I think I may have cracked one of the most difficult puzzles of learning Greek – that of the double syllables. These tend to get skipped out of language lessons as English doesn’t have χ (kh), ps ψ, ts τσ, mp μπ or tz τζ. Need to add in the fact that f φ in Greek is ph in English too eg photo φωτο etc.These are found at the start of common words like khelona χελονα (turtle), psomi ψωμί (bread), tsipouro τσιπουρο (famous Greek spirit and politician) There is also tzomi (window glass) as a window is usually referred to παραθυρο parathyro. The secret to conquering these as I was told long ago and it has only just occurred to me that this is the way, is to ignore the first letter and just continue with the rest. So in effect, these are the silent letters in Greek. So although Greek is a very phonetic language; there is, of course, a catch. Therefore it is (k)helona turtle, (p)somi bread, (p)sari πσαρι [fish], (p)zonizo ψωνίζω verb to shop, (t)sipouro or (t)sipouros τσιπουροσ[Greek prime minister], (t) sea bream τσιπουρα.
Special mention needs to go to the fact that d δ is pronounced th (thelta not delta), b β is pronounced v (vita not beta), tz is pronounced b (hence [George] Best starts tz), χ is pronounced h as in λαχανικα lahanika (vegetables) or χαλι hali (a wool rug), there is no c its k κ instead (akrobates ακροβατες instead of acrobat), there is no j its io instead (Ioannina ιωαννινα ie the Greek city not joannina) and there is no w (not to worry here unless your name is William and then its νασιλλις ). μπ is another that crops up a lot (μπορο boro etc) and is pronounced b so I always have to remember that as it doesn’t logically follow if your English. The ν is an n sound, so while not a double, it is another one that you wouldn’t usually think of if your English ie νησι nisi is island . Also, you have to think that when you want to write th in Greek it is most likely either a θ theta or a δ delta as that’s how they represent those sounds.Penultimately I need to mention about ο and ω. When an English person thinks o they write omicron ο which is usually incorrect and you need to be writing omega ω instead. The last thing that needs mentioning is the eta η meaning the e sound which is most frequently used when an English person wishes to write ε because of the similiarity. ντ is a sound that turns up occasionally but I don’t think I’ve quite mastered that one yet. ντουζινα meaning dozen.
As for spelling that requires a different post later on as spelling is a tricky thing in the Greek language as they don’t tend to spell things in just one way. It also doesn’t help that they change the spelling of simple words like egg αυγα to αβγα to make it easier to spell but easier for who?
I’ve just started listening to the Michel Thomas language learning CDs in Greek for the foundation course and what struck me was the nature of the language is very accusatory. As an example of this take the sentence, “Do you want a sandwich and an ouzo?” It can be said in various ways but is usually a polite inquiry, at least in English anyway. However, when this sentence is rendered in Greek it becomes θελουετε ένα σάντουιτς και ούζο; So literally you want a sandwich and an ouzo? It almost sounds like a mafia Don is trying to make you an offer you can’t refuse. This rails against my English sensibilities and I find it very difficult to be so direct and almost so rude as it’s so abrupt in its tone. I’m always trying to find out what is “Do you …” in an attempt to translate directly from English which is the worst thing you can do as the grammar is so different that it doesn’t work! Breaking away from the boundaries of the English language to speak in a completely differently orientated one is quite a challenge as it almost requires developing a separate personality. This is the only way I can categorize in behaving in 2 ways which are almost at odds with each other in how they tackle even basic questions. My friends are shocked when I try to teach them and I try to impress upon them the need for volume and also for passion with whatever they are trying to say. It doesn’t really work even though I try each year. I admire people that manage to sort out this kind of linguistic difficulty in their head as I’m having great trouble.
Today I have been getting back into the language learning saddle after as break to focus on other projects and I came across as a most excellent fellow called Donovan who is very introverted like myself but isn’t afraid to strike up a conversation with a stranger and likes to travel to far flung places to learn languages fluently.
His blog is called Mezzofanti Guild (after a famous 18th c polyglot) and it details his journey towards proficiency in Irish, Russian, Arabic and Korean. These are very hard languages to learn and I admire him for the dedication, time and effort that it requires to go to the lengths that he does to study these to the degree that he does.
Now I’m not personally interested in learning Irish, Arabic or Korean but I do know people that have learnt/are learning those languages so it can be done even if your a mono-lingual English speaker.
Russian is a language I dabble in when I have time but it’s not a priority for me. Same could be said for Spanish. These are interesting (and I’m a very curious, inquisitive person) and it would help me with travel, socialising and my other hobby Eurovision but my main focus is on Greek. Not the biblical or ancient kind but the modern kind. This is so that I can strike up a conversation with a native and actually gain friendships out there (Lefkas) but due to the fact that a) I can’t drive and b) I couldn’t afford a mobile out there that’s never really going to happen as I so very rarely interact with people my own age.
I love words as I may have mentioned a few times before but the spoken word is a bit of a mystery to me as you can interpret the same phrases in so many different ways depending on how they are said. This presents quite a problem for a person learning Greek as there are many word pairs that I have come across that change their meaning depending on how they are pronounced. For a person with issues with their speech, this is quite a nightmare. Some examples are the word for safety and fuse, amusement and theme park, when and never, the most common swear word and straits of Malacca in Indonesia. There are countless more that could be listed as while English has about 1 million words as we steal from a myriad array of languages, Greek tends to be the originator so only has about 650,000 in comparison. This density is useful as you could possibly obtain fluency quicker but also increases the errors you could make as well and for socially anxious types like myself, this is never going to be a good idea.
It’s commonly put about that it’s easiest to learn a language through speech as that’s how we learn our first and while this is true it’s not very helpful if your shy, introverted, or just a person that doesn’t like talking. This is a daily struggle for myself having to get out into the wider world and converse with strangers. I most recently tried with a bunch of computer scientists which was doomed to failure almost from the outset because of the inherent qualities of being a girl meaning I’m was persona no gratis.
Sometimes there is nothing like reading a proper old-school book (Collins Greek phrase book from 1977) to cement certain knowledge into your head that you know because you’ve seen it lots but you haven’t quite grasped it in its entirety. So far I have understood the Lefkas road sign (it wishes you a good voyage instead of welcoming you as your leaving), the reason why I can never say toothpick (οδοντογλυφιδα) correctly, why Bravo and only this is always said to congratulate me on speaking Greek correctly and the ever presence of οριστε (oriste) to mean a variety of things depending on the inflections used.
I know words are used to communicate but with the same phrase meaning so many different things, ποτε (pote) for instance, meaning both when and never depending on where you place the accent, it’s extremely difficult for me to differentiate between them yet alone reproduce them in speech or writing. Yes, I can deal with παρακαλω (parakalo) being please, your welcome but also a person in a shop getting your attention or even you getting theirs. Using it as excuse me too is pushing the boundaries but then there is also γειο σου (yia sou) which literally means your health but is a catch-all for hello, goodbye and goodness knows what else and is why I’m getting rather perplexed with the Greek language as these are just the most basic of phrases. Extend this to the 4 different ways to say my name is με λενε … (me lene …), Ποιο είναι το όνομα σου? (poio einai to onoma sou) etc and you get the picture as to why Greek is such a different language to learn as I haven’t even started on how are you? or anything more complex than an introductory phrase. As you can see I’m not even taking into account the gender changing the ends of words, the form in front of them, whether its single or plural, the formality that is required to be used here or sentence organization which can be rather flexible at the best of times. This is enough to drive any logically minded person like myself insane!
Others may look at that and think well that’s easy there are fewer words for me to remember but its the way you say them to infer the various meanings that gets to me the most and how are you to decipher this in text without the different stresses you can reproduce when talking?
I had a discussion yesterday about how in Greek you can have more than one sheep unlike in English. In fact you can have as many sheep as you like 2,3,4 … sheeps. Or I should say as I have mentioned before ena provato, duo provatos etc.
This then continued onto the fact that Greek differentiates between orange the colour, portokali and the fruit also portokali but the emphasis switches to the end of the word. We also talked about lemonia being a lemon tree but lemon being a single lemon and lemones being plural. There is also the colour aspect here but in English we don’t say a lemon lemon, it would be a yellow or green lemon even though we say lemon yellow. I think this is because lemons can be all different shades of yellow, not just lemon!
I also thought that we don’t say that lavender is lavender coloured although we can describe a particular shade of purple as lavender. The same for periwinkle which is a light blue/purple flower. I then went on to think about mint as since there are so many types ranging from ‘mint green’ to dark green and back to very pale green leaves. I also covered roses in this thought process as it’s a type of pale pink but we don’t describe roses as being rose coloured since they encompass so many different shades from white to red, yellow, orange and combinations of the above.
This is just some of the odd thoughts that pass through my head and recently my head has been very odd indeed.
I think I have figured out why I can’t speak very well. I led quite an isolated childhood on a farm with my parents and later on my brother with whom I spoke our own language that we made up. Sure my grandparents et al came to visit me but when all you normally interact with is a cat, a dog, a herd of cows, a litter of pigs, a flock of sheep and fish to keep you company, your not going to learn a lot of human speech regardless of language. Fishermen don’t really count here as they were too infrequent. This could also possibly be why it took me till I was almost 2 to learn English but when I did learn it you couldn’t shut me up. Everybody who knows me understands that I have 2 basic forms of communication, 1st I’m really shy so I don’t say anything and I’m generally just listening and absorbing my current surroundings, 2nd full on verbal diarrhoea. This includes all sorts of inappropriate and personal things (think Aunt Voulla in My Big Fat Greek Wedding 1+2) but I’m trying to get better by having my conversational skills somewhere in the middle. (When the social anxiety has passed away).
The origin of this language inability only just occurred to me today after I’ve spent the day listening to various polyglots talking in about 30 different languages and how some are usually quite distinctive French, Spanish, German, Italian, I’m learning to understand some like Greek and Russian and others I had no idea what they were saying like Farsi, Icelandic, Hungarian. Listening is a key point in acquiring language with or without an accent but if you don’t hear it frequently enough your not going to be able to reproduce it correctly. This is one of the reasons why my Aspergers was never picked up as I can’t do imitations which is a classic autistic trait. I have a lazy mouth according to the speech therapist who treated me at 4 years old. A lot of good they did as I still on a daily basis, come across people who know me well and can’t understand me correctly even if they see me on a regular basis.
I also have quite sensitive ears and hearing and my husband is always amazed when he borrows my headphones to listen to the same music as me at how low the volume is as he can barely hear what I’m listening to. This means that I can quite easily be overwhelmed in social situations as I can be the stereotypical wall-flower but also my speech is very quiet but doesn’t sound anything like I think it does. In fact, to me, it sounds horrid and when I’ve done karaoke, it’s equivalent to nails scraping down a chalkboard it’s that bad. I even hate to leave voice mails as I know the receiver will not be able to decipher my words as my parents never can. My husband, on the other hand, has a beautiful singing voice that he rarely uses as he is too embarrassed most of the time.
Music is also not a thing I’m any good at because as well as being unable to sing nicely, I can’t play any musical instrument which you think I would be capable of with good hearing and a good memory as after all isn’t it just muscle memory? Even hearing or sight is not required as there are famous musicians that have neither. It’s however not a quality I possess so it is another way my speaking ability is impaired and I sound like a robot as I can’t differentiate my voice sufficiently to produce all of the different tones that are required for proper speech. Pronunciation and intonation or diction if you want the posh words that my dad would use to describe my current linguistic problems.
I’m also trying to improve my friendship skills here which is another reason why quite frankly I suck at talking and even my own parents have to tune back in to how I speak if I haven’t spoken to them in a while. I do fear for the millions of people that will have to encounter this from me over the coming years and all those that already have had to suffer, with my constantly changing accent, quiet voice and incoherent voice. It doesn’t seem to matter in which language I speak, the words that I choose or even how there arranged, the same inherent difficulties are there which I ‘m working hard to overcome but it’s an uphill struggle for the majority of the time. I only hope that people continue to have patience with me.