German phrase of the day: Es kommt mir Spanisch vor

Rachel Stern
Rachel Stern - [email protected] • 9 Mar, 2023 Updated Thu 9 Mar 2023 21:52 CEST
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Photo credit: Francesco Ungaro / Unsplash + Nicolas Raymond / flickr

Why is something incomprehensible all Greek to you in English, but suddenly Spanish when speaking German? Here's what this odd phrase means and the history behind it.


Why do I need to know this phrase?

If you're completely baffled by something - be it because you literally don't understand the words or because it's simply a strange concept - this is a helpful phrase to know.

What does it mean?

Literally, this long-standing expression translates to "It seems Spanish to me," similar to the English equivalent of "It's all Greek to me". And in the Spanish language itself, something is foreign when it appears Chinese to you ("Me suena a chino"). 


Everything is relative, as Italians say "It's like German to me" ("Mi sembra tedesco") when they're perplexed. Hey, we totally understand that sentiment! 

The phrase "Es kommt mir Spanisch vor" is just about as frequently used as its idiomatic twin "Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof" (I only understand train station).

READ ALSO: German phrase of the day: Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof

What's the history behind this phrase?

In Germany's increasingly multicultural society, something Spanish isn't actually so foreign, with many people from the southern European country residing in Germany, and Spanish being a popular second language in schools here. Spain is also a top holiday destination for Germans, with the island of Mallorca often jokingly referred to as "Germany's 17th state".

READ ALSO: 'I really needed a break': Pandemic-weary Germans find 'freedom' on Mallorca

So how did the idea of the culture being so foreign that it's absolutely incomprehensible originate?

The roots can be traced back to when the Spanish language and customs were, indeed, quite foreign.

When Emperor Maximilian I died in January 1519, it was unclear who would be his successor in the then-Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. 

Three candidates sought the crown: In addition to Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England, the late emperor's grandson, Spain's King Carlos I, later Charles V, also laid claim to the throne.

In the end, Charles V was appointed, first as king and ultimately as emperor. While Charles V had a rudimentary command of the German language, his court, which he brought with him from Spain, did not.

In addition to the language, German royalty also found the customs and manners of the new elite to be strange. Charles himself is also said to have been less than polite. 

The royal family were unfamiliar with all the new traditions and Charles’ way of being - they seemed, well, Spanish to them.

Here's how to use it:

Verstehst du diese neue Programmiersprache? Es kommt mir Spanisch vor.

Do you understand this new programming language? It's all Greek to me.

Meine Freunde unterhielten sich über das letzte Fußballspiel, aber es kam mir Spanisch vor.

My friends were talking about the latest football game, but I didn't understand them at all.



Rachel Stern 2023/03/09 21:52

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