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A blame game of language and depth-first search.
January 15, 2009 6:22 PM   Subscribe

"It's all {Greek -> Chinese -> Heavenly Script} to me." Mark Liberman, on Language Log, recently did some quick research on how other languages would say "It's Greek to me." And created a directed graph of his findings, which were then supplemented with reader comments.
posted by shadytrees (49 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm not sure what this gem that Babelfish spat out for "It is all Greek to me!" means, but I'm sure it's hilarious -

Είναι όλα τα ελληνικά σε με!
posted by mrmojoflying at 6:34 PM on January 15, 2009


I studied Greek in college, and, boy, did that joke get old.

Love this correspondence and must pore over it.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:37 PM on January 15, 2009


When I was a student in Israel, there was a minor cross cultural crisis when one of the Israelis wrote 'it's all chinese to me' in an email that was distributed among all the people in the institute. The Chinese students were mighty offended, and it was a while before it got sorted out.
posted by dhruva at 6:39 PM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


From the comments:

On another note, the saying in Esperanto is something like "Tio estas volapukaĵo" - that's Volapük. Again, I've never actually heard it used in a conversation.

Frakkin' brilliant.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:41 PM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's all Magyar to me.

seriously, can the Hawaiians and the Hungarians get together for some vowel/consonant exchange program? Even in Czech I had to result to using phonetic names for streets "Meet me at the corner of Crazy Elephant and Badish Rose, it's at the end of Offside Punts and Havoc Animal
posted by The Whelk at 6:44 PM on January 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


Dang! Now I'm trying to figure out where that is. I lived at the corner of We Botanicals and Deetzenhooha Sadie.

(Sorry for the derail! This post is fascinatin'!)
posted by speedlime at 7:20 PM on January 15, 2009


Huh... there's no cycles in the graph?
posted by sbutler at 7:39 PM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


He updated the graph. Here's the updated version.
posted by vacapinta at 7:42 PM on January 15, 2009


subtler: There's an expanded version of the graph that appears to have a cycle from Arabic->Persian->Turkish->Arabic.
posted by jedicus at 7:45 PM on January 15, 2009


Interesting that the phrase seems to have been popularized by Julius Caesar since in reality, he was a fluent speaker of Greek, as were most elite Romans of the time.
posted by empath at 7:50 PM on January 15, 2009


vacapinta: "He updated the graph. Here's the updated version."

English is the... "chicken intestines" of China?
posted by Rhaomi at 7:58 PM on January 15, 2009


It's chicken intestines to me!

Actually, that only refers to written English and more specifically, written English.
posted by tksh at 8:02 PM on January 15, 2009


Err.. first written English refers to spoken versus written English and second written English as in cursive writing.
posted by tksh at 8:04 PM on January 15, 2009


This is a wonderful thing.
posted by taz at 8:07 PM on January 15, 2009


Someone in the comments on the link above posted a reference to a 1979 paper on the matter.
posted by blenderfish at 8:25 PM on January 15, 2009


I went to England once. I asked for English Muffins. They never heard of 'em.
posted by jonmc at 9:04 PM on January 15, 2009


There's an expanded version of the graph that appears to have a cycle from Arabic->Persian->Turkish->Arabic.

The large graph is a bit sloppy with double ended arrows, but there are also appear to be two 2-cycles:
Arabic↔Persian and Arabic↔Greek
posted by metaplectic at 9:07 PM on January 15, 2009


Crumpets, Jon. Crumpets.

there exists a violent war between me and my BF on how he cannot find decent crumpets in the States. I bring him English Muffins and he balks, wails, and chews the walls. No they are not! too chewy! too big! The local supermarket only has *real* crumpets once in a blue moon and while I love him to death I cannot understand his devotion to hard, tasteless hockypucks of yeast. If I hadn't leaned how to make Yorkshire puddings he would have divorced me by now
posted by The Whelk at 9:09 PM on January 15, 2009


Ooh.. now there's also a cycle between greek, chinese, and english! The latest version looks more how I'd expect (messy).
posted by sbutler at 9:32 PM on January 15, 2009


The original version reminds me of something out of Anathem. I won't say what though, spoilers and all.
posted by delmoi at 9:35 PM on January 15, 2009


English→Dutch→Latin→Greek→Chinese→English
English→Dutch→Hebrew→Chinese→English
posted by metaplectic at 9:56 PM on January 15, 2009


This is really cool. I thought it was neat that the graph was acyclic, and briefly wondered if there was some reason for this, but the expanded graph ruins that. On the other hand, the expanded graph is weakly connected, which is interesting (stupid Telugu was getting in the way before).
posted by painquale at 10:16 PM on January 15, 2009


Chinese Heavenly script is exclusively for written language though; not sure I can think of an oral equivalent - heard 鸟语 ("birdsong") used in what I think was a similar way, i.e. incomprehensible foreign jibber-jabber, or 鸟人讲鸟语 ("I can't be bothered to listen to your babble, you fool"). Will bore some Chinese friends with the question later; be interesting to know if there's any break along linguistic lines in the various languages all lumped together under "Chinese."
The origins of 胡说 ("nonsense") is "talking like a barbarian" (I presume, not having done a proper check of the etymology) but obviously that's not quite the same thing.
posted by Abiezer at 10:25 PM on January 15, 2009


"Talking like a barbarian" is apt -- since that was the ancient Greek version of "It's Greek to me." (ie: Sounds like those guys saying "Bar-bar-bar bar-bar bar-bar .... ").
posted by RavinDave at 10:41 PM on January 15, 2009


RavinDave:

People have told me that the Romans (or sometimes the Greeks) called them barbarians because they said bar-bar-bar, but when I looked it up I found that barbarian actually has the same roots as barber, i.e., barbarians had beards (from the Latin barba for beard). It was a little disappointing to me — I like the bar-bar-bar explanation.
posted by argybarg at 11:32 PM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Crumpets, Jon. Crumpets.

Crumpet =/= English Muffin =/= Muffin
posted by crossoverman at 12:07 AM on January 16, 2009


I can't possibly be the first to ask ... but what reference point do the speakers in Heaven use? "It's all diablo to me" is too obvious.
posted by kanewai at 12:31 AM on January 16, 2009


limbo language?
posted by taz at 12:54 AM on January 16, 2009


argybarg I kinda have a hard time believing that the Greeks would typify outsiders by their beards since they were pretty commonplace among the Greeks themselves.
posted by RavinDave at 1:20 AM on January 16, 2009


kanewai: "27I can't possibly be the first to ask ... but what reference point do the speakers in Heaven use? "It's all diablo to me" is too obvious."

There's at least seven un-Christian ways to answer this.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:24 AM on January 16, 2009


I am Greek and part of my job is to train clients on complex analytics software and concepts. Invariably, after I burn them out in the first few hours of this, I'll throw my hands in the air and exclaim "oh well, it's all Greek to me too". Corny but it breaks the ice...

As to the etymology of barbarian, I was always taught the bar-bar explanation myself. The word is meaningless in Greek so onomatopoea sounds like a logical explanation.
posted by costas at 3:32 AM on January 16, 2009


So to the Persians, it's Japanese, but apparently we don't know what blahblah sounds like to the Japanese. Anyone know? Chinese is actually a likely guess.
posted by zardoz at 4:31 AM on January 16, 2009


Zardoz: the Japanese word that comes to mind here is "chinpunkanpun" (or just chinpunkan), which kind of corresponds to "mumbo-jumbo" in English. It most likely began as a phonemically plausible mockery of other Japanese folks who used too many Chinese words in their speech (e.g. the elite, quoting Chinese texts or whatever).
posted by No-sword at 4:54 AM on January 16, 2009


I don't speak much Japanese, but my dictionary tells me "チンプンカンプン" (chinpunkanpun) would be the equivalent. In kanji, (although rarely used,) that would be 珍紛漢紛 or 珍糞漢糞, the former of which is very roughly "strange-confusing-chinese-confusing" and the latter "strange-shit-chinese-shit". Which bears out your theory, zardoz.

On preview, No-sword beat me to it. Do you know if these kanji are ever used for that expression, then?
posted by Arasithil at 5:01 AM on January 16, 2009


No arrow from English to Chinese? I guess it's just about spoken language. I've never heard someone use that phrase about spoken Chinese, but I've definitely heard it about written Chinese. That is, I've never heard:

It sounded like Chinese or something.

But I have heard:

It was written in, like, Chinese.
posted by DU at 6:08 AM on January 16, 2009


Anyone know of any YouTubery of a foreign actor or comedian speaking in mock English a la Sid Caesar?
posted by RavinDave at 6:27 AM on January 16, 2009


when I looked it up I found that barbarian actually has the same roots as barber

Looked it up where? Don't believe everything you read; there's all kinds of nonsense out there, especially about etymology. Here's the OED (s.v. barbarous), which I suspect trumps your source:

[f. L. barbar-us, a. Gr. βάρβαρος + -OUS: preceded in use by the simple BARBAR(E, without suffix. The Gr. word had probably a primary reference to speech, and is compared with L. balbus stammering. The sense-development in ancient times was (with the Greeks) ‘foreign, non-Hellenic,’ later ‘outlandish, rude, brutal’; (with the Romans) ‘not Latin nor Greek,’ then ‘pertaining to those outside the Roman empire’; hence ‘uncivilized, uncultured,’ and later ‘non-Christian,’ whence ‘Saracen, heathen’; and generally ‘savage, rude, savagely cruel, inhuman.’ The later uses occur first in Eng., the L. and Gr. senses appearing only in translators or historians.]

Both the American Heritage Dictionary and Merriam-Webster take it back to Greek, which they don't attempt to analyze. Nobody mentions beards.
posted by languagehat at 6:29 AM on January 16, 2009


Anyone know of any YouTubery of a foreign actor or comedian speaking in mock English a la Sid Caesar?
It's a stock-in-trade for Chinese cross-talk (相声, kind of double-act performance) performers. You can take the piss out of foreigners without worrying too much about saying something the censors won't like. Here's a random example (shows ad for 5 seconds at start). Don't know Sid Caesar mind, so might not be what you wanted.
posted by Abiezer at 6:55 AM on January 16, 2009


Should add in that one they're taking the mick out of their own regional accents too, in an equal opportunities bit of mockery.
posted by Abiezer at 6:58 AM on January 16, 2009


I'm so puzzled where the French plucked "Javanese" from as a point of reference. It's not like it's a part of Southeast Asia that they had regular links with, like Vietnam.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:52 AM on January 16, 2009


I guess the German/Spanish link goes back to the Hapsburgs, when they controlled the Holy Roman Empire and Spain?
posted by empath at 8:17 AM on January 16, 2009


empath: "10Interesting that the phrase seems to have been popularized by Julius Caesar since in reality, he was a fluent speaker of Greek, as were most elite Romans of the time."

No, it is more (I think) popularized by the play known as Julius Ceasar, not the man himself, and the scene where Cassius disdainfully discusses Caesar refusing the "kingly crown" he obviously covets by making a pretty speech, received well by the crowd, ""But, for my own part, it was Greek to me". (Act I, Scene II)
posted by misha at 9:17 AM on January 16, 2009


Missing from this chart is ( Billy Joel ) --> ( Rock & Roll )
posted by Spatch at 10:09 AM on January 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Misha, I was referring to the play.
posted by empath at 10:25 AM on January 16, 2009


I'm so puzzled where the French plucked "Javanese" from as a point of reference.

Do not attempt to understand the French.

I went to England once. I asked for English Muffins. They never heard of 'em.

Similar sadness: Worchestershire, Gloucestersire and Yorkshire. "Ey guvnor, you've got any Sauce, do you? Any Pudding?" I've honestly never seen a crumpet over there either, just that damnable national "breakfast" that is inescapable even at the airport.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:23 PM on January 16, 2009


Arasithil: Yeah, those are the most common kanji used for it. The oldest recorded examples are just chinpunkan, usually ending in 漢, which suggests that maybe it was meant to be "chinpun dude". This would be analogous to 痴漢, "foolish dude" → fool (then later "pervert") and 無頼漢, "villainous dude" → ruffian, scallawag.

If this is true, then chinpun may have carried the main meaning of "words from Chinese" with kan adding "guy who does this" plus a mild additional suggestion of Chineseness due to the use of the kanji 漢.

I understand some people argue that "Chin Pun" was a common Chinese name (with 漢 added for "dude"), or that the whole thing is derived from an actual Chinese phrase (such as 聴不憧看不憧, "hear but not understand, see but not understand"). These origin stories strike me as rather more fanciful.
posted by No-sword at 3:29 PM on January 16, 2009


Anyone know of any YouTubery of a foreign actor or comedian speaking in mock English a la Sid Caesar?

Sorry about the self-link but this song by Franco has a weird mock english James Brown impression: http://worldbeatplanet.com/node/1122
posted by mike3k at 8:52 PM on January 17, 2009


For what it's worth, I was relying on the Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, which says:
Barba means "beard" in Latin, and when the Romans called hirsute foreigners barbarians they were strictly calling them "bearded men," though the word shortly came to mean, rightly or wrongly, "rude, uncivilized people" ... however, barbarian may have Greek origins.
So it goes.
posted by argybarg at 1:01 PM on January 18, 2009


Thanks for answering; I'm not familiar with the Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, and now I know what to think of it (not much). Barbarian "may have Greek origins"? Yeah, and my username may be languagehat.
posted by languagehat at 5:12 PM on January 18, 2009


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