To the Letter
January 9, 2019 6:41 AM   Subscribe

Easter (Pascha) is a big family holiday, and I was a total stranger, a xéni. Dorothy would have cringed if she had heard me trying to keep up my end of the Easter greeting: “Christ is risen,” a person says, and you are supposed to respond, “Truly He is risen,” but I got the ending on my adverb wrong and said, “Really? He is?”
Greek to Me, Mary Queen writes in The New Yorker on the pleasures of learning a different alphabet.
posted by Kattullus (16 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
This article does a great job at conveying the exhilarating feeling of starting to learn a new language, different alphabet or not. I have started – and abandoned – several languages this way, and I had these small revelations and musings about each of them. Funnily enough, Modern Greek was the first language I attempted on my own (in high school, while not doing great at the languages I actually _had_ to study) for no reason other than it sounded nice. Here are the things I remember:

* Tha ithela ligo krasi parakalo – I would like some wine please. For some reason the audio course I used put a lot of emphasis on this sentence. Tha is a particle, accidentally, and even though I didn't really understand what it was doing there, it radiated the feeling of a Grammar That Does Things Differently.

* Semicolons are question marks.

* People's names are preceded with definite articles.

* The lyrics to this song.

I probably should stop the nostalgia here because seriously, I do not have time to take up Greek again.
posted by Vesihiisi at 7:09 AM on January 9 [9 favorites]

I too was struck by how much Greek one knows just by their prevalence in English, and since so many scientific names have Greek origins, I found that I could get a pretty good approximation of the meaning of Greek words during my trip there. Even reading is doable, going just by my familiarity with Greek symbols in math/science.
posted by dhruva at 8:42 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

I'm reminded of the time I went to a pagan (probably Wicca) ritual, and I was asked "How do you come here?"

The ritual answer is "In perfect love and perfect trust", but I didn't know that so I said a little about my trip.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 8:44 AM on January 9 [20 favorites]

I visited Greece years ago, would recommend. It takes time to comprehend the alphabet, but I knew it was starting to make sense when I got off the bus and read the signage over the door, Έξοδος, as Exodos, exit, and could read street signs for Sophocles or Aristophanes streets.

One place I worked used Novell network servers primarily, as well as some Windows servers. The Novell serves were named for Greek gods, Windows servers for Roman gods, Unix/ Linux servers for Scandinavian gods. I found it quite fitting.
posted by theora55 at 9:31 AM on January 9 [3 favorites]

I grew up only ever knowing the Ukrainian version of the Easter greeting and response – "Христос воскрес!", "Воістину воскрес!"

It was the same for my friend who, after an very early-morning Easter service, was caught completely off-guard when someone greeted him in English with "Christ is Risen!" Still sleepy, he paused for a beat before blurting, "That makes two of us!"
posted by Kabanos at 9:35 AM on January 9 [8 favorites]

George Orwell lamented the tendency to overlay classical names on common English flowers. He writes that “a snapdragon is now called an antirrhinum, a word no one can spell”—let alone pronounce—“without consulting a dictionary,” and that “forget-me-nots are coming more and more to be called myosotis.” Orwell adds, “I don’t think it a good augury for the future of the English language that ‘marigold’ should be dropped in favour of ‘calendula.’ ”
A "marigold" may be a Calendula officinalis, a Tagetes (erecta, patula, lucida, or tenuifolia), a Baileya multiradiata, a Caltha palustris, a Glebionis segetum, or a Tithonia diversifolia. A calendula, however, is a calendula.

I'm with the gardeners on this one, not the language nostalgists. Botanical names are important and often more useful than common names.
posted by Lexica at 11:46 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]

It's a nice piece, but how did this bit get past the New Yorker's vaunted fact-checkers?
[an "x"] may be the most useful symbol of all. How did the Phoenicians get along without it?
They didn't! The Phoenician letter Taw/Tav looked like an "x". The Greek letter Tau and our own letter "t" are simply rotated versions of it, sometimes with a missing head to the now-vertical stroke. Most modern Hebrew scripts use the Aramaic form (ת) but even that is essentially two intersecting strokes; in old handwritten letters it often looks like an "x" with bent legs.

So disappointing.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:46 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]

Back when I was studying Russian, all the students made the mistake of mixing up the letters "b" and "v"; the "v" looks just like the English "b". The Russian verb "to be" is быть; the verb "to howl" is выть; we all made the mistake of howling when we should have been existing at least once.

But this article is delightful and it makes me want to chuck it all and study Greek and Latin again, though currently I'm studying Japanese, with its multiple alphabets and delightful habit of making words mixing hiragana and katakana.

Curiously, when I can't think of a word in Japanese, I almost always think of the word in Russian, perhaps because they're both non-Roman alphabets.
posted by mogget at 1:08 PM on January 9 [5 favorites]

My father-in-law, a classics scholar, took his family on vacation to an un-touristy part of Crete many years ago. An affable man, he tried talking to the locals.

Homeric Greek. Funny looks.

Attic Greek. More funny looks.

New Testament Greek. Pained looks, like they felt they should understand what he was getting at, sort of like trying Italian on a Spaniard, or vice versa.

Between that and sign language, the shopping at least got done. And there was small chance of anyone discussing politics or religion.

(He claimed to have passed a biology final on the strength of vocab alone. He was not a man to lie.)
posted by BWA at 1:43 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]

I don't understand much Russian, but I do know Cyrillic fairly well. Feels like a very minor superpower being able to read Russian signs when they pop up in movies or games. Just bought the new expansion to Euro Truck Simulator. Kinda looking forward to their version of Russia and navigating purely by Cyrillic road signs.

Curiously, when I can't think of a word in Japanese, I almost always think of the word in Russian, perhaps because they're both non-Roman alphabets.

I had a somewhat similar experience. Was on an extended stay in Portugal. I tried my best to talk with friends in Portuguese, since they were kind enough to talk to me in English. I was a failure. I'd often think of the Spanish word instead. And when I couldn't think of either the Spanish or the Portuguese word, I'd suddenly remember a Russian word. Often a word I hadn't thought of since those long ago university classes.

Funny how the brain, at least for me, piles all the native language words in one pile. And then mixes together all the non-native words in another pile. And when searching for a non-native word, the brain naively assumes a Russian word will do just as well as a Portuguese word.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 5:09 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]

When I was starting out learning Finnish, my brain would seek out French words, but only very specific ones. In Finnish, a verb in the first person ends in the letter “n”. So sometimes, when I didn’t know or recall the Finnish word my brain would very confidently slap a French verb ending in “n” on my tongue. For instance, “I need” in Finnish is “minä tarvitsen”, but a couple of time what would emerge from my mouth was “minä besoin”, pronounced as if it were a Finnish word. When it happened, it took me a few seconds to realize what I was saying and why my interlocutor was looking at me with puzzlement. Of course, people looking at me with puzzlement when I talk Finnish is very much daily life for me.
posted by Kattullus at 1:32 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]

The "Mary Queen" business threw me off until I was reading The New Yorker last night and came upon the actual article. I love Mary Norris and would read any sentences she cared to write. I am happier with her explanation of the "wine-dark sea" than any of the bizarre alternatives that have been offered lately.

My botanical science background gives me an entire second Greek-based vocabulary that allows me to score "genius" in Will Shortz's Spelling Bee every Sunday (not a genius in anything else). Allantoid for the win!
posted by acrasis at 8:21 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]

Waaah! I was debating whether I should say “Mary Norris, Comma Queen”, and then decided just to use her name, to but somehow ended up with “Mary Queen” instead. What a silly mistake.

MetaFilter clearly needs a copy desk.
posted by Kattullus at 9:09 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]

I remember an interview about the Odones (the couple whose attempts to cure their son was made into the movie "Lorenzo's Oil") where one of the advantages they had was an extensive knowledge of Greek and Latin, which made it easier for them to learn the chemistry and biology that they needed. Because of all the Greek and Latin roots. Makes sense, but I'm not sure how well I'm recalling it - I can't find the interview now.
posted by Mogur at 9:57 AM on January 10

Ah, here's a reference to the Greek and Latin, in a Washington Post article about the family.
posted by Mogur at 10:16 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]

If you liked this article, I recommend picking up a copy of Patricia Storace's Dinner With Persephone, a memoir about her year in Greece, which is filled with delightful anecdotes about living and traveling there and the way her understanding of Greek as a non-native speaker.

I'm currently playing Assassin's Creed Odyssey and it's such a treat that Ubisoft left the background "flavor" dialog (spoken by NPCs you can't interact with) in Greek (they also did this in AC Origins, which is set in Ptolemaic Egypt). As a Greek-American who was unwillingly dragged to Greek school classes by my dad and as a person who has a very imperfect grasp of the language as a result, it's nice to catch a few words here and there as I run around classical Greece stabbing people.
posted by longdaysjourney at 10:37 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]

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