Don't Make the Joke

Visiting Greece presented some interesting linguistic challenges.

I live in Montreal, which means I have at least some knowledge of the French language. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, fluent in said language. Frankly, I'm not even very good. My French, basically, is terrible.

But while my French may be terrible, it is at least there. I'm generally able to ask for directions, order a meal from a menu, read the road signs, and even to some extent carry on a conversation, if I keep my words short and avoid slang. When someone says a word in French, I'll stand a chance of being able to match it up with a series of letters on paper, even if the word is unfamiliar.

This is true, albeit to a much smaller degree, with a language like Italian or Spanish. When I see something written in Italian, I don't understand (most of) the words. But I do understand, more or less, the letters, and I can at least approximate how the word sounds. When someone says something in Italian I can, like French, generally match it up to a series of letters on paper, even if I don't know what the word means. The sounds, and how they are visually represented, are at least somewhat familiar to me.

All this goes out the window when confronted with Greek. Greek presents a double problem. On the one hand, I don't know any of the words. On the other hand, I don't even know what the words look like on paper. When I'm faced with a language like that, I begin to appreciate just how much French I really know.

After about a day in Athens, some very rudimentary Greek could not help but force its way in. The experience was, for me, an exercise in synthesizing various random snippets of half-forgotten linguistic lore and educational life experiences into some kind of semi-coherent whole.

For example, I have an engineering degree and Greek letters are often used in such a discipline to represent various mathematical quantities and concepts. We have pi (π), of course, but also alpha (α), tau (τ), epsilon (ε), delta (δ), theta (θ), mu (μ), omega (ω), sigma (σ/ς), psi (ψ) and lambda (λ), etc. So I'm not completely unfamiliar with at least some of the Greek alphabet.

Next comes the somewhat arbitrary leap - you assume that the letters roughly correspond to English equivalents. You assume, for example, that 'alpha' corresponds to an 'a'. Why? Because...well...alpha begins with 'a', of course! It's not very scientific, but it seems to mostly work. Similarly, epsilon sounds vaguely like an 'e' and mu sounds vaguely like an 'm'. You get the idea.

Sometimes the letters are easy to read and other times not so much. The alpha's and tau's of the Greek alphabet are easy; they look roughly like the corresponding letters in English. The lambda's and theta's are also not so bad; they look pretty unique, so your brain begins to recognize them pretty quickly. But then you have the rho's (ρ) and mu's (μ) and omega's (ω) and those are awful because they look like they should roughly correspond to certain English letters but it's all a trick! They sound completely different!

After that, all that's left is to sound out the word like a four year old and you stand a chance of - maybe - uttering something that a Greek person might understand. Even then,'re probably not going to know what the heck you just said.

Sometimes, of course, you get lucky. Take a word like this:


Sound out the word, and you get:


Which, as you may have guessed, is the Greek word for "pizza".

Or take this one, for example:


Sounding out the word roughly yields:


If you're familiar with the Bible, you know that the second book is called Exodus, which is about how the Hebrews escape Egypt. With this in mind, you quickly notice that the word appears over a sign leading you out of the subway station and voila! You suddenly realize that έξοδος is Greek for "exit".

Occasionally, my knowledge of French helped me out. When you get a word like this, for example:


you can sound it out to yield:


Combine this with the fact that the word appears on the sign over a bakery, and you can guess that the word means "oven" ("four" and "forno" mean "oven" in French and Italian, respectively).

It was almost like a game, like trying to decipher a secret code.

As I've mused before, what would Greece be like if I could actually talk to people? Just go where you like without too much hassle. It must be quite a different country when you're in the know.

Anyway, at some point I hope to make it back, armed with better words.

P.S. It was all Greek to me! Ha! I made the joke!