Sound Chinese, swear in Aramaic and speak Christian: what things we don’t understand sound like
A few years ago, the American linguist Mark Liberman (well known for founding the historic blog of Language Log) they commented that it was curious that, when an English speaker does not understand something he says “it’s greek to me“. I mean, “it sounds like Greek to me.” Instead, Hebrew speakers say “it sounds like Chinese to me” and Koreans say “it sounds like Hebrew to me.” Does this happen in all languages?
Liberman was curious and began to trace the origin of the expression. He found the origin of the English expression and discovered the hypothesis (discussed) that says that the term “gringo” directed to foreigners comes from the expression “speak in Greek”. But the most interesting thing he did was a couple of graphics a those that came through Juan Ignacio Pérez.
What do things we don’t understand sound like?
Unifying a pair of equivalence tables (Wikipedia’s Y that of Omniglot) Y a wordreference thread, Liberman made a chart that allows us to see in a simple way what do things we don’t understand sound like in many languages and cultures of the world.
In the same article, Liberman said that he had not found any serious academic work on the matter. However, in the comments, several readers recommended a text by Arnold Rosenberg, ‘The Hardest Natural Languages‘, and on the ideas of that work (which are not exactly the same as the equivalence graph), Liberman completed the original chart.
Obviously, this is a very partial approximation. In Spanish, in addition to Chinese, expressions such as “it sounds like Russian”, “Aramaic” or even “talk to me in Christian” (which It looks like a vestige of the Reconquista and refers to Hebrew and Arabic); and it is reasonable to think that this plurality occurs in all languages making the actual graph much more complex. What I do find interesting is that, as Liberman himself argues, Despite being an indirect representation of unintelligibility, the graph is not circular.
Although it is true that, at first, it may seem surprising that almost all the arrows end up coinciding in Chinese and Greek, if we think about it a little it is not so strange. This type of graphics They not only measure the difficulty of understanding each other, but also the cultural image of each language in each society. It is possible that there are Amazonian languages that due to their rarity are less intelligible than Chinese, Hebrew or Greek, but they are not present in the collective imagination of many countries (at least, not enough to be integrated into the common language).
In this sense, these graphs They are not only maps of the difficulty of understanding each other, but social representations of how we see the world. And they are really interesting.
Images | Mark Liberman