Sounds like Greek to me

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Dec 11 16:36:50 UTC 2008

Sounds like Greek to me

The Greek language is far richer than French or Italian, but it's much
more challenging to master.

By Susanna Gaertner

from the December 11, 2008 edition

Not long ago, I found myself on a long ocean voyage, traveling to
three continents in 22 days, which meant that most of our time was
spent at sea. The fact that our ship had never before left the calm
confines of the Mediterranean became immediately evident as soon as we
hit the open water. The tiny thing shuddered its way down the coast of
Spain and on to Africa before crawling across the Atlantic to Brazil.
I tried to read, but found it difficult and soon had a lot of free
time. This led to my love affair with everything Greek – I'm talking
about the language.

It all started with the gorgeous sounds emanating from our crew. Have
you ever listened to spoken, modern Greek? It pearls right over you,
far richer than French or Italian – the usual contenders for most
lovely language. Greek is a crocheted language, an afghan of sound:
large bright squares of color covering you with their tonal warmth.
It's soothing and energizing at the same time. I wanted to wrap my
tongue around these sounds too. Ha!

You know that expression, "sounds like Greek to me?" Ever wonder why
it isn't Polish or Arabic or Chinese, languages surely more difficult
and even poorer in cognates? I mean, why Greek?

I soon found out.

Naively, I assumed that Greek would just nestle down comfortably among
the English, German, French, and Italian I had already learned. It
couldn't be that bad, right? What about all those geo-, psycho-,
hydro- words we know derive from Greek? Unfortunately, that leaves
another couple hundred thousand words that either don't sound remotely
like anything else, or, worse, sound like something familiar but
aren't. Take dendro, the root for words with tree. In Italian, a
similar sound means "inside." The Greek for inside, "mesa," sounds
like the word "half" or "table" in Romance languages. "Table," while
we're at it, turns out to be "trapezi." Don't ask. "Appidi" isn't an
apple, it's a pear, which can also be an "achladi."

Back in New York, I signed up at Berlitz, a foreign language school.
These people, I figured, have taught deafer ears than mine and,
indeed, if you have corporate sponsorship, Berlitz is great. But for a
private student, a two-hour lesson runs just over $300. At that rate,
it would cost me about a six-months' salary to learn how to order a
cup of coffee. In all fairness, I should give my teacher a plug:
Perfectly fluent in Polish as well as Greek, she taught Meryl Streep
her Polish for "Sophie's Choice."

Reluctantly, because it was as expensive as staying at the Ritz, I
decided to leave Berlitz. My new teacher teaches the old-fashioned
way: You earn the right to speak by first memorizing and writing
everything. First on the list, this means memorizing fables and
irregular verbs. It also means that you can rattle off a convincing
yarn without being able to actually say anything, as I recently
discovered on my first stay in Greece, where new acquaintances were
stunned by my shining vocabulary and penmanship. "How can you write
like this and not talk?" Easy.

Consider a nice useful word like melon, which is roughly that in
German, French, and Italian. Here, it's "peponi," or, if it's
watermelon you want, "karpousi" (why not "hydropeponi" at least?).
Mastering the alphabet is a snap in the scheme of things. It won't
take more than a lesson or two. The real trick is inventing mnemonic
devices to anchor those strange syllables. For pirouni, "fork," try
pierces-your-food. Meijarevo, "I cook," sticks in the mind as my, a
rave, oh. And "he/she agrees" turns out to sound and be spelled just
like symphony.

The word that sounds like "then" means "not," while the word for
"then," tóte, is not a carry-all and looks just like toté, which means
"never." The other word for "then" is metá, which looks like "half."
"Yes" is "nah," which is German slang for "no." You get the picture.
Even your "geo-" root becomes "ye" in spoken parlance, as in "oh ye of
little faith."

But I am hopeful, even though Greek verbs give new meaning to the term
irregular. In most languages there's some thread of continuity, as in
"see, saw, will see." The Greek for this trio is vleppo, eetha, tha
tho. "Drink, drank, will drink" is peeno, eepia, tha pio. And "say,
said, will say" comes in as layo, eepa, tha po. Now try memorizing
some 20 of these in all persons, singular and plural. The tongue reels
while the mind boggles.

No quarter is given to learning basics, either. Say you're studying
French. In no time at all you can at least ask the waiter if the tip
is included: "service compris" is the operative phrase. In Greek this
inflates to: seem be ree lem va non te ke ta po sos ta. But the
reaction is worth the work. When I tried this out the first time, the
owner of the small eating establishment came rushing out and insisted
that my whole meal was "compris" and that they wouldn't take a
drachma. So, I'm struggling along, keeping the faith, but it looks
like I'll be crocheting for a long time.


Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at


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