Are you all sitting comfortably, with a beverage and some snacks? Great! Let’s start this Greek lesson with our first word. No, nothing as simple as “Hello!” or “Good morning!” or, even, “Can I please have some tzatziki with my moussaka?”. Our first word is…
I can hear the Welsh speakers tittering. The rest of us are probably not so amused. Don’t worry, though. This is not a word you’ll need to memorise before your next holiday on a Greek island. It’s a completely made-up word, coined by Aristophanes, the writer of comedies, in the 5th century BC to describe an equally made-up dish.
This word is, however, characteristic of the way Greek language works. It has polysyllabic words, with complex clusters of consonants. Although Greek pronunciation is fairly easy, as the language only has 5 vowel sounds (/i, u, e, o, a/) and the consonants are rather easy to pronounce by most other language speakers, the grammar and the syntax of the language make few concessions, if any, to foreign learners, laden as they are with declensions, moods and tenses.
It doesn’t help that, in its 3,000-year-long history, Greek has gone through many iterations. Ancient Greek, which at its acme was known as hē koinē diálektos (“the common dialect”), is the language that, along with Latin, has tortured untold generations of schoolchildren and students. Although it shares an alphabet with Modern Greek (the word itself coming from a combination of the first 2 letters of the, well, alphabet: “alpha” and “beta”), it wouldn’t be of much use for someone who would like to be understood by a speaker of Modern Greek, although they would recognise grammatical and syntactical patterns.
Modern Greek, as it is spoken nowadays by 16,000,000 people in Greece, Cyprus and the widespread Greek diaspora, and which is also known as the Demotiki (“of the people”), is the latest form of the language. It succeeded the Katharevousa (“the purifying one”, as it was thought to be the closest relative of the “pure” Classical form of the language), which was spoken and (mostly) written in the 18th, 19th and more than half of the 20th century and which combined Modern Greek syntax and grammar with a large amount of Ancient Greek words. In 1982, the Demotiki was simplified even further with the official adoption of the monotonic orthography, which did away with the diacritics (two breathings and three accents) of Ancient Greek and made the life of millions of Greek schoolchildren, myself included, much easier.
In its heyday, Greek was the lingua franca of the entire Mediterranean basin, and was used by merchants, diplomats and soldiers everywhere from Spain to what is today Pakistan. It was also spoken in the Greek colonies of Southern France and Southern Italy, where there are still Greek-speaking enclaves today. And, if you suffer from arachnophobia, believe in democracy, like reading biographies, or are keen on photography, you are also a Greek speaker to some extent. Now, try reading that first word again…