Thursday, 24 September 2015

By Any Other Name

Wasn't it Will Shakespeare who wrote that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet"? I don't count myself among the Shakespeare elite fan club, so, whilst we did thoroughly enjoy Romeo and Juliet at the Minack Theatre in Cornwall on a magical starlit August evening a few years ago, the only other bit of his writings I could lay claim to knowing is the "Alas poor Yorick" bit that Hamlet speaks when he discovers the poor unfortunate's skull while doing some serious gardening some time. 

Of course Romeo and Juliet all ends in tears doesn't it? Which is, or at least was the case when I spoke Greek to Greek people in the early years of our living here whilst gamely trying to get to grips with the language. I'll not say that my Greek is perfect even now, but it's a great deal better than it used to be. Heaven knows even my English could be better, even though it was my best subject in school, but at least I do know where and where not to use an apostrophe (don't get me started on that one).

The thing is, in Greek there are sooo many pitfalls, words that to the untrained ear sound very similar and yet mean something entirely different. Add to that the "tonos" as the Greeks call it, and you're stepping out into a field sprinkled with mines. If you look at written Greek (as in typed, not handwritten, which may as well have been Arabic to me in the early days), you'll notice that every word that has more than one syllable has a kind of tick above one of the vowels somewhere. This can give one the impression that it's like an acute or gràve accent, like in French. It isn't.

The tonos is to tell the reader which syllable needs to be stressed. That's all it's for. All vowels in Greek are short, like for example the "a" in 'at" and not the "a" as in the word "state", which is long. Got that? good. Ahem, right. The tonos itself can throw you. In another context "tonos" means tuna. So you risk saying, when trying to talk about pronunciation, "I always try to take note of where the tuna is." Well, one would wouldn't one?

In one of the "Ramblings" books, I can't rightly remember which one now, I mentioned that I once heard someone say, much to my chagrin and bemusement, that marriage isn't exactly a bed "for thirty friends". Hmm, I thought, just what do they get up to in the more remote villages? Of course, what he meant was "a bed of roses", as it seems that this is one expression that is common to both the English and the Greek languages. But the Greek word for roses is remarkably similar to the two words "thirty friends" if you're still on the steep part of the learning curve.

When you order a draft beer in a bar you have to be careful not to ask for some hate. "I'll have a 'hate', or 'hatred' please," you may say when meaning a "half" as in half a litre, merely by getting the tuna in the wrong place. How many times have I said to someone, "we'll have to go to the table because we need some cash," or one could find oneself saying to a child, "eat up your greens if you want to be an old man." The word "geros" can mean either "strong" or "an old man", depending on which syllable you stress. You're getting the idea now, eh? Trapeza is a bank, trapezi a table.

"They're having a yogurt in the village tonight!" I once said, to the sound of guffaws all around. Why? because yorti (with the stress on the "i" at the end) means celebration and yaourti (with the stress on the "o") means yogurt.

It's so tricky that one could end up saying: "Fries, I have a challenge for you. Prayer because your apron might get muddy. Never are you coming over, bring your hard (wince) with you. He can stay in Cyprus. I think it'll stay fine so the patio will be wood. If you're driving and can't drink then you can have a doom, or perhaps a bulk (loose) and we'll have a potassium time."

In case you didn't get all that, with just a few different verbal inflections, it ought to have sounded like this: "How's it going? I have an invitation for you. Careful because your feet might get muddy. When are you coming? Bring your dog and he can stay in the garden. I think it'll stay fine so the patio will be dry. If you're driving and can't drink then you can have a fruit juice and we'll have a good time."

I've been known to refer to one's pillow as a hard rusk-like biscuit, somewhat similar to an Italian Biscotti. Plus, although they're spelt a little differently, I frequently end up saying I'll give someone a flight when I mean a phone call. 

So then, in behaviour... Sorry, in conclusion, the best thing you can do is be prepared to laugh at yourself, because everyone else will be laughing at you. It's not a nasty laugh, it's all in good fun. There are though one or two more risky pitfalls. the Greek swear word in most common use is one I'm sure most of my readers will be well aware of. But it's a derivation from other, more acceptable and frequently used words. 

Trust me, I've been there. Fabric softener is "malaktiko roukon" and if something feels soft to the touch you can say, quite innocently that "aisthanetai malako".

So, if you're not really careful, you'll end up saying "When you use the washing machine, don't forget the w••ker," or maybe "Such lovely material your table cloth is made of, like a w••ker." ( You know the word. It rhymes with banker! But in order not to offend any sensibilities...)

I know. I've got the t-shirt. It doesn't, however, have Will Shakespeare's face on it.


  1. Giggling away here. I once asked a Greek if she wanted some munaki when I meant cheese. Gulp!

  2. So I shouldn't feel ashamed that I've never progressed further than asking for a glass of white wine, oh, and the bill !