Language, in Retrospect

March 19, 2007

An excerpt from March 19, 2005

I sat in French class is Mme. Theiss for 45 minutes a day, 81 days a year for three years (182.25 hours, total), mostly messing around with Todd, and Becky, who’s last names also started with ‘P.’ I gave no thought to the language I was supposed to learn, never did the homework, and mostly cheated off Becky’s tests.

With all that obscene laziness, I can still, nearly two decades later, conjugate French verbs; the pronouns roll off my tongue with not a speck of thinking. I’ve now spent more than 1000 hours in Greece, and can’t say more than ‘hello’ and ‘I don’t understand.’ I can also say most of the vegetable and fruits, but not a single sentence. I suppose learning a language is never easy, but I suspect it would be easier if I were 16. The Greeks have two letters for ‘th,’ and dozens for ‘ee.’

One sees many signs and advertisements written in the Roman alphabet, and I wonder how long this one relatively small country will be able to hang onto an alphabet used solely by them. Pronunciation is fairly straightforward, once you know the rules.

The second letter of the Greek alphabet is Beta, but over time the sound has become ‘v’ and the letter sounds like ‘Veeta’ when pronounced correctly. The fourth letter is Delta, but the ‘d’ has become a ‘th,’ completely unnecessary by my way of thinking, because they already have theta. Actually, there is a distinction – delta (δ) is the th in ‘that,’ while theta (θ)is the th in ‘father.’ However, their desperate need for two ‘th’s” leaves them without a d. R and I joke that someday, all words in Greek will be made of four basic sounds – k, th, oo, and ee. We have great fun and crack ourselves up talking gobbledygook using only those sounds. With the incursion of English, it has become necessary to find ways to spell the sounds they lack.
A list of sounds which don’t exist in the Greek alphabet, and the workarounds they’ve arranged:

  • English: B Greek: mp (μπ)
  • D nt (ντ)
  • J tz (τζ)
  • Hard A ei (εΐ) this one is important, because epsilon, unstressed iota is ‘ee,’ very common.
  • Hard G gk (γκ)
  • W iou (ιου)

In Greece, the movie Finding Neverland starred Tzoni Ntep (Τζονι Ντεπ) and Keit Iounzlit (Κεϊτ Ιουνζλιτ). Add the ability to count to 100, and you know as much Greek as I do. There are two letter combinations that confound me. It seems to me that when developing a language, one should take into consideration the ease of use, but the Greeks apparently want to always know who the foreigners are. One is KPT, the other is FTH. The word for percent discount is ekptosi, and another kind of discount (cents off) is Fthinoptera. Maybe they just figure you must want to pay full price unless you’re willing to go to the trouble of pronouncing these ridiculous words. Thankfully, Greek doesn’t contain the confounding vowel sounds that Swedish has – after nearly 5 years, I still can’t tell the difference between most of them. Who needs 9 vowels, anyway!?

In the two years since I wrote that, I’ve come a long way. I can hold a slow conversation now. I’m nowhere near fluent. The simple things still confound me, like how to greet people you know. It goes something like this, and I can’t get the rhythm no matter how I try.

Person 1, “Hi. How are you?”

Person 2, “Hi. Are you well?”

Person 1, “Good, Good. You are good?”

Person 2, “Good, Good. You’re good and how’s it going?”

Person 1, “Ah, good. How are you?”

Person 2, “Good, you?”

This all happens really quickly. While they don’t repeat themselves, they do say the same thing over and over. I know all the words and phrases, but I can’t master the timing of it. I feel most lost in this language not when I’m angry or speaking on the phone, but when greeting people.

I don’t use Greek much anymore, as I’m not working. I spent 10 days working at a taverna while the English proprietor was away. Her husband speaks no English and the cook was Albanian with Greek as her second language. I learned more in that 10 days than in any of the months of study before or after.

Truthfully, I don’t know if most expats have the wherewithal to subject themselves to this intensity of learning. If I hadn’t been being paid, I certainly would have run off to a more comfortable environment after about 45 minutes of struggle. It’s hard to immerse yourself when comfortable, familiar non-immersion is just a few meters away.

One of the interesting side effects of learning Greek has been that my English is better. Words like esoteric which I’d seen but couldn’t define exist on a different plane in Greek, and curiosity leads me to learn the words in both languages. If you’re curious, esoterikos simply means internal.

I do hope I haven’t used up all my language brain cells, as I’ll hopefully soon be trying again to speak French, and hoping I really did absorb something from Mme. Theiss.


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