I’ve recently started taking some classes in modern Greek – something I’ve been meaning to do for ages, since it would be nice to be able to speak it when I travel to Greece (my repertoire up until now has consisted of a relatively fluent ability to order kebabs, but little else). The first thing people normally ask when I mention that I’m learning modern Greek is “how different is it really from ancient Greek?” To which the answer is, well, a) I can’t really speak ancient Greek, as opposed to reading it (the average Classics course is generally more concerned with teaching the vocabulary you need to read about the Persian War than useful phrases like “excuse me, I’m lost, which way is the marketplace please?”), and b) even if I could, I’d still have a lot of trouble making myself understood if I went around speaking it in modern-day Athens, because the language has changed so much.
Although many words in modern Greek are spelt the same way as in ancient Greek, so recognising them when they’re written down is relatively easy for a classicist, the pronounciation has changed quite a lot – so actually understanding spoken Greek, let alone speaking it yourself, is a lot harder. (For example, the capital of Crete, Heraklion in English, would be pronounced something like ‘Hairakleyon’ in ancient Greek, but is now pronounced ‘Iraklio’). There have also been a lot of changes to the grammar, not to mention a lot of words borrowed from other languages that Greek has come into close contact with (e.g. Turkish) which knowing ancient Greek doesn’t help with at all. All of which means that occasionally, if I don’t know the modern Greek word I’m trying to say, I can take the ancient Greek equivalent, pronounce it slightly differently, and produce an approximation of a modern Greek word – but usually the effect is rather less comprehensible. I’ve always been particularly fond of the part of Louis de Berniėres’ novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (set on the Greek island of Kefalonia during WWII) where a British spy gets parachuted onto the island – he’s been selected on the grounds that, as a classicist, he’ll be able to speak Greek fluently, but his attempts to talk to the locals don’t quite get the results he was expecting:
[He] smiled and held out his hand. ‘Bunnios,’ he said ‘I cleped am’.The doctor shook the proffered hand through the window, and said, ‘Dr Iannis.’ ‘Sire, of youre gentillesse, by the leve of yow I wol speke in pryvetee of certeyn thyng’. The doctor knitted his brows in bewilderment. ‘What?’… The outlandish man bowed politely and shook Pelagia’s hand. She let it go limp in his, and could not conceal her astonishment. He smiled charmingly and said, ‘I preise wel thy fresshe beautee and age trendre, I trow.’ ‘I am Pelagia,’ she said, and then she asked her father, ‘What’s he speaking?… Do you think it’s Bulgarian or Turkish or something?’ ‘Greek of th’olde days,’ said the man, adding, ‘Pericles. Demosthenes. Homer.’ ‘Ancient Greek?’ exclaimed Pelagia, disbelievingly…The doctor tapped his forefinger to his forehand, and looked up triumphantly. ‘English?’ he asked. ‘Englonde,’ agreed the man. ‘Natheless, I prithee, by my trouthe…’ ‘Of course we won’t tell anyone. Please may we speak English? Your pronunciation is truly terrible. It hurts my head.’
I’m hoping that by the next time I visit Greece, I will at least be able to pronounce things in a way that doesn’t hurt anybody’s head! By the way, I also thoroughly recommend Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which is a great book for many other reasons as well as the ancient-Greek-speaking British spy. Classicists, particularly classical archaeologists, did actually play a significant part in British intelligence in Greece during WWII, but that’s a subject for another post…