On Greek being Greek

My grandfather wrote this out for me from memory in the summer of 1990, the summer before I turned 15. (He would have said before I turned 16; we had endless arguments about inclusive counting). He must have written it in the village of Καλό Νερό in Messenia, where I, my cousin Angelos and my grandparents were vacationing. He had written it out for me because we had taken the old train to Κακόβατος for the day to go for a swim and a bite to eat (neither of my Greek grandparents knew how to drive). As we were waiting for the train to come, my grandfather started to teach me the opening lines of the Odyssey, to bide the time, I guess. The words were strange to me. They didn’t make sense, even though of course I recognized familiar words. My cousin laughed at me as I tried and failed to reproduce the strange sequence of sounds that my grandfather was patiently reciting.

I remember the scene vividly, and so does my cousin. It stuck with me. I was always aware of the fact that my father had learned ancient Greek in high school and wrote his papers in καθαρεύουσα, the formal language of the Greek state until 1976. But I didn’t grow up learning Greek formally: I learned orally, largely from my father and from my grandparents, who never left Greece and who never really learned any language other than Greek. And I learned largely in Greece, and especially in Athens, in Exarcheia and Glyfada.

I didn’t grow up yearning to know ancient Greek, but in my first year at college at the University of Michigan, I briefly entertained the idea. I flipped to where “Greek” should have been in the course catalog – this was the 90s, we had paper course catalogs – and it read simply, “See Classical Studies.” The first course codes under “Classical Studies,” listed alphabetically, were “Classical Archaeology.” I was planning to double-major in history and economics, and I was vaguely interested in ancient history, so the idea of archaeology intrigued me. I took an introduction to Greek Art & Archaeology taught by John Pedley and an introduction to Field Archaeology taught by Sue Alcock, and that was it: I was hooked.

But I also took Greek that year, the ancient variety, and while I don’t remember being hooked, I did like it. It was different from the Greek I knew. My classmates kept insisting that my knowledge of modern Greek must have been a huge advantage, but I remember thinking that wasn’t so. More than anything else, modern Greek helped me remember certain words, but the language had changed enough that it wasn’t a one-to-one connection. My favorite example is the adjective ποικίλος, which the LSJ renders as “many-coloured, spotted, pied, dappled; wrought in various colours; cunningly wrought; changeful, diversified, manifold; intricate, complex” etc. In Greece now, a ποικιλία (the noun) is a variety plate of appetizers (sort of) served at restaurants, normally for a  bite to eat while you’re drinking (called meze in Greek).

These kinds of connections and interconnections were fascinating to me. They enriched my understanding of my Greek – in wonder, I realized that the Greek word for newspaper, εφημερίδα, was actually a “daily,” literally (φ’ μέρα > ἐφήμερος, cf. English ephemeral). And I understood now that Greek used to have an aspirate, which is why it was an ephimerida and not an epimerida. These are dumb things in retrospect, but it was a revelation to feel that you understood a language and its history rather than simply using it to order souvlakia (still the best thing you can do in any language is order meat on a stick).

I wanted to take ancient Greek because in my addled teen brain I thought it was a kind of family tradition. My father learned ancient Greek in school, my grandfather had taught me my first words of Homer. So it was with some surprise and interest that I read James Nikopoulos’ thoughtful article “On not wanting to know ancient Greek.” In some ways, it sounds like we have a lot in common: we both spent our summers in Exarcheia, we were both raised and educated in the US. But my family saw the language of ancient Greece as something relevant to us. And while my family’s vacations were largely vacation-y, we spent a lot of time surrounded by antiquity: going to archaeological sites and museums, visiting my uncle, who worked as an architect on archaeological projects. I’m not sure that we talked about it much, but it was there, all the time.

And it’s still with me. I’m a professional Classicist – sorry, James – that works on the earliest Greek we have, in the Late Bronze Age. I really derive pleasure from showing students the connections between the Greek words they know and the ones they see in radically different forms in Linear B; that they actually know this word from 14th c. BC Knossos:

4_4_Image2

(It’s to-sa, as in τόσα, “so many,” as in τόσα σουβλάκια [but sadly in this case it’s actually feminine plural, τόσαι]).

On the other hand, I share James’ worry that the Greek language “shouldn’t have to pretend it ever stopped being itself,” and the same goes for Greece. I do find its antiquity endlessly interesting, but if I’m being honest the reason I have gone back every summer since I can remember is the place as it is now and as it has been. I can’t imagine living without it.

And I share James’ regret that I don’t know Greek better, in all its forms. But I’m working on it.

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3 thoughts on “On Greek being Greek

  1. myomonchoro

    This is a nice perspective to offer in counterbalance to the one you reference. I first visited Greece just as the Junta was thrown out, 1975, and remember the politics of katharevousa. As someone who heard, but didn’t really learn, Italian as a child from immigrant grandparents (and my immigrant father), I always thought that learning Latin in middle school was like a second chance (there was no Italian offered in school). That said, of course Italian is not Latin, and Italy is not Rome; my southern Italian relatives are called ‘Africani’ by northern Italians, and the great muddle of identity goes round and round.

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  2. Pingback: Friday Varia and Quick Hits | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

  3. George J. Papadopoulos

    An interesting account – and also a balanced answer to Mr. Nikopoulos’ article.
    I only have to disagree on one point – in Modern Greek (or, as you put it, “in Greece now”), the word ποικιλία (and its adjective ποικίλος) is primarily used to denote variety, diversity or difference – nobody would think of a variety plate of appetizers first, unless one is sitting in a restaurant or works in the restaurant business.

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