Daily question: Is it Greek, Javanese or Heavenly Script to you?

but those that understood him smiled at one another and
shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me

says Shakespeare in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar.

But if you are Italian that would be in Ottoman Turkish, if German in Mesopotomian, if Finnish in Pig German, if Arabic in Hindi…Indeed, you might need a map to decipher what’s incomprehensible in other languages:


Of course, if you’re fluent in Esperanto, anything incomprehensible would be in Volapük to you.

Since nearly a half of our readers here are from non-Anglo-Saxon countries:

What’s Volapük to you?

11 thoughts on “Daily question: Is it Greek, Javanese or Heavenly Script to you?

  1. Kontra: Is it from the Aramaic “avda kedavra”

    I expect not many people would be aware of the Aramaic roots of “Abracadabra”, while still using it.
    The problem with referring to any existing language would be that you either expose yourself as non-educated or insult the people from that country. Classical Greek is educated at elite high-schools while modern Greece is a EU-member and a popular holiday destination. So “Greek” is not very usable for “ununderstandable language”, maybe “Chinese” is more suitable. At least people will understand when I say: “That’s Chinese to me”
    But still, Holland is a sea-faring and trading nation where it is considered a virtue to have basic knowledge of foreign languages. So referring to a non-existing language like “Abracadabra” is by far a safer – and more commonly used – choice when you don’t understand a word of it.

  2. Berend Schotanus: “Abracadabra”

    Is it from the Aramaic “avda kedavra” or just meaning gibberish in the abstract?

  3. Deanston: “the little floppy automatically means “Save” “

    This is a fairly recent phenomenon for humans because the digital world has made it so pervasive. Soon, we’ll have a generation that has never used and probably never even seen a floppy disk, but uses it to signify ‘save’. Perhaps at a time when the very notion of ‘saving’ will become obsolete with cloud computing.

    What was once “Greek” to an older generation struggling with personal computers has in just over a decade transcended into complete abstraction where the younger generation only recognizes the function but not the object.

    “While the chat/text shorthands such as BFF, OMG, and LOL may some day replace the current spelling”

    For some computer users, and especially non-English speakers, these are already iconic, bereft of their acronymic substance.

  4. Gazoobee: “… a deeply internalised cultural understanding of the separation of their culture from the rest of the world.”

    I wonder how you can come to this strong generalization from a single linguistic graph. True, other cultural and historical studies based on Western interpretations have made similar claims, and it may well be true along with other cultural characteristics. However, as my first comment notes, deeper understanding of this graph would come from further analysis of the notion of what makes a language known and yet alien on a true geographic and anthropological basis. While this Mutual Incomprehension Mapping appears intriguing, I wonder how complete and thorough it is.

    I’ve found it more amazing that language, like most subjects – be it politics, physics, car maker, or operating systems – appears to come down to two major popular camps also. The written portion can be generally categorize into the alphabetical system (Greek, Latin, etc.) and glyph style or characters system (Chinese, Egyptian, etc.). While on the face they appear very different, the origins of spoken language are actually quite similar, heavily influenced by the physical world. From what I’ve read, the sound of water, “wala-wala”, gave us the pronunciation for the word, and in many ancient tongues, it IS the word.(1) The Chinese character for Water maintains a physical linkage to the graphical symbol for stream flow, while in the West, the alphabet system was favored to symbolize the sound instead of the looks. But you can turn the letter “A” upside down, and it resembles a cow’s head, and that is one way the letter A was originally written when the alphabet was invented.

    The Chinese language to me can be best understood by comparing to a desktop icon or a familiar application button symbol, like the little floppy automatically means “Save” or the left arrow for “Back”, and today they could very well replace the actual word. While alphabets seem better suited to the digital nature of computing, the heavily graphical nature of our modern applications (again that 2-modal duality) seem to be merging the two. While the chat/text shorthands such as BFF, OMG, and LOL may some day replace the current spelling, and future generations may look at them and wonder – like the Chinese looking at English – how in the world did those characters (letters) ever come to symbolize what they mean?

    I would say the new Information Age that has ushered in the world of blogging and Web 2.0 online dialogs will rank as one of the most self-absorbed and internalized culture of all time. This is not surprising, since the farther human culture is removed from the physical world – the source of our language – as modern people are, the poorer and more internally cannibalized our language has become, like most of today’s new terminologies, especially those tied to high tech, contain no real new words invented at all, but a grafting and remixing of existing notions. (2)

    1, 2. Abram, David; The Spell Of The Sensuous; Pantheon Books (1996)

  5. ..thats interesting Mr Holmes: I had never thought about an origin for the chinese language… WHERE does it originate from?

  6. Gazoobee : “separation of their culture from the rest of the world”

    which may explain why so many others think of Chinese as the odd language out.

  7. The only interesting data point here for me is the Chinese reference to “heavenly script.” Every other group points to a language outside of it’s own history or perhaps a language that it’s own tongue may have originated or differentiated itself from in the past. The Chinese however, point to the ideographic origins of their own language. To me, this suggests a deeply internalised cultural understanding of the separation of their culture from the rest of the world.

  8. Deanston: “plot the languages in terms of…”

    And especially some sort of historical context: if you didn’t know Italo-Ottoman history or German predilection for archeology it’d be hard to see the connections. But what a fascinating point of departure for school study.

  9. It would be interesting to plot the languages in terms of their geographic origin and current popularity with their directional association on an actual world map to see this mapping in a spatial (and temporal) context. Perhaps someone with a Masters or Ph.D thesis in mind and the time …

Comments are closed.