You might not have noticed but, in everyday speech, you often express yourself in ways that ‘pass judgement’ on other languages and cultures around the world. If your native language is English, it is quite likely that you have uttered the phrase “this is all Greek to me” at least once in your life, while struggling to make sense out of a confusing situation. Italians would experience the same levels of frustration at this, but they would rather compare it to bewilderment over the Arabic language, the Italian equivalent being “questo per me è arabo” (this sounds Arabic to me).

We Greeks appear to have no excuse for using such phrases due to the difficulty of our own alphabet and have thus resolved to employ an equivalent with Chinese, which has a script which is comparable in complexity. For Greeks, then, an unintelligible concept is as baffling as Chinese (Για μένα αυτά είναι Κινέζικα = This looks Chinese to me) but do not be too quick to judge us since we are not the only ones. A French person would also point out, here, that “pour moi, tout ça, c’est du chinois” (this is all Chinese to me), followed by an equally frustrated Spaniard with the request “No me hables en chino” (Do not speak to me in Chinese).

What does language have to say about our perception of different nations? Why is it that English-speaking people say “Pardon my French” before uttering profanities, while the French describe the act of leaving a gathering without taking polite leave of one’s host as “filer à l’anglaise” (English-style flee)? Moreover, why is it that Polish people sometimes say “udawać Greka” (to pretend to be Greek) when they want to accuse someone of feigning ignorance over a situation? Surprisingly enough, one can find a similar expression in Croatian portraying English people instead of Greeks (praviti se Englez = pretend to be English), while in Spain you would hear the phrase “hacerse el sueco” (pretend to be Swedish). As for Greeks, I fail to understand the reason why we still use the Chinese in the equivalent Greek expression (μην κάνεις τον Κινέζο = don’t pretend to be Chinese ~ don’t pretend to be ignorant).

Language use, in this sense, becomes an index of a nation’s feelings towards the rest of the world. In some cases, this tendency stems from historical circumstances of the past, whereas this might also be the outcome of mere ignorance about different cultures. After all, what makes the Greek language unintelligible to the rest of the world, other than the mere unfamiliarity of its script? Likewise, what does “double Dutch” imply for the British, other than sheer bewilderment for something foreign? At the end of the day, fear of the unknown is where all prejudice stems from, and language use in this sense is yet another illustrative example.

We would love to hear your thoughts on that challenging argument, as well as similar expressions you may be able to trace in your own language. Remember that this blog is nothing but well-disposed towards different languages, nations and their cultures and we would very much like to keep it this way. After all, language on its own does not suffice to pass judgement, unless tinted with relevant connotations.

Speaking of language, why not browse our languages page to find more information about the languages we work with?