Greek to me

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That's Greek to me or It's (all) Greek to me is an idiom in English, expressing that something is not understandable.

The idiom is typically used with respect to the foreign nature, complexity or imprecision of verbal or written expression or diagram, often containing excessive use of jargon, dialect, mathematics, science, symbols, or diagrams. The metaphor makes reference to Greek (either ancient or modern), as an archetypal foreign form of communication both written and spoken. Technically, the phrase is classified as a dead metaphor, meaning that its components cannot be used separately, unlike for example the dormant metaphor "foot of the hill", which permits saying "that hill has a tree at its foot".

Origins[edit]

It may have been a direct translation of a similar phrase in Latin: "Graecum est; non legitur" ("it is Greek, [therefore] it cannot be read"). This phrase was increasingly used by monk scribes in the Middle Ages, as knowledge of the Greek alphabet and language was dwindling among those who were copying manuscripts in monastic libraries.[citation needed]

Recorded usage of the metaphor in English traces back to the early modern period. It appears in 1599 in Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, as spoken by Servilius Casca to Cassius after a festival in which Caesar was offered a crown:

CASSIUS: Did Cicero say any thing?

CASCA: Ay, he spoke Greek.
CASSIUS: To what effect?

CASCA: Nay, an I tell you that, I'll ne'er look you i' the face again: but those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me. I could tell you more news too: Marullus and Flavius, for pulling scarfs off Caesar's images, are put to silence. Fare you well. There was more foolery yet, if I could remember it.

Here, Casca's literal ignorance of Greek is the source of the phrase, using its common meaning to play on the uncertainty among the conspirators about Cicero's attitude to Caesar's increasingly regal behaviour. Shakespeare was not the only author to use the expression.[citation needed]

It was also used in 1603 by Thomas Dekker in his play Patient Grissel:

FAR: Asking for a Greek poet, to him he fails. I’ll be sworn he knows not so much as one character of the tongue.
RIC: Why, then it’s Greek to him.

The expression is almost exclusively used with reference to the speaker (generally "Greek to me"); Dekker's "Greek to him" is rare.

Variations[edit]

Different languages have similar formulations. Many have picked the point of reference to be a foreign language with another alphabet or writing system.

This is an example of the usage of demonyms in relation to the ability of a people to be understood, comparable to the development of the words barbarian (one who babbles), Nemec (Slavic for "the mute one" indicating Germans).

In other languages[edit]

In an article published by Arnold L. Rosenberg in the language journal Lingvisticæ Investigationes, he claimed that there was a popular "consensus" that Chinese was the "hardest" language, since various non-English languages most frequently used the Chinese language in their equivalent expression to the English idiom "it's all Greek to me".[1] Also, David Moser of the University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies made the same claim as Arnold L. Rosenberg.[2]

Language Phrase Pronunciation Translation Target language / meaning
English It's Double Dutch. Dutch, Tutnese
That's Greek to me. Greek
Albanian Mos fol kinezce. Do not speak Chinese. Chinese
Afrikaans Dis Grieks vir my. It's Greek to me. Greek
Arabic .يتحدث باللغة الصينية Yataḥaddaṯ bil-luġah al-Ṣīnīyah
[jataˈħadːaθ bilˈluɣa(t) asˤːiːˈniːja]
Speaking in Chinese Chinese
.يحكي كرشوني Yaḥkī Karšūnī
[jaħkiː karʃuːniː]
Speaking in Syriac Garshuni
بتتكلم بالهندي؟ Bitatakalm bi al-Hindi? Are you speaking Hindi? Hindi
Asturian Suename chinu
Ta'n chinu.
It sounds like Chinese to me.
This is in Chinese.
Chinese
Bulgarian Все едно ми говориш на патагонски. Vse edno mi govoriš na patagonski.
[fse edˈnɔ mi ɡɔˈvɔriʃ na pata 'gonski]
It's like you're talking in Patagonian. Patagonian
Cantonese 呢啲係雞腸呀。 [nɛː˥ tiː˥ hɐi˧˥ kɐi˥ t͡sʰœŋ˨˩ a˥][3] These are chicken intestines. Latin alphabets or cursive English writings, more commonly used to refer to English nowadays in Hong Kong.
呢啲係咪鬼畫符呀 ? / 呢啲係唔鬼畫符呀 ? Is this ghost's script?
(Referring to illegible handwriting that looks more like scribbles.)
Ghost's script
Catalan Això està en xinès. [əˈʃɔ sˈta n ʃiˈnɛs] This is in Chinese. Chinese
Cebuano Nilatin Latin Latin, language in rituals by holy men such as Catholic priests, faith healers, and talisman owners.
Inintsik Chinese Chinese
Chavacano Aleman ese comigo. It's German to me German
Croatian To su za mene španska sela. [tô su za měne ʃpǎːnska sêla] These are to me the Spanish countryside. Spanish
Czech To je pro mě španělská vesnice. [ˈto jɛ ˈpro mɲɛ ˈʃpaɲɛlskaː ˈvɛsɲɪtsɛ] This is a Spanish village to me. Spanish
Danish Det rene volapyk. This is pure gibberish. Volapük
Dutch Dat is Chinees voor mij. [dɑt ɪs ʃiˈneːs foːr mɛi][4] That is Chinese to me. Chinese
Ik snap er geen jota van. I don't understand one iota of it. Reference to Matthew 5:18.[5] Greek
Esperanto Tio estas Volapukaĵo. [ˈtio ˈestas ˈvolapuˈkaʒo] That's a Volapük thing. Volapük
Estonian See on mulle hiina keel. This is Chinese to me. Chinese
Filipino Parang Intsik It looks like Chinese. Chinese
Finnish Täyttä hepreaa. [tæytːæ hepreɑː] It's all Hebrew. Hebrew
Kuulostaa siansaksalta Sounds like gibberish Alaburnese/German
French C'est du chinois. [sɛ dy ʃinwa] It's Chinese Chinese
C'est de l'hébreu. [sɛ də lebʁø] It's Hebrew Hebrew
German Das kommt mir spanisch vor That sounds like Spanish to me. (usually meant to indicate something is fishy) Spanish
Spreche ich chinesisch? Am I speaking Chinese? Chinese
Fachchinesisch specialty Chinese (meaning technical jargon) Chinese
Kauderwelsch "Kauder" = trade, Welsch = any/all of the romance languages. A mix of languages, or "lingua franca" Romance languages
Böhmische Dörfer [ˈbøːmɪʃə ˈdœɐ̯fɐ] Bohemian villages Not referring to a language, but likening someone's ignorance of a term to ignorance about obscure villages in Bohemia (considered an out-of-the-way place).
Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof. "I understand only 'train station.'" Idiomatic
Polnisch rückwärts Polish reversed Polish
Greek, Standard Modern Αυτά μου φαίνονται κινέζικα. [afˈta mu ˈfeno(n)de ciˈnezika] This strikes me as Chinese Chinese
Αυτά μου φαίνονται αλαμπουρνέζικα. [afˈta mu ˈfeno(n)de ala(m)burˈnezika] These seem to me gobbledygook. Alaburnese (similar to Gibberish)
Greek, Cypriot Εν τούρτζικα που μιλάς; [e‿ˈnduɾ̥t͡ʃi̞kɐ p̬u mi↗ˈlɐs] Are you speaking Turkish? Turkish
Hebrew זה סינית בשבילי Zeh Sinit bishvili.
[ze sinit biʃvili]
It's Chinese to me! Chinese
Hungarian Ez nekem kínai. [ˈɛz ˈnɛkɛm ˈkiːnɒi] It's Chinese to me. Chinese
Icelandic Hrognamál [ˈr̥ɔknaˌmauːl] Fish-egg language
þetta er hebreska fyrir mér "This is Hebrew to me" Hebrew
Indonesian (Tulisan) Cakar ayam
(refers to unreadable writing)
Chicken feet
Bahasa planet (Other)-planet language Alien language
Italian Questo per me è arabo/aramaico/ostrogoto[6] [ˈkwesto per me ɛ ˈaːrabo], [araˈmaiko], [ostroˈɡɔːto] To me this is Arabic/Aramaic/Ostrogoth Arabic, Aramaic, Ostrogoth
Japanese ちんぷんかんぷん chin pun kan pun
[tɕim pɯŋ kam pɯɴ]
"Ching chong" Gibberish, referring to the "Chinese" sound of incomprehensible Chinese loanwords used by the scholarly élite
Javanese Cakar pitik
(refers to unreadable writing)
Chicken feet
Basa londo Dutch language Dutch
Latin Graecum est; non legitur [ˈɡrai̯kum est non ˈleɡitur] This is Greek; it can't be read Greek
Latvian Tā man ir ķīniešu ābece [taː man ir ciːnieʃu aːbetse] This is Chinese alphabet book to me Chinese
Lithuanian Tai man kaip kinų kalba. [taɪ mɐn kaɪp kinuˑ kɐlba] Its Chinese to me Chinese
Macedonian За мене тоа е шпанско село Za mene toa e špansko selo
[za mɛnɛ tɔa ɛ ʃpaŋskɔ sɛlɔ]
It is for me a Spanish village. Spanish
Mandarin 火星文 Huǒxīng wén Martian language Usually refers to comically unconventional writing, but also often used in the same context of unintelligible words or text.
看起來像天書。/看起来像天书。 [kʰan˥˩ tɕʰi˨˩ lai̯˧˥ ɕjɑŋ˥˩ tʰjɛn˥ ʂu˥] Looks like hieroglyphics "Book from Heaven"
(Referring to an unknown writing system, or god's language, c.f. A Book from the Sky)
這是鬼畫符嗎?/这是鬼画符吗? Zhè shì guǐhuàfú ma? Is this written in ghost's script?
(Referring to very poor, incomprehensible handwriting.)
Ghost's script
聽起來像鳥語。/ 听起来像鸟语。 [tʰiŋ˥ tɕʰi˨˩ lai̯˧˥ ɕjɑŋ˥˩ njɑʊ̯˧˥ y˩˧] Sounds like the birds
(Unknown phonology system.)
"Sounds/tongue of the Birds"
Low Saxon Dat kümmt mi spaansch vör. [dat kymt miː spoːnʃ føɐ] That seems like Spanish to me. Spanish
Norwegian Det er helt gresk for meg. It's complete Greek to me Greek
Persian انگار ژاپنی حرف می زنه [Engɒːr ʒɒːponiː hærf miːzæne] It's as if he/she's speaking Japanese Japanese
مگه ترکی حرف میزنم؟ [mæge torkiː hærf miːzænæm] Am I speaking turkish Turkish
Polish To dla mnie chińszczyzna. [tɔ dla mɲe xʲiɲˈʂtʂɨzna] To me it's Chinese Chinese
Portuguese Isto para mim é chinês. [ˈiʃtu pəɾə ˈmĩ ɛ ʃiˈneʃ] This is Chinese to me Chinese (Portugal)
Isto para mim é grego. [ˈiʃtu pəɾə ˈmĩ ɛ ˈɣɾeɣu] This is Greek to me Greek (Portugal)
Não entendo grego/hebraico/aramaico. [nɜ̃w ĩˈtẽdu ˈɡɾeɣu], [ĩˈtẽd eˈbɾajku], [ĩˈtẽd(w) ɜɾəˈmajku] I don't understand Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic (Brazil)
Não falo grego/hebraico/aramaico. [nɜ̃w ˈfalu ˈɡɾeɣu], [ˈfal eˈbɾajku], ˈ[fal(w) ɜɾəˈmajku] I don't speak Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic (Brazil)
Você está falando grego/latim/árabe.
Você fala em... (ditto)
[ˈse ˈta fɜˈlɜ̃du ˈɡɾeɣu], [lɐˈtʃĩ], [ˈaɾəβi]
[voˈse ˈfalə̯ ĩ ˈɡɾeɣu (...)]
You are speaking Greek/Latin/Arabic. Greek, Latin, Arabic (Brazil)
Você está falando grego/latim/árabe? [ˈse ˈta fɜˈlɜ̃du ˈɡɾeɣu (...)] Are you speaking Greek/Latin/Arabic? Greek, Latin, Arabic (Brazil)
Não leio japonês.
Não sei ler japonês/árabe.
[nɜ̃w ˈlej.ju ʒɜpuˈneʃ]
[nɜ̃w ˈsej ˈleʁ ʒɐpoˈnes], [le ˈɾaɾəβi]
I can't read Japanese/Arabic Japanese, Arabic (Brazil)
Romanian Parcă e chineză.
[ˈparkə je kiˈnezə] It's like Chinese. Chinese
Russian Это для меня китайская грамота. Eto dlya menya kitaiskaya gramota.
[ˈɛtə ˈdʲlʲæ mʲɪˈnʲæ kʲɪˈtajskəjə ˈɡramətə]
That's Chinese writing to me. Chinese, but emphasis is put on reading rather than speaking; typically the phrase is applied to branches of knowledge like Chemistry, Maths, computer experience, etc.
Serbian То су за мене шпанска села.
To su za mene španska sela.
[to su za mene ʃpanska sela] These are to me a Spanish village. Spanish
К'о да кинески причаш.
K'o da kineski pričaš.
Like speaking in Chinese Chinese
Slovak To je pre mňa španielska dedina. [to je pre mɲa ʃpaɲielska ɟeɟina] That is a Spanish village to me. Spanish
Slovene To mi je španska vas [ˈtóː mi jɛ ˈʃpáːnska ˈʋáːs] That is a Spanish village to me. Spanish
Spanish Está en chino/arameo.
Me suena a chino/arameo.
[esˈta en ˈtʃino], [aɾaˈmeo]
[me ˈswenaː ˈtʃino], [aɾaˈmeo]
This is in Chinese/Aramaic.
It sounds like Chinese/Aramaic to me.
Chinese, Aramaic
No entiendo ni jota [no enˈtjendo ni ˈxota] I don't understand one iota of it.
Reference to Matthew 5:18.[7]
Greek
Swedish Det är rena grekiskan. [deː æ reːna ɡreːkɪskan] It's all Greek Greek
Turkish Konuya Fransız kaldım.[8] [konuja fɾansɯz kaɫˈdɯm] I am French to the topic. Turkish, as from the viewpoint of a French person who doesn't understand any Turkish.
Anladıysam Arap olayım.[9] If I could understand, I'd be an Arab. Arabic
Ukrainian Це для мене китайська грамота. Tse dlya mene kitas'ka gramota.
[tsɛ dlʲɑ ˈmɛne kɪˈtɑjsʲkɑ ˈɦrɑmotɑ]
That's Chinese writing to me. Chinese
Venetian Par mi xe turco. [par miː ze ˈtyɾko] To me this is Turkish. Turkish
Vietnamese Tiếng Miên. Khmer Cambodian
Yiddish ס'איז תּרגום־לשון/טערקיש/אָץ־קוצץ־לשון/מלאָכים־לשון/חרטמים־לשון S'iz targem-loshn/terkish/ots-koytsets-loshn/malokhim-loshn/khartumim-loshn.
[sɪz tarɡemloʃn̩]
It is the language of Targum (Aramaic translations of the Bible)/Turkish/gibberish/the language of the angels/the language of Pharaoh's magicians (i.e. hieroglyphics). Aramaic / Turkish / Hieroglyphics

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Rosenberg, A. (1979). Lingvisticæ Investigationes:III 3(2). 323-339
  2. ^ Moser, D. Pīnyīn.Info. Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard. Retrieved Jun 4, 2011, http://www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html
  3. ^ 鸡肠噉/唔知噏乜———it’s Greek to me (in Cantonese)
  4. ^ In isolation, voor is pronounced [voːr].
  5. ^ https://onzetaal.nl/taaladvies/advies/ergens-geen-jota-van-snappen
  6. ^ Modi di dire (in Italian)
  7. ^ Morcillo, José Juan. "Biblismos". La Tribuna de Albacete. 
  8. ^ http://tdk.gov.tr/TR/sozbul.ASPX?F6E10F8892433CFFAAF6AA849816B2EF05A79F75456518CA&Kelime=Frans%C4%B1z%20kalmak. Retrieved 2012-01-19.  Missing or empty |title= (help)[dead link] (in Turkish)
  9. ^ http://hurarsiv.hurriyet.com.tr/goster/haber.aspx?id=7619601&yazarid=82

External links[edit]