Erratically Hellenic: Epeisodion γ

The Greek language or, more specifically, its script fascinates me. Membership of the club of scripts that remain in use and essentially unchanged for 3000 years is pretty exclusive: off the top of my head, I could only think of Chinese, Greek, Tamil and Amharic (Ge’ez), and checking with Wikipedia shows that Ge’ez and Tamil actually only barely scrape past the 2000-year mark. (Hebrew, that resuscitated zombie, doesn’t count in my book.)

Hydroneta restaurant

The fun thing about Greek is that it’s an alphabet, so once you learn to map your math and physics classes to those initially bizarre sigmas and chis, you can puzzle out what things say pretty fast: in under a week, I was reasonably fluent in all-caps, tolerably reading lowercase script (not a feature of Ancient Greek, mind you, but a Carolingian perversion regrettably transmitted to Greece in the Middle Ages) and still totally flummoxed by handwriting.

What surprised me, though, was the extent of divergence between the letters as imported into English (via Latin) and their modern-day pronounciations. Beta isn’t beta anymore, it’s “veta”; gamma is sometimes gamma but more commonly “yiamma”; and delta isn’t a hard D but a soft “dh” akin to “then”. Instead, Greek has a whole host of unintuitive consonant clusters, so “MP” is read “b” (as in eggs and MPEIKON for breakfast), while “NK” and “NT” are “ng” and “d” respectively (as in the aerial porpoises of ferry operator “PHLAIINK NTOLPHIN”). Vowel clusters are even stranger, with “OU” for “U”, “AI” for “E” and lots more, and one phrasebook (correctly) bemoans that there are six ways of spelling “I” in Greek. Here’s a test: where is “NTOUMPAI” (Ντουμπάι)? Why, “Dubai”, of course.

Exodus to the exit

Similar shifts can be found in the way the meaning of entire words have changed on their way to English. Every highway interchange and emergency exit is an exodus, any picture is an eikon, and a polemika is not a war of words but a war of blood and steel. A trapeza is neither geometric shape nor circus act, but a bank; an organismos is not a living thing, but an organization; and the many Ethnika Somethings of Athens are not narrowly racist, but broadly national. Conversely, some words you’d expect to know aren’t what you’d think: a polis is a city, but the police are astinomia, and a car isn’t an automobile (fie, hybrid Latin bastard!) but an avtokinito (as in “kinetic”).


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