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Istanbul & Athens Trip Part 4: It’s All Greek to Me

April 14, 2011

Here we come to the fourth and final of my blog posts about my MBA class trip to Istanbul and Athens. It was a great trip – and I hope an interesting series of posts.  It’s a trip I would definitely re-visit if given the chance.

In Athens, as in Istanbul, I was interested in more than just the sights and artifacts of a foreign land.  I was interested in language and culture.  Call it a weakness.  Little did I know that plunging into Greek was going to give me a lesson in some of the particulars of linguistics that I’d read about in a theoretical sense but had yet to put into action.  (That said, I’m going to be getting into some funky-nerdy language details in this post.)

Greek, I soon realized, was going to be both easier and harder for me to pick up on than Turkish.  Easier because it is a European language that has heavily influenced English (we use all kinds of Greek prefixes and suffixes).  Harder because it uses an entirely different alphabet to the one I am used to using.  (It is perhaps worth noting, at this point, that the word alphabet itself we owe to Greek.  It’s a portmanteau of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha and beta.  But then you probably already knew that.)

Thankfully, there were many factors working in my favor.  Firstly, virtually every sign in Greece is written twice: once in Greek and once in English.  This is true even of place names, which are generally transliterated into the closest English approximation (although I noticed there are differences in what is considered the closest English approximation, depending on where you are).

Secondly, many of the Greek letters are pronounced similarly to their similar-appearing Roman counterparts.  Beta is (and looks like) a “B”, Alpha like an “A” and so on.  But there are a number of characters that I already knew were very different.  Chi (Χ) looks like an X, but it’s not pronounced like one.  (That happened to be one I already knew a bit about.) 

Finally, I also had the advantage of being familiar with many of the letters thanks to their frequent use in fraternity and sorority names in collegiate Greek culture in the U.S. – although, as one of our hosts in the country (a young Greek lady who spent some time at our University in a study abroad program) pointed out, we pronounce them all wrong.  You can add to that the use of many Greek characters as signs for mathematical constants and variables – most famously π.  We typically pronounce these wrong, too.  (It’s properly “pee”, not “pie”… but I suspect the snickers in math class would be unbearable, so we’ll leave it as it is for now.) 

Meanwhile, some of the letters were entirely misleading: they bear a close resemblance to Roman letters but are used for entirely different sounds.  Take lower-case Nu, for instance.  Upper-case Nu looks and is pronounced like the letter “N”.  Lower-case looks like a small letter “v”.  Or lower-case “Eta” which looks like a lower-case “n” with a long tail (η).  Additionally, there are also a number of Greek letters with which I wasn’t familiar at all (mostly the lower-case variants, which aren’t used in Fraternity names, and especially the ones that also aren’t used much in math class). 

Finally, there’s the issue of the difference between ancient Greek and modern Greek.  Remember when I said that “Beta” is a “B”.  Well, wrong, actually.  Beta used to be a B.  That was a long time ago.  Now it’s a “V”.  Apparently Greek has undergone what is called, in linguistics, lenition over the many centuries.  (This I figured out on my own, after getting confused as to why Lykavittos hill, where four of us went one afternoon, was spelled with a “beta”.) 

The particular mutation here is called “spirantization”, which means turning a plosive sound into a fricative or spirant sound.  Plosives are the hard sounds where your tongue or some part of your mouth physically strikes some other part of your mouth in making the sound: “t”, “d”, “p”, “b”, “k”, and “g” are all plosives.  Fricatives are the sounds where part of your mouth vibrates against another part of your mouth to make the sound.  Spirants are a subclass of Fricatives.  The sounds “f” and “v” are fricatives and “s” and “z” are spirants, for example.  Now, try this out: say “ba ba ba ba” to yourself.  Next, do it again, but when you go to make the “b” sound, vibrate your lips.  It will start to sound like you’re saying “va va va va”.  That’s how these sound mutations occur, and that’s what happened in Greek.

But, of course, that means that Greek lost a character to represent a pure “b” sound.  Never fear, they’ve invented their way around this.  During our trip we visited the Benaki Museum, which houses some awesome artifacts and relics of ancient, medieval, and pre-modern Greek culture across the ages (right up until the period of Greek Independence).  I noticed something right away when we pulled up to the Benaki Museum.  It wasn’t spelled with a beta.  It was spelled “Μπηνακι”.  A direct transliteration: “Mpenaki”.  Since the letter “mu” is a voiced bilabial sound, and the letter “pi” is an unvoiced bilabial plosive, they simply threw the two together to indicate the voiced bilabial plosive of “b”.  Ingenious

Modern Greek has apparently gone through a vowel-shift as well.  In Ancient Greek the letter “Eta” represented what in English we call a long-a sound like in the word “ancient”, or “fade” or “spade”.  (It’s history is actually longer and more sordid than that, and is tied up with the modern letter “H”.)  But today it is pronounced as a long-e sound (“ee”, or IPA “i”), along with the Greek Iota (Ι) and Ypsilon (Υ, itself once pronounced as a long-u “oo” sound in Ancient Greek).  It took me a while to pick all this up.  For most of my time in Athens, for instance, I was pronouncing the name of the Greek goddess of victory, “Nike” as “Nee-kay” (as opposed to “Nai-kee”, the brand-name tennis-shoe).  But today Greeks pronounce it “Nee-kee”. 

I’m pretty proud to say that by the time I left Athens, however, I was able to read pretty much any sign written in Greek – I believe I finally decoded the last of the illusive Greek characters in the Airport on the way out.  (It was lower-case Zeta, by the way: “ζ”.)  And by “read” I mean “pronounce what was written”.  Which is a long way from understanding.  Still, the proliferation of bits of Greek throughout the English language helped my understanding quite a bit. 

I got a lot of help during our final official dinner of the Colloquium trip.  Invited along were some of our hosts in Athens, folks from the businesses we visited.  Included were the aforementioned young Greek lady who was an exchange student at my school a few years ago and there was also a Greek Canadian (who, having been raised in Canada, spoke fluent English, but having returned to the land of her ancestors also spoke fluent Greek).  I had the good fortune of sitting at the same table as both of these during dinner, and over the course of the various dinner conversations got to ask a number of questions about Greek.  To my delight, they seemed delighted to share with me.  (I think this is a common reaction; people always seem happy to share some of the nuances and finer points of their native language with interested foreigners.)

It was during those conversations that the Greek Canadian introduced me to an amusing revelation about a couple Greek letters that I’m ashamed to admit I never noticed on my own.  There are two separate Greek letters representing the sound “o”.  If you’ve been to college, you’ve no doubt been familiar with both “Omicron” (Ο) and “Omega” (Ω).  Little did I realize there is a subtle variation in the way the two sounds are pronounced, and instructions for that variation are built into the names of the two letters.  “Omicron” is a short o, while “Omega” is a long o, meaning that you pronounce Omega for longer than you pronounce Omicron.  The Greek-based English prefix “micro-“, of course, means “tiny”, and the Greek-based English prefix “mega-” means “huge”.  Thus: “tiny-o” and “huge-o”.  How did I miss this?  Our Greek Canadian host pointed this out to me by pronouncing the word “omega” by dragging out the “o” sound for extra emphasis, and as she did so, it dawned on me what she was driving out.

So, all very well and good.  But that’s all been about the language, and nary a word about culture.  Well, let’s start with the food.

It’s clear that Greece and Turkey share a certain amount of common East Mediterranean culture, and this was nowhere more evident than in the food.  The food in Greece was fantastic, of course – but it’s also very similar to much of the fare that’s available in Istanbul.  This began to make sense to me when I read a little of the history of such dishes as the Gyro and the Kabab – they’re linked together.  What was perhaps surprising was that it was easier to eat cheaply in Athens than it was in Istanbul, but that doesn’t say much about the culture so much as the economy, perhaps (despite the high value of the Euro). 

The other thing I noticed about Athens, as compared to Istanbul, was the cleanliness.  Now, Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the world, but Athens is no small village itself.  It’s still a very large, humming metropolis.  And yet everything I saw seemed remarkably clean compared to Istanbul, except for a small grungy district filled with nightclubs and graffiti.  In fairness, I realize I have to credit some of this to the difference in lighting.  By our second day in Athens we were actually seeing some sun, which does wonders for a place’s appearance.  Even so, much of Athens appeared noticeably cleaner.

The last major cultural thing I noticed was a study in contrast.  The Greek people, it seems, are just by-and-large a laid-back, easy-going people.  I noted this when I remarked on just how “closed early” Athens was, but I just kept getting this sense from my other interactions with Greek people.  It’s a friendly sort of easy-going, but it’s still something that contrasts with my own experience with workaholic Americans.  And it contrasts sharply, as well, with the people of Turkey.  Istanbul seemed bustling, full of energy.  Athens seemed… well… quiet.   At the Turkish Investment Agency, the presenters had all their ducks in a row, with a major long-term plan and access to important government officials to get their goals implemented and the resources to pursue it.  At the Greek counterpart, there was just a much less intense approach to the topic, the plans were less detailed, little attention had been given to the resources needed to pursue their plan.  And so it goes. 

Which all might be a big part of why Greece is so popular with tourists.  You can come here and really unwind because, well… you’ll really feel disconnected from the unrelenting pace of life back in wherever you come from.  You’ll actually have a chance to relax.  Just so long as you’re flexible with your schedule…

For that, I’m sure Dear Wife and I will be returning here, as well – both so Dear Wife can see the sights, and so we both can really let ourselves stretch out and relax.

The other posts in this series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 14, 2011 12:55 pm

    Ahh you hit the nail on the head for why I love it there. For some reason, time seems to pass more slowly. E remarked on the same thing when he came to Canada. “Why is it that we never have any time here?” I never really learned how to relax, leave the business of the day behind me, until I spent time in Greece.

    Your explanations of the alphabet brought a smile on my face. I remember my first impression of Athens and seeing Tabepna’s everywhere – not yet knowing that the b = v and p = r.

    • April 14, 2011 4:25 pm

      We have the same problem. No matter how hard we try, there’s always more to do in a day than we can get done, and there’s always more left for tomorrow when it’s time for bed. If we didn’t specifically plan for and schedule time to relax, it wouldn’t happen. I had a lot of fun puzzling out how to read and pronounce Greek. I felt like an adventurer, a veritable Indiana Jones, uncovering some lost and ancient secret language.

  2. April 14, 2011 2:28 pm

    This is so fascinating! Especially the bits about the language. When I finally get a chance to do some traveling, I’ll make sure to hit Greece. Sounds like a wonderful place to visit–and very chill.

    • April 14, 2011 4:27 pm

      It was very chill. Not what you expect on a business trip – but pretty much perfect for a get-away-from-it-all vacation. The language was a lot of fun to figure out. But it wouldn’t have made any sense at all if I hadn’t read about some of this stuff before…

  3. April 14, 2011 4:47 pm

    But, Stephen, where’s the part about the food?!? That’s the best part!

    • April 14, 2011 4:59 pm

      I did mention the food. It was just… brief. And way down toward the bottom. It was very good – but it wasn’t appreciably different in any significant way from what we often ate in Turkey. There’s a lot of overlap and similarity of flavors in the cuisine of many of these Eastern Mediterranean countries.

  4. April 15, 2011 11:55 pm

    Thankfully, there were many factors working in my favor. Firstly, virtually every sign in Greece is written twice: once in Greek and once in English. This is true even of place names, which are generally transliterated into the closest English approximation (although I noticed there are differences in what is considered the closest English approximation, depending on where you are).

    I’m always amused at the way place names morph. The Ivory Coast is one of those amusing places. In US News, I often see this as Ivory Coast. In the Economist it writes it as Côte d’Ivoire. And in Swedish it is Elfenbenskusten (which comes from the literal translation of “The Ivory Coast”… but half the time I almost translate it as The Elf’s Leg Coast… breaking ivory into english/swedish parts).

    • April 18, 2011 9:09 am

      That’s an amusing transliteration from French to Swedish to English. Things don’t always move smoothly between languages, do they?

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