This line from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has become the catch-all English phrase for when something is totally incomprehensible. They are also the same words (translated of course) used by the Norwegians, Swedes, Persians, Spanish, and Portuguese. Shakespeare casts a wide net. The question raised, however, is what do the Greeks say when they don’t understand something (“this reads like Shakespeare,” maybe)?
This brings me to a wonderful entry in a wonderful blog called Strange Maps. A while back they posted “a map of mutual incomprehension.” I had forgotten about it until recently when reading The Terra-Cotta Dog by the Italian mystery writer Andrea Camilleri. One of the characters asked, “am I speaking Turkish?” which is a non-poetic translation of “parlo Italiano o turco ottomano?” It is just one of the ways that cultures have defined others as foreign.
The Greeks, according to the map, think gibberish sounds or looks like Chinese. In fact, most countries seem to hold Chinese as the paramount of incomprehensibility. I’m not terribly surprised considering how different the language can sound and certainly appear. Even the Chinese seem to recognize that their language is daunting in comparison to all others, and they refer to things they don’t understand as “heavenly script.”
There are other great gems on this chart, particularly in the notes on the bottom. Make sure to take a look at them.