Central European incomprehensibility

« previous post | next post »

From Nikola Gotovac:

Today I was introduced to the web page "The directed graph of stereotypical incomprehensibility".  

There is one quite common misconception about Croatian language on that graph (and similar languages – Slovenian, Serbian, and Bosnian). To be more precise, the expression "it is all spanish village to me" is actually mis-translated to english, since the saying is "to su meni španska sela". In Croatian language the adjective for spanish is "španjolska", not "Španska". "Španska" means – one owned by "špan", or in today-croatian, "župan".

Please check Wikipedia for meaning of the term Župan. As the župan is part of governing establishment, the expression means "it is all strange to me" or "it does not belong to me, so I do not know" or "it is somebody else's (thing)".  Therefore, although it is tempting to direct this expression on Spain, the meaning is quite different.

Although I know next to nothing about Croatian, a bit of web search suggests that Dr. Gotovac is wrong, and that the župan idea is a philological eggcorn.

We can start with some dictionaries:

Wiktionary for Serbo-Croatian:

špȃnska sèla n pl ‎(Cyrillic spelling шпа̑нска сѐла)

  1. (literally) Spanish villages
  2. a topic about which one is ignorant
  3. It's all Greek to me

For španski, Wiktionary gives

špȃnskī ‎(Cyrillic spelling шпа̑нскӣ)

  1. (Bosnia, Serbia) Spanish
  2. (Bosnia, Serbia, in masculine, substantive) the Spanish language

with (Croatian): špànjōlskī as an "Alternative form".

The glosbe.com Croatian-English dictionary gives:

španski     Spanish


  to su za mene španska sela.
It is for me a Spanish village = be Greek to me.

But still, maybe these španski-based versions are all just modern inventions, misunderstandings of an older Župan-based expression?

I don't think so, because the Serbo-Croatian expressions — like a lot of other aspects of Serbo-Croatian culture and language — are almost certainly borrowed from German.

Edwin Zeydel, "Das kommt mir Spanisch vor", The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 1922, explains how and when "Spanish" or "Spanish villages" became a proverbial equivalent of incomprehensible weirdness for German speakers:

The immediate origin of the expression "das kommt mir spanisch vor,"—practically synonymous with the more usual proverb "das sind mir bohmische Dorfer"— in its customary present-day connotation of something strange, rare or outlandish, has probably been correctly traced to the seventeenth century. For although in discussing it, Borchardt says that it arose at the time of the introduction of Spanish customs into Germany by Charles V, he quotes only Simplicissimus: "Bey diesem Herrn kam mir alles widerwertig und fast Spanisch vor" and no sixteenth century author. Wander,' too, does not attempt to trace the saying any further back, but mentions the reports of German travelers and adventurers who had been in Spain as having given rise to it. […]

In turning back, at Borchardt's suggestion, to the sixteenth century, we find that Spain and its people were practically unknown in Germany, and that such knowledge on the subject as existed can be traced to unreliable, wildly imaginative adventurers or to pilgrims. In fact, at the beginning of the century, Spain was hardly considered a part of the European continent at all.

This Academic Universal-Lexikon entry confirms the German usage.

And we can close with a passage from Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werter (1774),  because why not:

Am 24. Dezember 1771

Der Gesandte macht mir viel Verdruß, ich habe es vorausgesehn. Er ist der pünktlichste Narr, den es nur geben kann; Schritt vor Schritt und umständlich wie eine Base; ein Mensch, der nie mit sich selbst zufrieden ist, und dem es daher niemand zu Danke machen kann. Ich arbeite gern leicht weg, und wie es steht, so steht es; da ist er imstande, mir einen Aufsatz zurückzugeben und zu sagen: »er ist gut, aber sehen Sie ihn durch, man findet immer ein besseres Wort, eine reinere Partikel«. – Da möchte ich des Teufels werden. Kein Und, kein Bindewörtchen darf außenbleiben, und von allen Inversionen, die mir manchmal entfahren, ist er ein Todfeind; wenn man seinen Period nicht nach der hergebrachten Melodie heraborgelt, so versteht er gar nichts drin. Das ist ein Leiden, mit so einem Menschen zu tun zu haben.

Das Vertrauen des Grafen von C… ist noch das einzige, was mich schadlos hält. Er sagte mir letzthin ganz aufrichtig, wie unzufrieden er mit der Langsamkeit und Bedenklichkeit meines Gesandten sei«. Die Leute erschweren es sich und andern. Doch«, sagte er, »man muß sich darein resignieren wie ein Reisender, der über einen Berg muß; freilich, wäre der Berg nicht da, so wär der Weg viel bequemer und kürzer; er ist nun aber da, und man soll hinüber!«

Mein Alter spürt auch wohl den Vorzug, den mit der Graf vor ihm gibt, und das ärgert ihn, und er ergreift jede Gelegenheit, Übels gegen mich vom Grafen zu reden, ich halte, wie natürlich, Widerpart, und dadurch wird die Sache nur schlimmer. Gestern gar brachte er mich auf, denn ich war mit gemeint: zu so Weltgeschäften sei der Graf ganz gut, er habe viele Leichtigkeit zu arbeiten und führe eine gute Feder, doch an gründlicher Gelehrsamkeit mangle es ihm wie allen Belletristen. Dazu machte er eine Miene, als ob er sagen wollte: »fühlst du den Stich?« aber es tat bei mir nicht die Wirkung; ich verachtete den Menschen, der so denken und sich so betragen konnte. Ich hielt ihm stand und focht mit ziemlicher Heftigkeit. Ich sagte, der Graf sei ein Mann, vor dem man Achtung haben müsse, wegen seines Charakters sowohl als wegen seiner Kenntnisse«. Ich habe«, sagt' ich, »niemand gekannt, dem es so geglückt wäre, seinen Geist zu erweitern, ihn über unzählige Gegenstände zu verbreiten und doch diese Tätigkeit fürs gemeine Leben zu behalten«. – das waren dem Gehirne spanische Dörfer, und ich empfahl mich, um nicht über ein weiteres Deraisonnement noch mehr Galle zu schlucken.

Note that this English translation doesn't even try to replicate the incomprehensible-nation metaphor:


As I anticipated, the ambassador occasions me infinite annoyance. He is the most punctilious blockhead under heaven. He does everything step by step, with the trifling minuteness of an old woman; and he is a man whom it is impossible to please, because he is never pleased with himself. I like to do business regularly and cheerfully, and, when it is finished, to leave it. But he constantly returns my papers to me, saying, "They will do," but recommending me to look over them again, as "one may always improve by using a better word or a more appropriate particle." I then lose all patience, and wish myself at the devil's. Not a conjunction, not an adverb, must be omitted: he has a deadly antipathy to all those transpositions of which I am so fond; and, if the music of our periods is not tuned to the established, official key, he cannot comprehend our meaning. It is deplorable to be connected with such a fellow.

My acquaintance with the Count C—is the only compensation for such an evil. He told me frankly, the other day, that he was much displeased with the difficulties and delays of the ambassador; that people like him are obstacles, both to themselves and to others. "But," added he, "one must submit, like a traveller who has to ascend a mountain: if the mountain was not there, the road would be both shorter and pleasanter; but there it is, and he must get over it."

The old man perceives the count's partiality for me: this annoys him, and, he seizes every opportunity to depreciate the count in my hearing. I naturally defend him, and that only makes matters worse. Yesterday he made me indignant, for he also alluded to me. "The count," he said, "is a man of the world, and a good man of business: his style is good, and he writes with facility; but, like other geniuses, he has no solid learning." He looked at me with an expression that seemed to ask if I felt the blow. But it did not produce the desired effect: I despise a man who can think and act in such a manner. However, I made a stand, and answered with not a little warmth. The count, I said, was a man entitled to respect, alike for his character and his acquirements. I had never met a person whose mind was stored with more useful and extensive knowledge,—who had, in fact, mastered such an infinite variety of subjects, and who yet retained all his activity for the details of ordinary business. This was altogether beyond his comprehension; and I took my leave, lest my anger should be too highly excited by some new absurdity of his.


  1. Maude Vuille said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 2:31 pm

    One of my very fluent young learners was talking about the pinecorn in our play: the prop was a very small pinecone.

  2. prase said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 4:22 pm

    For what it is worth, the phrase exists in Czech as well (je to pro mě španělská vesnice) and a formation from župan doesn't seem probable, as there is no reason to drop the u and I have never encountered such a form.

    Czech Wiktionary says this (translated):

    Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who frequently visited Bohemia, had created the phrase (…) combining the popular phrase „böhmische Dörfer" (Bohemiam villages) used in Germany, because the original German version was useless in Bohemia.

    They don't say combining with what, but at least have a source for the theory.

  3. Xmun said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 5:53 pm

    For what it's worth, my son, who lives in Germany, says that "Das kommt mir spanische Dörfer vor" means "That's Greek to me".

    Another modern translation of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers gives the passage as "This fell on deaf ears".

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 6:22 pm

    This publication has some interesting stats as to the relative popularity of English/French/German/Spanish as foreign languages for "lower secondary level" students in various European countries. Apart from English being ubiquitously way ahead of anything else, there's lots of variation as to the ordering of the others. Spanish is still hardly studied at all in Germany and Austria, but has recently become super-popular in Sweden. http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/2995521/5177306/3-25092014-AP-EN.PDF/568bd6e0-0184-444e-b965-ffc801c7df99

  5. Anselm Lingnau said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 7:37 pm

    The German expression "Das kommt mir spanisch vor" means "This seems fishy/suspicious/weird to me", not "I don't understand this". I.e., in the former there is a sinister undertone that is not present in the latter.

  6. ngage92 said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 10:48 pm

    Dr. Gotovac's comment is so stupid it makes my head hurt, but on the other hand it's not terribly surprising, since so much of linguistics in former Yugoslavia is dedicated to providing quasi-intellectual support to the political divisions between the successor countries using these kinds of contrived arguments. The important goal is to establish how different Croatian is from Serbian, but since in reality they're the same language, they have to dig deep to find any differences, and then take a very hard-edged prescriptivist attitude about enforcing said differences in an attempt to make them stick.

    The argument that "španski" would be understood to mean the adjectival form of "župan" by anyone is beyond silly, but entirely typical of the type of desperate flailing that hacks engage in when they put politics ahead of reason and evidence. It's basically tantamount to a British person insisting that "aluminium" is the only correct name of that element and that "aluminum" actually means "belonging to an alum" or some stupid nonsense like that.

  7. languagehat said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 9:07 am

    so much of linguistics in former Yugoslavia is dedicated to providing quasi-intellectual support to the political divisions between the successor countries using these kinds of contrived arguments.

    And not just former Yugoslavia, I'm afraid. Much of Eastern Europe and the Balkans is rife with that stuff.

  8. Sally Thomason said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 10:59 am

    Actually, the story of the word for "Spanish" in the language formerly known as Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian (depending on who was mentioning the language name) is more complicated than it looks at first glance. All the dictionaries of the language that are on my shelves date from 1970 or earlier, the old big Yugoslavia, before Tito died and the country splintered. The dictionaries called Croato-Serbian (Hrvatsko-Srpski) give only spanjolski (with a hachek over the first s; sorry for the orthographic ineptness) as the adjective for Spanish. The dictionaries called Serbo-Croatian (Srpsko-Hrvatski) all give spanski (hachek over the first s) as the preferred or only form, and it's the only form in the 1960 edition of the authoritative Pravopis (`correct writing') Srpsko-Hrvatskoga Jezika. Only my Serbo-Croatian-to-Russian dictionary (compiled by I.I. Tolstoj) has the relevant phrase, spanska (add hachek) sela, and it glosses the phrase as `kitajskaja gramota', which means `Chinese writing'.

    An interesting note about Dr. Gotovac's comment is the list of "similar languages": Serbian and Bosnian are, or at least were, dialects of the language formerly known as Serbo-Croatian; but Slovenian is and was a separate South Slavic language, although it's mutually intelligible with some nonstandard Croatian (specifically kajkavian) dialects that are clustered near the Slovenian border.

  9. languagehat said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 11:54 am

    it glosses the phrase as `kitajskaja gramota', which means `Chinese writing'.

    This is probably reasonably clear from context, but that's the literal meaning of the phrase китайская грамота, which is used idiomatically to mean "incomprehensible" (="Greek to me"). There's a nice line in the composer Nikita Bogoslovsky's 1997 memoir Заметки на полях шляпы [Notes on the brim of a hat]: "Лингвист изучил китайскую грамоту, которая до этого была для него китайской грамотой" [The linguist learned Chinese writing, which had previously been "Chinese writing" to him].

  10. ngage92 said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 12:47 pm

    @Sally Yes I forgot to mention the "similar languages" thing which is quite a pathetic and transparent move. I wonder if he genuinely believes that Slovenian stands in the same relationship to Croatian as Bosnian and Serbian

    BTW I don't think španija (SR/BIH) španjolska (HR) is all that confusing to any Serbo-Croatian speaker, any more than "Portugalija (SR) Portugal (HR/BIH)".

  11. Grant Barber said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 3:56 pm

    Regarding eggcorns (excellent term btw), hang out with Alzheimer's patients–or some of them–and you can find an internal logic, use of metaphor unintentional, and eggcorns. BTW, in my part of New England, just south of Boston, 'prostrate cancer' can be heard quite frequently, conjuring some unintentional but accurately descriptive meaning, all with the irony of the challenges that pronouncing 'r's around here can pose. Related to that, tangentially, I found out–not having grown up around here–that when I give my last name as Barber, enunciated as I learned in Ohio…clear 'r,' I then have to repeat or spell out loud. If I'm in a hurry and don't want to be bothered I'll just give it as "Bawbu" and then never have to spell it out…even if none of the rest of my words come out w/the unique local speech patterns…almost like I'm saying a foreign word in the middle of a sentence, like the precious 'croissant' in accurate French pronunciation by an otherwise American English speaker.

  12. Andrew said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 5:33 pm

    Does anyone know if this Croatian "Spanish village" phrase is anything like English (BrE) "Spanish city", i.e. not having all that much to do with Spain at all?

  13. Andrej Bjelaković said,

    December 21, 2016 @ 9:37 am

    This is sort of relevant:
    Language, Linguistics, Nationalism and Science

  14. Sally Thomason said,

    December 21, 2016 @ 10:32 am

    @languagehat Ah, right, sorry, I should've made the point clear by saying `which literally means "Chinese writing" ' . But I'm glad I didn't, because if I had you might not have posted that hilarious Bogoslovsky quote.

  15. tty said,

    December 21, 2016 @ 5:31 pm

    >The argument that "španski" would be understood to mean the adjectival form of "župan"

    Their argument is not that it would be understood as the adjectival form of "župan", the argument is that it would be understood as the adjectival form of "špan". "špan" traces its etymology to Hungarian, with Hungarian in turn getting it from the Slavic"župan".

    However, as far as I can tell, this form ("špan") is limited only to the northern parts of SC speaking area (Central Croatia) and it doesn't seem the least bit plausible for it ("špan") to have given way to the phrase "špansko selo".

    As for Interpreting "špansko selo" as "špan's village", that's unreasonable. It would be understood as "Spanish village" by anyone in Croatia, even though speakers themselves would never use the adjective "španski" for "Spanish" (in regards to this, Nikola is correct as "španjolski" is the only form people would use in Croatia to mean "Spanish" outside of this fixed phrase similar how "First of May" would be "Prvi Maj" but anywhere outside of that phrase the month would be referred to as either "svibanj" or "peti mjesec").

  16. Robert Coren said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 11:28 am

    @Grant Barber: I'm a New Yorker who's lived in the Boston area for my whole adult life, and it seems to me that the characteristic issue of pronunciation of r hereabouts doesn't apply to truly consonantal r's like the ones in prostrate. (I wanted to put that second r in parentheses, but HTML insisted on reading that as a "registered" symbol.)

    As to the pronunciation of your surname, I am reminded of an incident many years ago when a colleague who hailed from Minnesota was wandering around Harvard Square with a visiting friend looking for a restaurant that had been recommended to them, called "Bonnie's". They apparently searched in vain for quite a while before noticing the sign for "Barney's", whereupon they looked at each other and said "Do you suppose…?"

RSS feed for comments on this post