going. As Dr. Chris Lintott of Oxford told the Daily Mail :

“after 100 years we’ve gone through about two per cent, so we thought it was time we called in some help.”

So, who are they calling in for the cavalry? A crack team of linguists? Actually, no- they’re crowdsourcing the translating, allowing everyday people like you and me to help analyse the papyri. Working with a company called Zooniverse, which previously crowdsourced the classification of up to 60 million galaxies, the university has set up a website where anybody with some spare time can help decode the ancient texts. Read more

Aer Lingus Halts "Language Tests"

Beware of Greeks bearing passports. Until just last week, that’s the attitude that Air Lingus often displayed towards its Greek customers, especially Greek nationals flying into Ireland through Spain and Portugal. To try to catch people traveling on falsified Greek passports, Greek passengers were asked to complete a language test to prove they were fluent in the Greek language.

However, in January they made the mistake of forcing Chryssa Dislis, a Greek telecommunications executive who lives in Ireland with her family, to complete the tests in order to board the plane that was to take them all back home to Cork after a holiday in Barcelona.

In a statement to the Irish Times, Dr. Dislis explained her objections to the tests:

““In the age of biometric passports, such illogical and discriminatory ‘tests’ are entirely unacceptable. I was only targeted because of my nationality and no serious attempt was made to check that I was indeed flying back home, where I came from only six days previously.”

Dr. Dislis and her husband took pictures of the completed tests, which enraged the airline attendants to the point that they threatened to have the police take away her camera and destroy all of the pictures. However, when a police officer arrived, she sided with Dr. Dislis and her family. As Dr. Dislis put it in an interview with the Associated Press:

“Fortunately the policewoman who arrived was extremely sensible, defused the situation, and told the check-in desk to stop messing us about and put us on the plane.”

Though she eventually got an apology, she decided she had to go public to keep anyone else from having the same experience.

What’s the problem with language tests, anyway? First of all, questions about the validity of a passport are best answered by carefully examining the passport and other personal documents. Biometric passports are made to be extremely difficult to forge.

Secondly, a language test doesn’t prove whether or not someone has a valid Greek passport. You don’t have to speak Greek fluently to claim a Greek passport — you might have Greek citizenship but have lived most of your life elsewhere, for example.

Third, the airline employees can’t speak a work of Greek anyway. Which means, as Dr. Dislis put it, “The whole exercise was completely absurd. I could have written ‘Three Little Pigs’ on the form and they wouldn’t have known any better.”

Wanting to keep people from coming in on fake passports is understandable, but these tests are just silly and it’s good they’ve been stopped.

Image Credit: AttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Deanster1983

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.