Like a chicken talking to a duck


Many years ago, I called the home of my Chinese-speaking nieces. This was before they started learning English and before I started learning their dialect of Chinese. After the call was over, the eldest niece asked, "Who was that on the phone?"

"That was Uncle Raymond."

"Oh, I want to talk to Uncle Raymond!"

Her mother replied, "That'd be like a chicken talking to a duck."

A chicken talking to a duck is a Chinese idiom referring to two people who cannot communicate due to a language barrier.

It seems that ducks are somehow central to the concept of language unintelligibility. Is there a duck-related language idiom in your language?

Comments (48)
  1. Dan Bugglin says:

    Does Donald Duck getting mad count?

  2. Mike says:

    If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it's probably a duck.

  3. Erik says:

    Well there's duck typing in my language, but I don't think that's the sort of language you're referring to.

  4. Groucho says:

    You don't get down off a mountain, you get down off a duck.

  5. bdcrazy says:

    If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck it might be a duck, but be careful, it might be a fire breathing dragon doing a good impersonation.

  6. David Hall says:

    It's like water off a duck's back to me. I took to it like a duck to water.

  7. Lucas says:

    In Latin American Spanish, we use "Chinese" as a synonym for unintelligible or gibberish, as in "he's speaking Chinese" or "he writes in Chinese". Not very PC, I know :)

  8. Sam says:

    Only one german idiom around ducks (german: Ente) pops into my head right now:

    "Zeitungsente"

    Word-by-word translation would be "newspaper duck". Newsitems which are hoaxes/wrong are usually called "Zeitungsente" or short "Ente" like in "Das ist doch eine Ente!" for "Thats a hoax!"

  9. Sam says:

    Lucas, in germany we say "das kommt mir spanisch vor" (it seems spanish to me) when we do not trust something, so your not alone being not PC :)

  10. Christoph says:

    In German, a joke can be said to have been a duck. It means that the joke wasn't particularly funny, or, in the extreme case, didn't prompt any response at all. (the typical situation of cracking a joke and being met by a grave silence) Not sure if there's anything similar in English.

  11. Eber says:

    In spanish they say "Cuac cuac cuales patos?"

  12. Steinar H. Gunderson says:

    In Norwegian, you can say “Jeg skjønner ikke et kvekk” (“I don't understand a quack”) when you don't understand anything of what someone's saying.

  13. Max says:

    Not a duck-related, but it's called "blind talking to a deaf" in Russian. Though I think it's a more general notion than a language barrier, closer to a different perspectives and goals barrier.

  14. Danny Moules says:

    Not strictly duck-related, but a 'quack' is a medical charlatan, a term which has since come to refer to a doctor of any standing ("I'm off to the quacks'") which comes from the old Dutch term 'kwaksalver'. Literally a 'hawker' of 'salve'.

  15. Danny Moules says:

    "It's like shooting ducks in a pond" (closely related to 'shooting fish in a barrel', probably created by upper-class British twits who decided they wanted a less working-class derivative).

  16. Amit says:

    As far as I know, no duck-related language idiom in Hebrew. However, Chinese is used as the model of a language that no one understands in Israel, e.g. "Fortran is like Chinese to me."

  17. Chris B says:

    A very southern "puzzle":

    m r ducks

    m r not

    m r 2

    c m bills

    o m r ducks

    If you haven't seen it, it helps if you speak this aloud (or in your head) with a thick southern accent.

  18. Danny Moules says:

    In Britain we use Swahili or French to refer to incomprehensible languages, both throw backs to the imperialist colonial eras. We also use French to refer to taboo terms (such as swear words) as in 'please excuse my French'.

  19. Nathan Sharfi says:

    Chinese has a reputation for being opaque to non-speakers. Have a gander at <a href='languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll Directed Graph of Stereotypical Incomprehensibility</a>.

  20. Mc says:

    In England we say "That sounds like Greek to me."  when we find something unintelligible.

  21. Nathan Sharfi says:

    Egads, that link got mangled. Here it is: languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll

  22. GWO says:

    So, logically, if she weighs the same as a duck, she's made out of wood, and therefore, she's a witch!  Burn her!

  23. GWO says:

    @Mc: "In England we say "That sounds like Greek to me."  when we find something unintelligible. "

    Like so many English idioms, that one is straight from Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene ii):

    Casca: He spoke Greek.

    Cassius. To what effect?

    Casca. Nay, an I tell you that, Ill ne'er look you i' the face again: but those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.

  24. In Italian the languages of choice for unintelligible speak are Arab and Chinese, the idiomatic expression is "questa roba è arabo per me" ("this stuff is Arab to me").

    As far as ducks are concerned, a gaffe (verbal or behavioral) is often called "una papera" ("a duck").

  25. AsmGuru62 says:

    In Russian – it is the same as 'Ente' in German. Means a 'newspaper hoax'.

  26. Leonardo Brondani Schenkel says:

    In Brazil we use Greek for something incomprehensible too: "isto é grego para mim" (this is Greek to me).

  27. eque says:

    In more Slavic languages Germans are "Nemci" which actually means "the mute ones."

  28. David Walker says:

    This reminds me of "it's not rocket science" or "it's not brain surgery".  Presumably rocket scientists will say one thing and brain surgeons will say the other…

    [Even rocket scientists say "It's not rocket science." -Raymond]
  29. iwsfutcmd says:

    In Arabic, they say "ابن البط عوام" (pronounced "ibn ul-batti 'awaam") meaning "The son of the duck is a floater." It means something like "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree".

  30. Clayton says:

    @Chris B:

    Missed an opportunity for "O S A R"

  31. Lf says:

    The English word for 'Zeitungsente' is, of course, 'canard'. Oh languages, you always make so much sense.

  32. Ens says:

    RE:  this being central to language unintelligibility, I'm guessing you mean to tie this in with today's other article on audio ducking.  But I always thought that was a metaphor for duck as in dodge, and not for duck as in waterfowl (the background volume ducks under the volume of the communication you're trying to do.

  33. Ryan Heath says:

    In The Netherlands we say: vreemde eend in de bijt. – weird duck in the ice hole.

    Meaning: stranger in our midst.

    // Ryan

  34. Jonathan says:

    Hebrew has the expression "ברווז עיתונאי" (newspaper duck), which presumably came from German and/or Russian.

    Also, when you say that something is like a duck, it's like "Jack of all trades who masters none". That's because a duck can walk, fly and swim, but can't do any of those well.

  35. Worf says:

    No comment about the ducking annoyance that some ducking phones have when the word duck isn't in the auto-correct dictionary?

  36. Mark says:

    English tends to see ducks as misleading. We have quackery – en.wikipedia.org/…/Quackery, derived from the obstinate repetition of ducks. Similarly, 'duckspeak' is speaking without thinking in Nineteen Eighty-Four. And we use canard to refer to a misleading story, presumably because ducks will feign injury to draw predators away.

    Of course, no discussion of unintelligibility would be complete without this diagram:

     languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll

  37. Medinoc says:

    No duck metaphors that I know of in French, sorry.

    But things we don't understand are either Chinese or Hebrew to us.

  38. us says:

    In USA we say "That sounds like English to me." when we find something unintelligent.

  39. Bulletmagnet says:

    If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae on our hands.

    — Douglas Adams

  40. Ryan says:

    In English, having all your ducks in a row.  Another way of saying you're setup and ready, you're prepared.

  41. Mitch says:

    Yes, you may have all your ducks in a row, but it's ducks all the way down.

  42. Mark says:

    Danny Moules:

    >In Britain we use Swahili or French to refer to incomprehensible languages

    No we don't.  We (occasionally) use Swahili as an exotic language that nobody's likely to speak.  "It might as well be written in Swahili".

    > We also use French to refer to taboo terms (such as swear words) as in 'please excuse my French'.

    That's a joke usage, on the understanding that the listener *knows* it's not a French word.

  43. Danny Moules says:

    "No we don't.  We (occasionally) use Swahili as an exotic language that nobody's likely to speak.  "It might as well be written in Swahili"."

    You blew up your own argument. You state it doesn't refer to incomprehensible languages but in fact something nobody is likely to speak, then give a perfect example of why it doesn't apply to likelihood of usage but to comprehension of the given language.

    Also, I should point out for your statement "No we don't" to be accurate, you'd need to speaking about all 100% of the British isles. Since I obviously don't share your experience of linguistic usage your argument was going to fallacious by default even if it didn't have another major fallacy…

    "That's a joke usage, on the understanding that the listener *knows* it's not a French word."

    Yes. Are you stating this on the assumption that the rest of the usages suggested here are deeply serious statements of fact? You're taking umbrage with nothing.

  44. We also use French to refer to taboo terms (such as swear words) as in 'please excuse my French'.

    Well, this is funny, also in Italian there's this particular use (the exact phrase is "scusate il francesismo"). :)

  45. Louis Pace says:

    I once took a Linear Algebra class in a room that was scheduled for an English class immediately afterward. Every day the English instructor arrived early and, the moment we were dismissed, she would immediately erase the board and start prepping for her class, usually with some snide comment about our mathematics. One day, as she started to erase the board, she commented that the writing was "all Greek to her." As it turned out, that was the day we studied Eigenvalues, which are represented by lamda. What she was erasing was, indeed, Greek to her, as well as everybody else.

  46. Luis says:

    In central Mexico at least, a lame product that's not expected to last much (like cheap Chinese imports) is said to be "marca Patito" ("Little duck" brand).

  47. David L Morris says:

    In Australian, we sometimes need to 'get our ducks in a row' before tackling a problem.  We also use 'a duck' for scoring zero in a cricket match, and from there to basically every game or scoring system.  It is just possible too that the English have the same idioms — they seem to derive a lot of sayings from the original Australian.

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