It’s all Greek to me, pero está en chino!

It’s funny the things we take for granted when we’re learning a foreign language. There are several expressions that many of us just assume would be exactly the same in other languages because, hey, we’re all humans and doesn’t everyone think the same way?
A good example of this is the expression “It’s Greek to me,” a very common English expression to say that something is confusing or unintelligible. William Shakespeare is credited with popularizing the phrase when he put it in the mouth of a character in his famous play about Julius Caesar. (“…but those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for my own part, it was Greek to me.“)
When I first started to learn Spanish I assumed that Spanish speakers would use the same expression because the Greek language has nothing in common with Spanish. Well, I was wrong. In Spanish, the equivalent expression is está en chino (“It’s in Chinese”) or me suena a chino (“It sounds like Chinese to me.”)
It’s not surprising that similar expressions exist in other languages. However, it turns out that the language some other languages use as an example of something strange, odd or unintelligible is….SPANISH!! Can you believe it?!
Blogger Erik Rasmussen turned me on to this subject by forwarding to me a link to the chart below. It shows, in graphic form, what linguists call “the directed graph of stereotypical incomprehensibility” and it’s like a modern-day Tower of Babel.
There are different theories on why Spanish got labeled this way. Some speculate that it is rooted in Spain’s history of conquering different lands. Perhaps native peoples coming into contact with the Spanish viewed los españoles as very odd and incomprehensible and the stereotype stuck. For example, centuries ago King Carlos V of Spain was also emperor of Germany and Austria and his royal court ceremonies were viewed by the locals as strange and unfamiliar.
Fast forward five centuries and there still remains this legacy in some European languages of considering Spanish to be synonymous with something that is confusing, unintelligible or downright fishy.
Here are some examples:
CZECH: To je pro mne španelska vesnice (Literally: “It’s a Spanish village to me.” But the meaning is that something is incomprehensible or confusing.)
GERMAN: Das kommt mir Spanisch vor (“That looks like Spanish to me.”)
ICELANDIC: Þetta kemur mér spánskt fyrir sjónir (“This looks Spanish to me.”)
SLOVENIAN: To mi je španska vas (“To me, it is a Spanish village.”)
SLOVAK: Matematika je pre m?a španielska dedina (Literally, “For me, math is a Spanish village.” In other words, I’m very bad at math, I don’t understand math.)
But it turns out that the language that is most frequently cited as a synonym of something impossible to understand isn’t Spanish, but Chinese.
And what do the Chinese say? According to Arnold Rosenberg, who wrote a paper on the topic 30 years ago, “having seen so many turn to Chinese as the symbol of unintelligibility, one must wonder where the Chinese turn. To Heaven! The Chinese analog of our long-studied expression is (roughly translated) – “It’s heavenly script to me.”
Special thanks to Maria Shipley for helping me with this post.