Greek to Me

by on 12 Ιανουαρίου 2019

The Comma Queen on the pleasures of a different alphabet.

A few years ago, in the Frankfurt airport on the way home from Greece, I bought a copy of Virginia Woolf’s “The Common Reader,” which includes her essay “On Not Knowing Greek.” I already had the book at home, but I was impressed that anything by Woolf was considered airport reading. When I was about ten years old, my father, a pragmatic man, had refused to let me study Latin, and for some reason I assumed that “On Not Knowing Greek” was about how Woolf’s father, too, had prevented his daughter from studying a dead language. I pictured young Virginia Stephen sulking in a room of her own, an indecipherable alphabet streaming through her consciousness, while her father and her brother, downstairs in the library, feasted on Plato and Aristotle.

Well, apparently I had read only the title of the essay. Of course Virginia Woolf knew Greek. She started studying ancient Greek for fun, at home, when she was about fifteen, later taking classes at King’s College London while her brother Thoby was studying at Cambridge. Though she did not enter the academy, she had private tutorials for several years with Miss Janet Case, who, as a student at Cambridge, had played Athena in an 1885 production of “The Eumenides” of Aeschylus. For Woolf, “not knowing Greek” meant that it was impossible truly to know what the playwright meant, partly because we don’t know what the ancient language sounded like. “We can never hope to get the whole fling of a sentence in Greek as we do in English,” she writes. In Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon,” for instance, the first utterance of Cassandra—the seer brought to Mycenae from Troy as war booty, fated never to be believed—is not just untranslatable but unintelligible: ὀτοτοτοτοι̑ is not even a word, just inarticulate syllables that represent the barbarian princess’s howl of despair. “The naked cry,” Woolf calls it. Both the chorus and Clytemnestra compare Cassandra’s lament to birdsong. The best an English translation can do is to transliterate the Greek letters—“Ototototoi”—or go with something like “Woe is me!” or “Alas!” For these reasons, Woolf writes, reading Greek in translation is “useless.” Woolf did not know Greek the way bees do not know pollen.

I never did get around to Latin, and came to Greek only when I was in my thirties. Compared with Woolf, I was an overgrown child with a set of wooden alphabet blocks. Fortunately, I like blocks, and I love the alphabet. The English alphabet is descended, via the Latin, from the Greek alphabet, which, according to Herodotus, was adapted from the Phoenician alphabet in the time of Cadmus. The Phoenicians were seagoing traders from the eastern Mediterranean, who needed a system of writing to keep track of the merchandise they ferried throughout the ancient world. Cadmus, a prince of Phoenicia, was the legendary founder of Thebes, a city peopled by warriors who sprang up after he sowed the earth with the teeth of a dragon, on instructions from Athena. Aeschylus had a different version of events, attributing the alphabet to Prometheus: writing, like fire, was a gift from the gods. Letters were sacred. Inscribed randomly on a shard of pottery, even without being arranged into a name or a coherent thought, they could be presented as an offering at the temple of Zeus.

The Greeks’ genius was to take the Phoenician alphabet, which consisted of twenty-two consonants, and add vowels to it. Alpha was adapted from aleph, the first letter of the Phoenician alphabet, the sound of which was barely a sound at all—it was more like the brief redirection of breath known to linguists as a glottal stop. It creates the hitch in “uh-oh.” Other Phoenician “gutturals” gave the Greeks names for some of their vowels. The Greek eta looks like our letter “H” and today represents a long “e” sound (ee), as opposed to the short “e” sound of epsilon. Ayin, which was round like an eye, became omicron—literally, “small O.” Later, the Greeks added upsilon, which probably had the sound of “u” (oo) but has evolved into an “e” (ee) sound in modern Greek. They rounded out the alphabet with omega (Ω), “big O,” the shape of which is open at the end. The Greek alphabet is infinite.

The Greeks also added consonants for sounds they needed that the Phoenicians didn’t have. Like many Americans, I didn’t encounter Greek until I went to college and was puzzled by the symbols attached to the façades of fraternity houses: a gigantic X (chi), a bold Ψ (psi), an impenetrable Φ (phi). In modern Greek, phi sounds like “f,” but it is usually transliterated from ancient Greek as “ph.” Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, was Philippos in Greek: lover (phílos) of horses (híppos). Psi, which may be my favorite letter, can be found at the beginning of every English word that is a variant of “psyche”: “psychology,” “psychotherapy,” “psychiatry,” “psychoanalyst,” “psychosomatic,” “psychopath,” “psychopharmacopoeia”—all relatives of Psyche, the lover of Eros, who was the son of Aphrodite. Psi looks like a trident, attribute of Poseidon, god of the sea, and it is the first letter in the modern-Greek word for “fish”: ψάρι (psári).

Chi, which looks like an “X,” is most often transliterated as a hard “ch,” as in “chaos.” The trickster of the Greek alphabet, it is not the same as our English “X”—no way. For that, the Greeks have the letter xi (Ξ). Speakers of English sometimes have trouble knowing how to pronounce Greek-derived words with “ch” in them—“chalcedony,” “chiropodist,” “chimera”—because “ch” also represents the sound in such English words as “church” and “cheese.” Greeks often struggle to pronounce our soft “ch,” which is why, in the Greek-diner skits on the old “Saturday Night Live,” John Belushi calls out, “Tseezbourger. Tseezbourger. Tseezbourger.”

The character “X” has a nonalphabetical use that is common to both languages. According to “Scribes and Scholars,” a 1968 study by L. D. Reynolds and N. G. Wilson of how Greek and Roman literature was preserved and transmitted through the ages, one of the ways that scholars at the Library of Alexandria notated a point of textual interest was by writing the letter chi in the margin. In the early eighties, when I was working as a sort of scribe in the collating department of The New Yorker, the magazine’s editor, William Shawn, would sometimes pencil an X with a circle around it in the margin of a galley proof to indicate a query that he wanted us to carry over to the next version of the piece. The query might be important, but he did not yet have enough information to address it. We scribes would circle it in blue and copy it onto the next day’s proof, to remind Mr. Shawn to ask the author about it. If the collator put the query directly into the piece, or if the editor tried to make a fix without being sure what the author meant, there was a danger of corrupting the text.


It is conceivable that X is the original, maybe even the aboriginal, written mark. X marks the spot, its crossed bars creating a fixed point. X is also the traditional signature of an illiterate, so it is both precise and general: anyone can use it to make one’s mark. It may be the most useful symbol of all. How did the Phoenicians get along without it?

After my father’s refusal to let me study Latin with the nuns in Catholic school, my taste for dead languages lay dormant until around 1982 A.D., when I had been at The New Yorker for about four years. One weekend, I saw “Time Bandits” in a theatre on the Upper East Side. In the film, directed by Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, and starring John Cleese and Michael Palin, a band of time-travelling dwarfs plunder treasure from the past. One scene, set in ancient Greece, featured Sean Connery in a cameo as Agamemnon. He was duelling with a warrior who wore the head of a bull and looked like the Minotaur. The landscape was so stark and arid, and so enhanced by the mighty figure of Sean Connery in armor, that I wanted to go there right away.

My boss at the time, Ed Stringham, the head of the collating department, was famous at the office for his eccentric schedule and rigorous course of studies. He came in at about noon and held court from a tattered armchair by the window (kept firmly closed), smoking cigarettes and drinking takeout coffee. When I told him I wanted to go to Greece, he got all excited. There was a map of Europe on the wall, and he showed me where he had gone on his first trip to Greece. He’d taken a cruise, he said, apologetically, to get an overview: Athens, Piraeus, Crete, Santorini, Rhodes, Constantinople. He pointed out Mt. Athos, the Holy Mountain, a peninsula reserved for Orthodox monks, where no female, not even a hen, was welcome. Then he plucked a slim paperback off a nearby shelf—“A Modern Greek Reader for Beginners,” by J. T. Pring—bent over it till his eyes were inches from the page, and started to translate.

“You can read that?” I said, astonished. It had never occurred to me that a person could become literate in a language that was written in a different alphabet. Before long, Ed had become my mentor in all things Greek. There were two major forms of the modern language: demotic, which is the people’s language, and Katharevousa, puristic Greek, which was devised by some intellectual Greeks in the early nineteenth century to yoke the modern language to its glorious past. Until the nineteen-seventies, Katharevousa was the official language of Greece, used in legal documents and news reporting, although people rarely spoke it. Ed encouraged me to find a class in demotic Greek. In those days, The New Yorker routinely covered the tuition for employees who studied a subject with some bearing on their work. So I registered at N.Y.U.’s School of Continuing Education for a class in modern Greek.

The first words I learned were ílios, “sun,” and eucharistó, “thank you.” To remember words in a foreign language, you make associations with your own tongue, and it thrilled me to realize that the Greek ílios had come into English as Helios. What in English is the sun god is, in Greek, the everyday word for the sun. Greek seemed to exalt the everyday. In eucharistó, I recognized Eucharist, the bread and wine that miraculously become the body and blood of Christ. In Greece, this word—pronounced “efkharisto”—gets tossed around several times an hour. The English “thank you” does not carry the reciprocal meaning of a gift both granted and received in the sense that glows out of Eucharist: the prefix eu, as in Eugenia (wellborn) or “euphemism” (nice, kind, gentle phrase), plus cháris, from which come “charisma” and “charism” (used by religious communities to mean a particular vocation or gift). The Greek term is an exchange of grace.

In that first class, one night a week at N.Y.U., I learned the Greek words for food and for numbers and for the seasons. The words for the seasons are especially beautiful in modern Greek. Spring is ánoixi, from the verb ανοίγω, “open, uncork”—the year opens. Summer is kalokaíri: “good weather.” Phthinóporo is the fall, suggestive of the last harvest and overripe fruit (the consonant cluster at the beginning, “phth,” at first seems rude to an English speaker, as if you were spitting out a cherry pit). Winter, kheimónas, is a time of storms and of scraping by till spring.

By Mary Norris – newyorker.com

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