It’s all Greek to me

When you can’t understand something, whether it’s an unfamiliar subject in your own language, or something a foreign language, you might say “it’s all Greek to me”. At least you would in English. According to World Wide Words, this phrase comes a Medieval Latin proverb Graecum est; non potest legi (It is Greek; it cannot be read). I understand that Medieval scribes, who weren’t familiar with Greek, wrote this phrase next to any text they came across in that language.

The equivalent phrase in French is C’est du chinois (It’s Chinese). In German the phrase is Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof (I understand only railway station). In Czech incomprehsion is compared to a Spanish village – Je to pro mne španělská vesnice (It’s a Spanish village to me). Does anybody know why?

What about in other languages – are there any similiar idioms indicating incomprehension?

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This entry was posted in English, Language, Words and phrases.

18 Responses to It’s all Greek to me

  1. Zachary R. says:

    I’ve actually never heard “it’s all Greek to me” before this. Usually people say “That’s like Chinese to me”, for something that is complicated. Yet, if someone knows Chinese, they’ll replace it with some other language instead.

  2. Bill Walsh says:

    German also says, Es kommt mir Spanisch vor, “It’s Spanish to me.”

  3. Michael H. says:

    Until now I thought Shakespeare had begun the idiom “it’s all Greek to me” by a similar line in “Julius Caesar”!

  4. Declan says:

    I would say, “You may well be speaking double dutch”, or something similar. Funnily enough, it does not relate to the language, but to the incomprehendsible state if a drunk man talking in a foreign language. That goes with Dutch courage and the like.

    I dont know of any idiom in Irish, but have often heard, “Ceard atá tu ag rá”, as opposed to “Cad atá tu ag rá”, when they just didn’t hear, or something similar.

  5. Adam says:

    I wonder what they say in Greece…

  6. Joseph Staleknight says:

    It’s “Arabic” to them.

  7. pni says:

    In Swedish it’s “hebreiska” (hebrew), and in Finnish we call it “siansaksaa”, which translates as pig german.

  8. Lev says:

    In Hebrew it’s Chinese, too.

  9. TJ says:

    well we use many phrases for fun when we don’t understand a speech or hear something weird or so. …. but the most common one used for “writing” and not “speech” is when we say for someone: your handwriting looks like hieroglyphics!!

  10. Rethabile says:

    The French do say “C’est du chinois,” (more commonly used), but they also say “C’est de l’hebreu.”

  11. Sam says:

    The Czech expression about a Spanish village puts me in mind of the French expression “auberge espagnol” or “Spanish hotel.”

    There was a movie by the same name a few years ago, and I read something about how the term “auberge espagnol” refers to a thoroughly confusing and disorderly place. Maybe there’s a connection.

  12. Jaz says:

    Norwegians say “helt gresk”. It means something like “entirely Greek”, “all in Greek” or similar.

  13. gee says:

    There’s another expression in German „Spreche ich etwa chinesisch?“ (“Am I speaking Chinese?”).

  14. Giovanni says:

    In Italian it is Arabic. We say “per me è arabo” — it is Arabic to me.

  15. Adam says:

    I’ll bet no culture refers to the unknown language as “English”, but I could be wrong :-)

  16. Greg says:

    In Esperanto, you say “Gxi estas laux mi Volapukajxo!” Meaning, it’s all Volapuk to me. (See the omniglot page on Volapuk.)

  17. Where I live (Texas) people commonly say “It’s Greek to me”, but I don’t say it, since I can understand Greek reasonably well! I’d be more inclined to lean towards Chinese…

    Ουκ έστιν Ελληνιστί, ου δύναμαι αυτό αναγινώσκειν!

  18. George Schizas says:

    In Greece we say “It’s Chinese to me” (είναι κινέζικα). A bit late answering this, but I just came upon this site!