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Post Sounds Like Chinese, But It's All Greek
Created by John Eipper on 12/14/20 11:22 AM

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Sounds Like Chinese, But It's All Greek (Enrique Torner, USA, 12/14/20 11:22 am)

Edward Jajko's post (December 14th) reminded me of a Spanish idiomatic expression: "Me suena a chino." This idiom literally means "it sounds like Chinese," but is really equivalent to "It's all Greek to me."

I remember inquiring about this expression to a professor of another language, and it translated into a different language, so I thought it would be fun to find out its translation into other languages, since we have so many languages represented in this international Forum.

JE comments: Yes, this project would be a fitting tribute to our dear, late colleague David W Pike, who spent much of his later years working on a multilingual dictionary of idioms.

I especially hope we'll hear from Harry Papasotiriou in Athens. What do the Greeks say when something unintelligible is "all Greek"?

 


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  • Sounds Like Bean Sprouts: "It's All Greek to Me" in Several Languages (Leo Goldberger, USA 12/15/20 3:24 AM)
    My recollection from the many wonderful stays in Greece (mostly on the small island of Hydra), the term was to call it "Chinese" for a foreign language, though I will await confirmation from Harry Papasotiriou.

    And as someone who grew up in Scandinavia, I know they called it either "Volapyk" (a Russian word) or simply "Russian--while in Finland, believe it or not, they called it "Hebrew." And the more gifted multilinguists--the Swedes--called it simply the more prevalent term, "Greek."


    As I myself grew up in a multi-linguistic environment over the years, I was always quite struck by the many variations of the description of a foreign tongue. Herewith are some: Germany: "It sounds like Spanish"; Italy: It sound like Arabic"; Turkey: "It sounds like French"; Croatia: "Its sounds like Hungarian"; Egypt: "it sounds like Hieroglyphics."


    It would likely take a professional linguist to make sense of the above variations. Yet I doubt whether they might make sense of the following findings my brief research has uncovered: Cantonese: "It's all chicken sounds"; Burma: "sounds like bean sprouts" (whatever that might signify).


    With many warm Holiday greetings as we see the end of a multitude of stressors...


    JE comments:  The Burmese have my favorite (bean sprouts) followed by the Egyptians.  The Mayans are another people who practiced hieroglyphic writing, but then lost the ability to read it.  Tomorrow we're off to Yucatán for a few days of Mexican quarantine.  I'll ask around to see what the Mayans say.


    As a parallel subject, we Anglophones say "pardon my French" after letting slip a saucy expletive.  Do the French reciprocate with "pardon mon anglais"?


    Leo, happiest of Holidays to you.  I've very much enjoyed your frequent contributions to WAIS discussions this year.


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    • Gabacho, Pocho, Gringo; from Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA 12/16/20 3:18 AM)
      Gary Moore writes:

      As John E wings it down to wintry Yucatán, leaving behind the sultry tropical delights of Michigan, we're positioned for further looks into the Bean Sprout Syndrome (as in Leo Goldberger's fascinating catalog, Dec. 15, of how different cultures say "It's all Greek to me" about babbling foreigners, Leo's champion being Burma: "It's all bean sprouts to me." Wait! Did I hear that correctly? Those babblers did say Burma, didn't they?).


      As preliminary, there's John's aside to Leo that the ancient Mayans (in JE's snowbound Yucatán destination) invented hieroglyphics that in time they forgot how to read. Was it just the Conquest that caused that forgetting, or is there a glimpse here of how the Mayan cities depopulated? In any case, the Mexican backdrop clearly segues back to our "It's all Greek to me" discussion, in one of etymology's more slippery entries: "gringo." Every generation seems to have new certainties about where that word came from, but one guess traced it to the word "griego," Greek, supposedly as the polyglot Pacific port of Acapulco heard foreign sailors and caught Leo's Beansprout Syndrome.


      But this was one of the old, fanciful speculations about the word's origins. Doubtless by now somebody has tied it down, perhaps onto one of the other colorful candidates: "Green grow the lilacs" as sung by the pale invaders of 1846-48. I haven't checked lately, but a slightly sharper word historically has been "gabacho," reportedly dating back to Spanish resentment of intruders who were French, from Catalan "gavatx." Our experts will know the particulars. "Gabacho" was not uncommon on the Mexican border when I was there, as a near-synonym for "gringo." Less specific was "güero," pale person, that can apply to Mexicans as well as gabachos. El Güero Palma was one of the more surreal of the bygone Mexican drug lords, sporting a military uniform and receiving a package from a rival one day that contained a family member's dismemberment (Don't ask, you'll be happier just leaving it as Greek).


      Conversely, the Mexico-US borderlands knew "pocho" as a reference to Spanish-speakers who had grown infected by border ambiguities, sometimes speaking what gringos and gabachos call Spanglish. Switching to Tex-Mex or Tijuana English, they might say "I got on the car" rather than "I got into the car" by too-literal transfer from Spanish "subir," and its vehicular quirks. Or in Spanish, pocho (the sub-language, not the speakers) might also melt into borrowings: "Dame una virria" as "Give me a beer" (not "Dame una cerveza").


      Our globe-trotting Moderator may soon have firsthand input on all this, as he shivers through the snowball fights with Mayan ghosts, and dreams of palm-lined Michigan.


      JE comments:  I'm busy packing the winter gear now, Gary!  Putting irony aside, I just Googled "has it ever snowed in Yucatán" and other than wisecracks, the answer is a comforting "never."


      We're off in a few for the airport.  This evening's posts will come from the historic city of Valladolid, epicenter of the 19th-century Caste War between Mayans and the Yucatecos of European descent.  In January 1847 the town was sacked by the former, resulting in the massacre of some 80 "guëros."

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  • In Greece, It's "All Chinese" (Harry Papasotiriou, Greece 12/15/20 6:29 AM)

    In Greek we do say "Chinese" instead of "it's Greek to me." 


    Moreover,
    before using an English phrase, Greeks often say "As we would say in
    flawless Greek . . ." Another interesting linguistic detail is that
    for the phrase "going for a walk" in Greek we use the Latin "volta,"
    whereas the Italians use the Greek "gyro."


    JE comments:  I knew you'd come to our aid, Harry!  Thank you.  And now to complete the cycle, we need to address the question:  What do they say in China?  Leo Goldberger gave us the Cantonese variant:  chicken sounds.  Is this universal among all the Chinese languages?

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