It’s All Greek to You and Me, So What Is It to the Greeks?

It’s a curious thing when there is an idiom—structured roughly the same way and meaning essentially the same thing—that exists in a large number of languages. It’s even more curious when that idiom, having emerged in dozens of different languages, is actually … about language. That’s the case with “It’s Greek to me.”

In a wide-ranging number of languages, major and minor, from all different branches of the language family tree, there is some version of “It’s Greek to me.” These idioms all seek to describe one person’s failure to understand what the other is trying to say, but in a particular, dismissive way. It’s not just, “Sorry, I can’t understand you.” It’s saying, “The way you’re speaking right now is incomprehensible.” And it specifically compares that incomprehensibility to a particular language, a language agreed upon in that culture to be particularly impenetrable.

Sometimes that original cultural peg has been lost. In English, the phrase doesn’t really indicate anything about the way modern English-speakers feel about the Greek language or Greece in general. It’s just an old, tired idiom. In fact, polls show that native English speakers don’t even think about Greek when asked to name the hardest language to learn. So where did the phrase come from, and why is its sentiment so universal?

As with far too many linguistic questions like this, there is no definitive answer. One theory ties it to medieval monks. In Western Europe at this time, the predominant written language was Latin, but much of the writing that survived from antiquity was in Greek. The theory holds that these monks, in transcribing and copying their texts, were not necessarily able to read Greek, and would write a phrase next to any Greek text they found: “Graecum est; non legitur.” Translated: “It is Greek; it cannot be read.”

This phrase seems to have been embedded in parts of Western Europe, and examples appear in plays starting in the 16th century. William Shakespeare, in his 1599 Julius Caesar, used it, and he is widely credited with bringing a long-latent phrase into the mainstream. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s version is a lot more literal than most of the uses of this idiom. In Julius Caesar, the Roman character Casca describes a speech made by Cicero, a scholar of Greek.* Casca, one of the conspirators who assassinates Caesar, does not speak Greek. So he says, “Those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.”

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