It’s all Greek to me | Nea Plagia, Greece

At the end of a long weekend – both literally and figuratively, I am now finding myself in Greece for a few days.

The reason for the long weekend in Bulgaria (the literal one at least; the figurative one is the subject of another post altogether) is that today is a national holiday. On May 24 – the Day of Bulgarian Education and Culture and Slavic Literature, Bulgarians celebrate literacy, the Cyrillic alphabet and the two brothers credited with its creation, the Saints Cyril and Methodius. Incidentally, they were born not far from where I stand today – in Thessaloniki, present-day Greece, but at the time (9th century) – a part of Byzantium.

Although the Cyrillic alphabet is supposedly based on the Greek one and Greek words are at the roots of many words in other languages, I find Greek pretty much impossible to decipher. Even if I manage to make several letters out, I am still utterly lost, as the words – even those that are usually the same across most Western languages, are completely different. I mean, come on! When hotel is hotel pretty much across the board (ok, Hungarian excepted), why does it need to be ξενοδοχείο (pronounced xenodocheío) in Greek!?!? I mean, I get the xeno- root (same one as in xenophobia), but give me a break! I guess I just take for granted being able to read and understand at least a bit. (Thinking about it now, I remember feeling a similar kind of frustration in Budapest.)

So, the English saying “It’s all Greek to me” is making total sense right now.

As in, if someone were to tell me that the Pythagorean theorem states that, in any right triangle, the area of the square whose side is the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares whose sides are the two legs, I – being the total math idiot that I am, would say, “It’s all Greek to me.” (All right, granted that this example is further muddied by the fact that Pythagoras himself was an ancient Greek, but you get my point.)

Anyways, a quick look at the expressions used to describe something incomprehensible in different languages shows that, in addition to Greek, Chinese also has the reputation for being unintelligible (at least to Dutch, French, Hungarian, Lithuanian and… ahem, Greek speakers, among others).

The Serbs, Croatians, Slovenes, Macedonians, Czechs and Slovaks, on the other hand, find Spanish villages utterly confusing. More particular geographical, historical and social factors seem to play a role in the understand of the Italians, for whom Arabic is incomprehensible; the Egyptians, who find Hindi mind-boggling; and Punjab speakers, who have an issue with Farsi.

The Chinese, meanwhile, have dropped potentially offensive comparisons in favor of more poetic idioms, describing things that are indecipherable as ghost or heavenly script.

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