I used to describe these characters as Cyrillic ("I don't understand the cyrillic text on this poster"), but I learned today that Cyrillic is an actual type of script/alphabet! Is there an English word that describes foreign/unknown text?

P.s. I'm talking like reading Russian as an English speaker, not reading French. Actual unknown characters, not just unknown words.

  • 2
    Do you mean a foreign alphabet? Jan 19 '15 at 14:50
  • Non-Latin (though '[s]ome languages have extended the Latin alphabet with ligatures, modified letters, or digraphs.') look at this Wikipedia article Jan 19 '15 at 14:50
  • 2
    It's greek to me ;)
    – ScotM
    Jan 19 '15 at 14:54
  • @ScotM, describing Russian dialect as Greek seems a bit odd to me though :P If there isn't a English word that describes it, foreign alphabet or foreign dialect might be the best way to say it.
    – Nathan
    Jan 19 '15 at 15:12
  • 4
    "It's Greek to me" is an idiom. It doesn't mean you're actually saying it is Greek. It could be Chinese or Russian or Urdu. Or even incomprehensible English, for that matter.
    – RegDwigнt
    Jan 19 '15 at 15:26

There are hundreds of written language systems with unique characters. Each writing system has a unique name for its set of characters, which is often (but not always) the name of the language itself. Not all of the writing systems have alphabets. For example:

Chinese has logographic characters representing morphemes.

Japanese has logophonetic characters representing morphemes and sounds.

Thai has syllabic characters representing syllables.

Arabic has consonantal characters omitting vowel sounds.

Greek has alphabetic characters similar yet distinct from English.

The English alphabet is derived from Latin characters. In general, the characters of writing systems that do not use the Latin alphabet would most accurately be referred to as:

non-Latin characters, or non-Latin script

For speakers of English, foreign characters, or foreign script, might work, since most would be inclined to say:

"It's all Greek to me!"

The Greeks have a different idiom for unintelligible:

Αυτά μου φαίνονται κινέζικα (Auto mou phainontai Kinedzika)

translated: To me this looks like Chinese.

But what goes around gets around, as some Chinese refer to English as the incomprehensible language:

雞腸 (gāchèuhng)

translated: It's like chicken intestines.

Which suggests a very informal alternative:

chicken scratch?

  • 1
    Foreign doesn’t work very well, but non-Latin letters is fine, provided you capitalize it better. :)
    – tchrist
    Jan 19 '15 at 15:36
  • 1
    Actually, I think your original comment (with an explanation that it is idiomatic) would be a nice addition to this answer, because it's (all) Greek to me actually answers the question.
    – oerkelens
    Jan 19 '15 at 15:40
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    "It's Greek to me" is an idiom I've never heard of, It answers my question pretty well! All the addidtional info in your answer is helpful and interesting too. I think I'll stick with the above idiom though over "It's like chicken intestines" :P
    – Nathan
    Jan 19 '15 at 20:54
  • You really weave an interesting answer @scotm!
    – Good A.M.
    Jan 21 '15 at 23:49

I'm not sure what the context is, but you might use a more exotic word than letters -- glyphs, runes, characters, graphemes -- to suggest the symbols are unfamiliar. I was going to suggest ligatures as well, but that only applies when two or more graphemes are attached to each other such as æ. Still the word might come in handy depending on your purpose.

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