Barbarians, Gringos, and the Problem of the Dumb Foreigner Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Barbarians, Gringos, and the Problem of the Dumb Foreigner

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Phrases in different languages showing mutual incomprehension.

Ah, the joys of the in-group. As the child said, 'Home is where, when you go there, they have to let you in'. Nothing says 'home' quite like the mother tongue, and thus it is that most languages have a way of expressing otherness in terms of foreigners – their words, their ways, their general lack of conformity with the familiar and the homey. The terms used to designate the other can be jocular, patronising, or downright hostile, but they are usually some form of insult, however veiled.

Whom we choose to insult in this way tells us a lot about where our language and culture have been on their road to the perfection that is us.

Graecum est, non potest legi

The phrase above means 'it is Greek, it cannot be read'. This Latin proverb came from the medieval habit of getting knowledge second-hand, by copying from old manuscripts1. Latin was a language the scribes knew more or less well, but when they encountered Greek, they gave up. We know this phrase better from the character in Shakespeare's   Julius Caesar who said of a speech, 'It was Greek to me.' We usually use this locution to mean, 'I am clueless about what I just heard'.

Greek, though, is classy as well as classical. Knowing Greek conferred a certain cachet even in Roman times – which is why well-off Romans often hired (or bought outright, it being a slavery culture) Greek tutors. The Greeks themselves were always aware of the natural superiority of their language and culture. The word 'barbarian', meaning 'ignorant lout who does not know how to behave in public' comes from the Greek word βαρβαρος (barbaros), meaning 'person who makes unacceptable noises when trying to speak Greek.' In fact, there's a verb: βαρβαριζειν (barbarizein), meaning 'to babble like an idiot foreigner'. This sort of poor language use excited the risibility of the Athenians (and still does).

If the Latin speakers blamed incomprehensibility on the Greeks, and the Greeks blamed it on everybody else, who did everybody else blame it on? The answers might surprise you.

Why Does This Sound Like Spanish?

When Habsburg Charles V (also called Karl der Fünfte) became Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, he ruled over a vast domain on which, indeed, the sun never set. He also annoyed the life out of his German-speaking subjects for a number of reasons. The Protestants didn't like his Catholicism, for one thing. For another, he introduced Spanish court ceremony – stylised speech and behaviour, think Japanese tea ceremony, only longer. This sort of thing bothered Germans, who were now required to commit complicated pronouns in order to communicate officially. Instead of using the good, old-fashioned 'du' (or 'thou') to address a court official, you had to figure out: your rank, his rank, the difference between your rank and his rank, the occasion, the nature of the communication, and probably how annoyed the official was because his tailor was overcharging him. The resulting Kauderwelsch (German for 'Double Dutch') ended up with people calling each other, depending on the above factors, 'he/she', 'you', 'you all', 'they', or any number of third-person euphemisms such as 'His Honoured and Estimable Excellency Who Sees and Knows All'2. Those superior enough referred to themselves in the plural. This sort of nonsense was draining on the German nervous system, and the language eventually settled down to using only two forms for 'you'. The damage was done, however – to this day, Germans have to decide how they feel about you before they address you.

The language problem, court ceremony, and general highfalutingness of the Holy Roman Emperor gave the Germans and Austrians a new proverb: 'Das kommt mir Spanisch vor'. It meant, 'It's vaguely Spanish to me, and I don't like it'.

The Spanish did not take this insult lying down – largely because they were busy laughing at gringos.

What Was That Irishman Saying, Anyway?

The Spanish laughed at foreigners, too. Particularly English speakers. When they were faced with a lot of English-speaking Irish immigrants in the 17th and 18th Centuries, they complained that they sounded like they were speaking... wait for it...


The Spanish expression for 'talk like an ignorant foreigner' is hablar en griego, or 'talk like a Greek'. Aside from the fact that the insulting-term-for-foreign-accents business has now come practically full circle, this phrase has given us a term of cultural insult of far-reaching application. The word is gringo.

Various silly explanations for the origin of the term gringo have been in circulation for at least a hundred years. No, the term does not come from the singing of 'Green Grow the Lilacs' by US soldiers during the Mexican American War. The soldiers in 1845 might have been the first English speakers to take notice of the fact, but Spanish-speaking people had been calling these babblers 'gringos' for a long time before that. The first mention in a (Spanish) dictionary was in 1787, so the gringos had been butchering español for quite a while now. Luckily for anthropologists who study such things, and unfortunately for annoyed tourists, the term 'gringo' is now almost universally used in Latin America to mean 'foreigner'.

The anthropologists are happy because they can study how 'gringo' is used in different countries in order to understand more about the way people think and talk about each other. In Mexico, for instance, 'gringo' is an insult directed mostly at (white) North Americans. There's a political history there that makes this approach logical. An anthropologist living in Brazil has noticed, however, that the term 'gringo' is used in its original sense in that country: to denote cultural or linguistic ineptitude. Even Argentinians can be called 'gringos' in Brazil.

Speaking of ineptitude, the notion that people who don't speak your language aren't really talking is codified in more languages than Greek.

Are Foreigners Dumb?

'Dumb' in this context means 'unable to speak', not cognitively challenged. Both meanings of the word are present in the Slavonic word for 'foreigner' – that is, to a Russian, a German can't talk at all.

For a very long time, beginning in the Middle Ages, German speakers and speakers of Slavic languages lived and worked in close proximity in central and eastern Europe. There are large colonies of German speakers in the Balkans even today. One piece of linguistic evidence of early interaction is that the Russian word for bread, khleb, is really the same word as the German Laib, meaning 'loaf'. This would seem to indicate that some bakery tips were being shared. The language barrier, however, was considerable. Slavs called the Germans niemetz, meaning those who cannot speak. Thus, 'dumb foreigner' is what Germans get called in Slavic languages – or Romanian.

Greek to Us

The foregoing has been merely a brief tour of a habit that can be found around the globe. This business of regarding one's own culture, language, and local customs as normative is probably universal. After all, many tribal designations, from Europe to North America, simply mean 'people'. We're the people. We don't know what the rest of you are. And we certainly can't understand all that babbling.

But we'll be polite, and pretend we think you can talk. (There's a Berlitz school around the corner.)

1We might term this form of information transmission 'the Wikipedia method', although, unfortunately, medieval scribes did not have access to the 'copy and paste' function. The poor devils were forced to write it all out longhand, which led to the invention of the abbreviation.2Vestiges of this practice persist to the present day, such as the 'Royal/Editorial We'. Academic institutions are notorious for preserving these honorific forms. In the 1980s, a German-speaking secretary in the Department of Romance Philology at the University of Cologne thought nothing of sending a business letter to the University Chancellor in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, that began with the greeting 'Your Magnificence'.

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