Wednesday, December 28, 2016

When Things Just Don't Make Sense

No, I'm not talking about Donald Trump's approach to governance.

You're all familiar, I assume, with the expression commonly used by speakers of English to say that they don't understand something: It's all Greek to me!

Perhaps it is, at least to you. But what does a Greek say when something is unintelligible? After all, if it's Greek to her, then she ought to understand it perfectly well. As it turns out, the equivalent of the expression for speakers of Greek relates unintelligibility to Chinese.

I think this is fascinating, coming as it does at the intersection of linguistics, semantics, and sociology, and it probably says a lot about culture and language.

A while back I ran across this graph by Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, which shows the language that various languages use to describe things that are incomprehensible ... click it to embiggen it ...

What's particularly interesting is that almost every language relates incomprehensibility to expression in a different language - most often Greek or Chinese. There are exceptions, though ... Chinese expresses the concept not in terms of another language, but as a "heavenly script," or "product of heaven" (for speakers of Mandarin) or "chicken intestines" (for speakers of Cantonese) while Japanese uses a string of nonsense syllables rather than a specific language.

There's a list of various equivalents of "It's all Greek to me" on the Omniglot website, which will help you avoid becoming boring with your descriptions of the actions and pronouncements of our incoming president.

Have a good day, in whatever language you choose. More thoughts tomorrow.



eViL pOp TaRt said...

How different languages express incomprehensible is an interesting concept. I understand (maybe incorrectly) that the Greeks developed the word 'barbarian' out of mimicking the sounds that the barbarians' languages sound like.
I wonder why Esperanto didn't catch on. Maybe it's due to the scarcity of native speakers.

Mike said...

It's all gobbledygook to me. No offense to turkeys.