Greek to me

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That's Greek to me or it's (all) Greek to me is an idiom in English referring to an expression that is difficult to understand for the sayer. It is commonly a complex or imprecise verbal or written expression or diagram, often containing excessive use of jargon, dialect, mathematics, science, or symbols.

Although to some it may seem an insult, the metaphor simply refers to the Greek language (either ancient or modern) as typifying foreign communication, written or spoken, and may be a dead metaphor, one that has lost its original understood meaning.

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. 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. Double 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 aṣ-Ṣīnīyah
[jataˈħadːaθ bɪlˈluɣa asˤːiːˈniːja]
He's speaking Chinese. Chinese
The verb in the example can be conjugated in other forms.
Arabic, Syrian Colloquial يحكي كرشوني yaḥki Karšūni
[ˈjaħki karˈʃuːni]
He's speaking Syriac. Syriac, using the Garshuni (Arabic) script as a reference to it.
The verb in the example can be conjugated in other forms.
Arabic, Egyptian Colloquial بيتكلم بالهندي byatkallam bel-hendi
[bjætˈkælːæm belˈhendi]
He's speaking Hindi. Hindi
The verb in the example can be conjugated in other forms.
Asturian Suename chinu
Ta'n chinu.
It sounds like Chinese to me.
It's in Chinese.
Chinese
Bulgarian Все едно ми говориш на патагонски. Vse edno mi govoriš na patagonski.
[fsɛ ɛdˈnɔ mi ɡɔˈvɔriʃ na pataˈɡɔnskʲi]
It's like you're talking in Patagonian. "Patagonian"
Cantonese 呢個係咪鬼畫符呀? / 呢个系咪鬼画符呀? li1 go3 hai6 mai6 gwai2 waak6 fu4 aa3
[liː˥ kɔ˧ hɐi˨ mɐi˨ kwɐi˧˥ waːk̚˨ fuː˨˩ aː˧]
Is this ghost script? "ghost script"
Refers to illegible handwriting.
Catalan Com si diguessis Llúcia [kom si di'ɣes:is 'ʎusiə] Like if you say Lucy; not referring to a language
Cebuano Linatin Latin Latin, a language used in rituals by holy men such as Catholic priests, faith healers, and talisman owners.
Ininsik 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. [te̝ ˈʁeˀnə volɑˈpʰyk] This is pure gibberish. Volapük
Det er en by i Rusland. This is a town in Russia. Russian
Dutch Dat is Chinees voor mij. [dɑt ɪs ʃiˈneːs foːr mɛi][3] 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.[4] Greek
Esperanto Tio estas volapukaĵo. [ˈtio ˈestas volapuˈkaʒo] It's all Volapük. Volapük
Estonian See on mulle hiina keel. This is Chinese to me. Chinese
Filipino Parang Intsik It looks like Chinese. Chinese
Finnish Täyttä hepreaa. [ˈtæy̯tːæ ˈhepreɑː] It's all Hebrew. Hebrew
Kuulostaa siansaksalta Sounds like pig's German gibberish
harakanvarpaita (refers to undecipherable writing) Magpie's toes unintelligible writing (gibberish)
French C'est du chinois.
C'est de l'hébreu.
C'est du russe.
[s‿ɛ dy ʃinwa]
[s‿ɛ də l‿ebʁø]
[s‿ɛ dy ʁys]
It's Chinese.
It's Hebrew.
It's Russian.
Chinese
Hebrew
Russian
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 trade Romance Mediterranean Lingua Franca
Das sind böhmische Dörfer für mich [ˌbøːmɪʃə ˈdœʁfɐ] These are Bohemian villages to me Czech, Bohemia being a region of the neighbouring Czech Republic that is nearest to Germany.
Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof All I understand is "train station."
Polnisch rückwärts Polish [spoken] in reverse Polish
Greek, Standard Modern Αυτά μου φαίνονται κινέζικα. [afˈta mu ˈfenɔːnde 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 [ze sinit biʃvili] It's Chinese to me! Chinese
כתב חרטומים [ktav ħartˤumim] The script of a pharaoh's magicians (i.e. hieroglyphics) Hieroglyphics
Hindi,

Urdu

क्या मैं फ़ारसी बोल रहा हूँ?

کیا میں فارسی بول رہا ہوں؟

Kyā maĩ fārsī bol rahā hū̃? Am I speaking Persian? Persian
Hungarian Ez nekem kínai. [ˈɛz ˈnɛkɛm ˈkiːnɒi] It's Chinese to me. Chinese
Icelandic Hrognamál [ˈr̥ɔknaˌmauːl̥] "fish-egg language"
Þetta er hebreska fyrir mér. [ˈθɛhtɑ ɛr ˈhɛːprɛska ˈfɪːrɪr mjɛːr̥] This is Hebrew to me. Hebrew
Indonesian (Tulisan) Cakar ayam Chicken feet gibberish
Refers to unreadable writing.
Bahasa planet (Other-)planet language alien language
Italian Questo per me è arabo/aramaico/ostrogoto/turco/cinese [ˈkwesto per ˈme ˌɛ ˈaːrabo], [araˈmaiko], [ostroˈɡɔːto], [ˈtu:rko], [tʃiˈne:ze] This is Arabic/Aramaic/Ostrogoth/Turkish/Chinese to me Arabic, Aramaic, Ostrogoth, Turkish, Chinese
Japanese 珍紛漢紛 Chinpun kanpun
[ˈtɕimpɯŋkamˌpɯɴ]
"Ching chong" formal speech
Refers to the "Chinese" sound of incomprehensible Chinese loanwords.
Javanese Cakar pitik
(refers to unreadable writing)
Chicken feet gibberish
Basa londo Dutch language Dutch
Korean 횡설수설하고 있다 Hoengseolsuseolhago itta They are speaking horizontally and vertically. gibberish, especially for unrecognizable spoken language or incoherence.
괴발개발
(refers to unreadable writing)
Goebalgaebal Cat's footprints and dog's footprints gibberish
아무 말이나 한다 Amu marina handa They are speaking out random words. gibberish
외계어를 한다 Oegyeeoreul handa They are speaking in an alien language. alien language
개소리를 한다 Gaesorireul handa They are making a dog's sound. gibberish
Latin Graecum est; nōn legitur [ˈɡrae̯kum est noːn 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] It's 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
Malay (Tulisan) Cakar ayam Chicken feet gibberish
Refers to unreadable writing.
Mandarin 看起來像天書。/ 看起来像天书。 Kànqǐlái xiàng tiān shū
[kʰan˥˩ tɕʰi˨˩ lai̯˧˥ ɕjɑŋ˥˩ tʰjɛn˥ ʂu˥]
Looks like a book from Heaven "Heaven's language"
Refers 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?
[ʈʂɤ˥˩ ʂɻ̩˥˩ kwei˨˩ hwa˥˩ fu˧˥ ma˧]
Are these ghost-drawn marks? "ghost language"
Refers to very poor, incomprehensible handwriting.
聽起來像鳥語。/ 听起来像鸟语。 Tīngqǐlái xiàng niǎoyǔ.
[tʰiŋ˥ tɕʰi˨˩ lai̯˧˥ ɕjɑŋ˥˩ njɑʊ̯˧˥ y˨˩]
Sounds like bird language.
"bird language" (bird song)
Refers to incomprehensible speech.
火星文 Huǒxīng wén
[xwɔ˨˩ ɕiŋ˥ wən˧˥]
Martian writing "Martian"
Usually refers to comically unconventional writing, but is also often used in the same context of unintelligible words or text.
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. [ˈtɔ dla ˈmɲɛ xʲij̃ˈʂtʂɨzna] To me it's Chinese Chinese
Siedzieć jak na tureckim kazaniu [ˈɕɛdʑɛtɕ ˈjak na tuˈrɛtskʲim kaˈzaɲu] Sit as in a Turkish sermon Turkish
Czeski film [ˈtʂɛskʲi ˈfilm] Czech movie (this one refers to an incomprehensible situation rather than words, coined after a wave of absurdist movies in Czech cinematography) Czech
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
Ești turc? [jeʃtʲ ˈtuɾk] Are you Turkish? Turkish
Russian Это для меня китайская грамота. Eto dlja menjá kitájskaja grámota.
[ˈɛtə ˈdʲlʲæ mʲɪˈnʲæ kʲɪˈtajskəjə ˈɡramətə]
That's Chinese writing to me. Chinese, but emphasis is put on reading rather than speaking. The phrase is often applied when not understanding branches of knowledge like chemistry, maths or computing due to lack of familiarity.
Как курица лапой. Like [scribbled by] chicken feet. gibberish
Refers to very poor, incomprehensible handwriting.
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.[5]
Greek
Swedish Det är rena grekiskan. [ˈdeː æ ˈrěːna ˈɡrěːkɪskan] It's pure Greek Greek
Turkish Konuya Fransız kaldım.[6] [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.[7] [anɫaˈdɯjsam aˈɾap oɫajɯm] let me blacken, get dark skin ("turn into Arab") if I understood it
(in Turkish "arap olayım" is used in idioms in similar sense to "God strike me down if ...", to emphasize that something is not true)[8]
(informal, old-fashioned, offensive)[9]
None (Arab doesn't refer to nationality or language, but skin color)
Ukrainian Це для мене китайська грамота. Tse dlja mene kitajs'ka gramota.
[ˈtsɛ dʲlʲɐ ˈmɛne kɪˈtɑjsʲkɐ ˈɦrɑmotɐ]
That's Chinese writing to me. Chinese
Venetian Par mi xe turco. [paɾ ˈmi ˌzɛ ˈtuɾko] To me this is Turkish. Turkish
Vietnamese Tiếng Miên. Cambodian Cambodian
Yiddish תּרגום־לשון
טערקיש
אָץ־קוצץ־לשון
מלאָכים־לשון
חרטמים־לשון
targem-loshn
terkish
ots-koytsets-loshn
malokhim-loshn
khartumim-loshn
targum language (i.e. that of Aramaic translations of the Bible)
Turkish
gibberish
the language of angels
the language of a pharaoh's magicians (i.e. hieroglyphics)
Aramaic / Turkish / gibberish / angelic language / 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 Archived 2011-05-21 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ In isolation, voor is pronounced [voːr].
  4. ^ "Ergens geen jota van snappen". Archived from the original on 2015-12-22. Retrieved 2015-12-17.
  5. ^ Morcillo, José Juan. "Biblismos". La Tribuna de Albacete.
  6. ^ "Güncel Türkçe Sözlük'te Söz Arama" (in Turkish). Archived from the original on 2007-09-26. Retrieved 2012-01-19.
  7. ^ "Hürriyet Arama". Archived from the original on 2013-09-27. Retrieved 2012-11-27.
  8. ^ "Güncel Türkçe Sözlük'te Söz Arama" (in Turkish). Archived from the original on 2016-04-05. Retrieved 2021-06-23.
  9. ^ ""Anladıysam Arap olayım" sözü rafa mı kalkıyor?" (in Turkish). Archived from the original on 2021-06-24. Retrieved 2021-06-23.

External links[edit]