Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Greek To Me, Heavenly Script To You

A most intriguing discussion over on Language Log regarding the non-comprehension of language.
“When an English speaker doesn’t understand a word of what someone says, he or she states that it’s ‘Greek to me’. When a Hebrew speaker encounters this difficulty, it ’sounds like Chinese’. I’ve been told the Korean equivalent is ’sounds like Hebrew’,” says Yuval Pinter.
Click for larger image.

The most famous utterance of "Greek to Me" comes from Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Julius Ceasar.
but those that understood him smiled at one another and
shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me
The topic and this (non-scholarly) graph have been covered in multiple places, but I find the language map fascinating in its own right. If the graph is to be believed, Chinese is the most incomprehensible (to others) language. They in turn point to "Heavenly Script" which one commenter describes thus:
The Chinese however, point to the ideographic origins of their own language. To me, this suggests a deeply internalised cultural understanding of the separation of their culture from the rest of the world.
Biblical sources point to the Tower of Babel as the source of language diversity. "This story, based on traditions about the temple towers or ziggurats of Babylonia, is used by the sacred writer primarily to illustrate man's increasing wickedness, shown here in his presumptuous effort to create an urban culture apart from God. The secondary motive in the story is to present an imaginative origin of the diversity of the languages among the various peoples inhabiting the earth, as well as an artificial explanation of the name "Babylon."" -- NAB commentary
"LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men had built. Then the LORD said: "If now, while they are one people, all speaking the same language, they have started to do this, nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do. Let us then go down and there confuse their language, so that one will not understand what another says." Thus the LORD scattered them from there all over the earth, and they stopped building the city. Genesis 11:4
I once had an occasion to ask a Polish emigre about the subject of ethnic jokes. In this country the new immigrants are frequently the butt of jokes depicting them as stupid or socially awkward. If here we tell Polish jokes, who do Poles tell jokes about? Turns out to be Russian policemen, which makes sense given the post-WWII occupation of Poland by the USSR.

Speaking of which, here's a cartoon history of WWII from newly discovered blog, Strange Maps, entitled World War II: If Maps Could Fight. (h/t Joel at On the other Foot)

1 comment:

Brian Barker said...

I agree with the Tower of Babel comment.

In today's World. the language problem is still relevant and I believe that the World, now, needs a common, non-national, neutral language!

Why not teach such a language, in all countries, in all schools, worldwide?

The contest between English and Esperanto seems to be a David & Goliath situation. But don't forget who won in the end

If you have time, please check http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU as well as the Esperanto website, http://www.lernu.net

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