Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Offensive, my Arse.

I’ve been away from home and without broadband for a week, so I went into the library in my home town to check my e-mail. I had a look at a few blogs while I was at it and then tried to check on my own. The computer flashed up a message telling me that ‘contains offensive material’ and there was no way it would open the website, lest I be corrupted.

Offensive material? Like what? OK, there’s a bit about auto-erotic asphyxia and people being found dead with things stuck up their bums, but my source was a respected pathologist, so that ought to lend it some gravitas, surely? And there is a post about a gay porno book, but I did point out that it failed to give me an erection, so that should be OK too, shouldn’t it? I gave a description of how you can collect and then post packets of your own shit through the public mails, but couched it in terms of reassurance, explaining that it is easier to do than one might think, so what in this would bring the blush of shame to the cheek of modesty? There are posts that deplore the religion peddled by Jentezen Franklin, Fred Phelps, Mary Catherine Baxter and Jimmy Swaggart, a quite shamelessly crude and offensive bunch, who regularly trounce the sensibilities of the more broad-minded, so upsetting people like them redresses the balance a little, that’s all. I suggested shoving a dildo up the Pope’s tail-pipe, but after hearing his pompous hypocrisy about homosexuality, what right-thinking pillar of the community wouldn’t? No, pure as the driven snow, is this blog.

No human being has been censoring blogs from a back room of Huddersfield public library, of course. It’s just a bit of soft-ware the library uses, an electronic Lord Chamberlain’s Office that scans sites for occurrences of ‘fuck’, mention of dildoes, anything to do with the Pope’s rectum, etc. (‘Lathophobic Aphasia – regrettable playground language, juvenile mockery of the clergy that the faithful might find offensive, schoolboy smut about boy-on-boy shagging in our top public schools, fashionable approval of homosexual acts, all quite unsuitable’.) The programme did once backfire, though. Three years ago it refused to open an e-mail from a friend, and it spelled out why:

‘This message contains language that may be offensive:

Fuck x 3
Shit x 2
Wank x 1’*

Thus it failed to spare my blushes in its attempt to do just that.

(* 6.5 on Whitehouse-Cartland Regrettability Scale: ‘Most unladylike’.’)

Language Learning for Dummies

I decided to learn some Arabic. Paltry choice of books for the purpose at Waterstones, so I bought ‘Arabic for Dummies: the fun and easy way to start speaking Arabic’. Normally I can do without the ‘For Dummies’ series and its relentless chumminess. ‘Windows for Dummies’ left me poker faced and not a lot wiser. This time I decided I would try to ignore the buddy-buddy style and concentrate on the language, but it is not easy to tune out the chirpiness, especially where it makes matters ten times more complicated than an even slightly more academic approach would. The section on pronunciation is so eager not to scare you off with technical terms that it is virtually opaque:

Name of letter: Daad

Sounds like: A very deep ‘d’ sound, the exact same sound as a Saad, except that you use a ‘d’ instead of an ‘s’.

Got that? What do you reckon a ‘deep’ /d/ sound might be? ‘Deep’ is way too subjective an adjective to describe usefully the quality of a phoneme, no more helpful here than ‘chewy’, ‘bitter’ or ‘medium-sized’ would be in its place. And how can a /d/ be ‘exactly the same’ as an /s/?

Name of letter: Saad

Sounds like: A very deep ‘s’ sound you can make if you open your mouth really wide and lower your jaw.

I’m trying to visualise this. Can you open your mouth without lowering your jaw? I think not. What you certainly cannot do is open your mouth really wide and produce anything that sounds like a /s/, ‘deep’, or ‘crisp’, or ‘even’. This is not the only contortion of the vocal tract one is required to attempt. Try this:

‘Take the ‘th’ as in ‘those’, and draw it to the back of your throat.’

You might want me to run that by you again:

‘Take the ‘th’ as in ‘those’, and draw it to the back of your throat.’

If you manage this, do please leave me a comment and explain how. I mean, you don’t need a degree in linguistics to work out that the ‘th’ in ‘those’ (a dental fricative) is phonated with the tip of the tongue brought close to the upper front teeth in order to narrow the passage for the outgoing air. So how do you ‘draw this to the back of your throat’ unless you swallow your dentures?

The writer also seems to think that English is a Romance language and tells us that in Arabic, adjectives follow nouns, ‘unlike in most Romance languages’. Is there a Romance language in which adjectives do not usually follow nouns? I do wish people would check their facts before making such pronouncements about language. I’m sure ‘Windows for Dummies’ would have been assiduously purged of technical inaccuracies before it was inflicted on the public, so why should language books get away with this sort of sloppiness?


About twelve years ago in Athens, I became fascinated by Albanian and began to learn it with occasional help from my kind neighbour Violetta, an ex-actress from Tirana. To start off with, I had only one little book of parallel texts, ‘Dialogë Shqip-Greqisht’ one page in Albanian, the facing page in Greek. The texts were all flat footed teach-yourself-book dialogues of the sort parodied in Ionesco’s ‘La Cantatrice Chauve’, where a Mrs Smith, in casual conversation, informs her husband what the two of them had for dinner and how many children they have, as though this were news to him. In my Albanian book two people fall into conversation on an airliner and as it goes bowling down the runway one tells the other ‘the aircraft is gaining speed’. Still, I reasoned that even if the writer lacked any ability to reproduce natural-sounding human speech, I could still get a fair amount of vocabulary from his little book, which was in any case the only one on offer at the time. There was another eccentricity that took some forgiving, though. The writer created dialogues in which, for example, a foreign visitor to pre-1990 Albania is being shown around a farming co-operative and learning of the proletarian joy that reigns among its members: ‘bujqësia po lulëzon!’ (‘agriculture is blooming!’) Then someone, perhaps the writer, perhaps the editor, had arranged the lines of the dialogues in alphabetical order according to the first letter of each line. Thus, if a dialogue opened with ‘tungjatjeta!’ (hello) and ended with ‘mirupafshim!’ (goodbye), the farewell would always precede the salutation, with the rest of the exchange at once ordered yet scrambled all around them, or between them, or above or below, depending on the letters that kicked off each line. It was incredibly frustrating to read, and all the more so because it was perhaps inspired by an addled memory of legitimate language practise tasks where scrambled dialogues are presented to be reordered, but with recognition of the need for judiciously-placed contextual clues, the limited value of the task, and the limited attention (and life) span of the learner.

American travel writer on Albanian: ‘Occasionally a French sounding word surfaces, like qen meaning dog, but otherwise Albanian is completely unlike any other language’. (My emphasis) Oh, for God’s sake… French chien and Albanian qen both derive from Latin canis. Albanian forms a single branch of the Indo-European family. It has a considerable amount of Latin-based vocabulary and its grammatical structure is unmistakably of the Indo-European stripe. So let’s have no more of this nonsense, or I shall be handing out lines and order marks.


In the mid nineties a colleague and I wrote two practice test books for Greek schools. When the first book saw the light of day, we were dismayed to find that changes had been made without our permission. I had included a dialogue, based on my own experience, in which a man in a book shop is trying to find a copy of the relatively rare ‘Colloquial Albanian’ by Isa Zymberi, a book that does actually exist but somehow never made the best seller lists. Our editor had decided that a textbook with any mention of Albanian would never sell to Greek schools, and changed ‘Colloquial Albanian’ to ‘Colloquial Mexican’. Somewhere there will be teachers who suppose that it is Costas and I who don’t know that Mexicans speak Spanish and that whole gondolas of teach yourself Spanish books are to be found in any book store.

A feature of our test books was sets of questions prompting students to reflect on how they arrived at their answers to listening tests. The hope was that Greek teachers would, finally, start to focus their charges on the thought-processes that lead them to a response rather than simply rewarding them for being right or slapping them down for being wrong.* These meta-cognitive questions were a bugger to devise in such quantity, and so it was galling to find that the editor had amended some of ours to such ink-wasting banalities as ‘which is the right answer?’ Some changes were necessary for the sake of the pagination, but others seemed merely to demonstrate that editors have egos too. We learned that inaccuracies and absurdities in language textbooks are not necessarily the fault of the writer whose name appears on the cover, but may be the work of those who get to monkey about with the text once the writers are safely out of the way and it is too late for them to protest.

Teachers’ feedback on our books was positive. People thought the listening scripts were funny, nobody spotted the ‘Colloquial Mexican’ solecism, or if they did, they did not mention it. Everyone simply ignored the meta-cognitive stuff, having no idea what it was intended to accomplish.

EFL books have a short shelf life, a couple of years or so. Not only do Greek language schools get through test books the way whales get through krill, it also doesn’t take long before the photos look dated and fourteen-year-old students are unable to focus on the language because they are too busy hooting at the characters’ quaint clothes, naff trainers and clunky mobile phones. Our books are still around somewhere, many probably frayed, damp and termite-munched in third world classrooms. You can buy them on Amazon, but nobody does. Last year’s royalties: one euro and fifty cents!

(* ‘Τους δέρνεις, τους μαλώνεις, δεν κάθονται να μάθουνε...’)

Monday, 22 December 2008

An intemperate Outburst

La Ratzinger in her best hat.

' ...scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
is more to bread than stone:... '

Measure for Measure (1, iii)

Dammit, I had just shut up the shop for Christmas when I read this from that creepy old Queen in the Vatican:

‘Pope Benedict said on Monday that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour was just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction... He compared behaviour beyond traditional heterosexual relations [to] 'a destruction of God's work.' He also defended the Church's right to "speak of human nature as man and woman, and ask that this order of creation be respected".

What fucking planet does this ghastly old fart inhabit? Homosexual behaviour has been around at least since the first primates evolved. It does not pose any threat to straights, and it never has. Nevertheless for centuries straights have mocked, persecuted, ostracised, burned and hanged queers. Now in the west we are making some headway in getting people to accept the cross-grained, multifaceted nature of human sexuality, the last thing we need is these arrogant, pompous, repressed, bottom pinching, boy-fondling old gits pronouncing on how we should fuck and with whom.

We’re here, we're queer, like us or fucking lump us, and a big fat dildo up Benedict's tightly-puckered old arse, sideways.

Quite a squeeze, what with his brain up there already.

Two boys appreciating God's work.


...but vide supra


ΚΑΛΕΣ ΓΙΟΡΤΕΣ. Τα λέμε τον Γενάρη

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Sweet Blood

A while ago, I mentioned that I had booked myself in for a thorough medical at a private practice, my first ever. (Americans, this is England, you don’t bother the doctor if you can avoid it. They seem to have so little time to spare.) My chief concern at the time was the haemoccult test, which requires three days' worth of shit to be conveyed to the doctor, to do with it whatever it is he does with it. How do you collect and transport it? Carrier bag? Lunch box? Dump truck? In fact, it’s easy, because you are sent three little cards that look like books of matches and you apply to each a sample ‘from either end of the motion’, repeat the process the following day and the next, and then bundle the cards off by recorded delivery - ‘anything valuable in the envelope at all?’ Simple, even if not very pleasant. So don’t worry.

Now, almost four weeks later, I expected medical matters and concern for the dark, messy insides of the body to be over and done with, but there has been an unexpected twist. My blood tests showed a 'level of glucose in the diabetic range'. This is a direct quote from the doctor’s terse e-mail – he is not good at phatic utterance, even in communications where a little would not go amiss. I had to get re-tested.

The phlebotomist at my GP’s looked at the print out of the test results and when she got to the glucose bit she went ‘Ooh! Ooh!’ as one who’s just found a baby slug in her salad. ‘Ooh, that’s not good!’ she squealed, leaving me unsure whether the appropriate response were to chuckle at life's little ups and downs, apologise for upsetting her, or burst into tears. She took more blood. ‘What if it is diabetes?’ I asked. ‘Well, to start with, just diet and tablets’ she said. ‘But it gets more complicated with age!’ she added, cheerily. Thanks, pal.

My GP also made oddly irresolute noises when the second test results were in. ‘Hmmm. Yeah. Well.’

‘What’s up?’

‘Borderline diabetic, is this. What do you wanna do?’

What did he expect me to say?

‘Eat candy and get sick!’
‘I think I’ll simply end it all now’
‘Kiss me, John, and do it like you mean it!’

I said I didn’t know. I didn't say I wouldn't be sitting there if I did, although I thought it.

‘Yeah, well, we’ll do you another test sort of mid-January-ish.’

So that’s what we’ll do.

My cousin has been diabetic since she was four. When I was a little boy I thought, absurdly, that her diabetes was a privilege, because she had her own special sweets, her own little lunch packs, and generally had things – hypodermics, fascinating chunky little glass bottles of insulin with rubber membrane caps - that her sister, mine and I did not. I won’t need any of this stuff whatever the results, thank God.

I have not had raging thirst and the need to pee every few minutes, but I have felt over the last year that everything I do requires twice the physical and mental effort it used to. The walk from the university to the station takes all of 10 minutes but it often feels like a trek through deep snow. There are many days when I get up and make the bed, and spend all day just waiting to get back into it. The working week often seems interminable, and I have had problems at work because I have simply forgotten to complete loads of dreary admin, my priority being to get away, get home, and crash out. So a diagnosis of mature-onset diabetes might explain this and the medication possibly make me a bit livelier.

Now I'm working on a set of excuses for if it transpires that I am not diabetic after all.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Christmas Greetings

Couldn't resist this. Found it on Sissydude's brilliant blog, but since his is one of the 'I understand and wish to continue' blogs-with-knobs, they might miss it, that else did profit thereby. Hope you are as profoundly moved as I was, and wouldn't you just kill for the jumper of the lady on the left?

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Bang the Hanker out of your Boner

A piece of internet porn site translatese:

Visconti Triplets bang the living hankers!

‘A fine sunny day that is just perfect to lounge around the pool and get some tan. Heat stroke causes deep craving for self-pleasure. With nobody else around, the Visconti Triplets doesn’t blink an eye and gratifies their horny dongs and gets it on until all their custard juice oozes out. Only self-indulgence will cure the inflamed boner they all have because it is bound to burst if it’s not satisfied. In those pants were gorging hunk of meat waiting for some nasty action. They hit a maximum speed of horniness that not even the wind can break. They do their best to keep their bowties on but their suits are no match for their angry sausages that just wants to be devoured live and whole.’

Well it might make you want to bang your hanker, but personally I'll keep my bow-tie on, not break wind, and save my custard for Mr. Right.


When my grandma and great aunt were little girls around the end of the First World War, the family was briefly in the chips. The girls were always well turned-out and had equally well turned-out dolls and a big handsome toy car, among other small luxuries not common in their milieu at the time. All this was funded by their grandmother, who was a star turn as a platform medium at Spiritualist churches in the north of England. She only accepted money for private sittings and donations were voluntary, but, as evidenced by the clothes and toys, frequent and generous. When it came great-great-grandma’s turn to Pass Over to the Other Side, it was back to living on a tight budget, like everybody else.

I have no idea if my great-great-grandmother was a gifted psychic, a hard nosed manipulator, or one of the many mediums who subconsciously absorb the technique of cold reading and imagine themselves instruments of a Higher Power. Certainly on my mother’s side of the family there was never much doubt that the dead are always around us, and my great aunt was often told she ought to develop her psychic gift, but she was too scared of ‘spooks’ ever to try. When I was a kid we used to play Ouija with a wineglass and a circle of Lexicon cards, and if Auntie’s finger were on the glass it would skitter so fast from letter to letter you could hardly keep up with it. I don’t suppose anybody enjoys funerals, but Auntie especially disliked them because if she wandered round the grounds of the crematorium, voices of the long-since burnt would call out to her, and this gave her the creeps. Grandma on the other hand greatly enjoyed being given the creeps, and liked to scare herself witless with gruesome Dennis Wheatley novels. No logician, she contrived to believe in revenants whilst simultaneously dismissing them as nonsense.

My own spook story goes like this. When I was about three, our house had a cellar where the washing machine was kept. Next to the cellar was a tiny L-shaped space for storing coal. One day while my mother was doing the washing I asked to look inside the ‘coal hole’, so she opened the door and I went inside. I said there was an old lady standing in there, and described her grey hair and coloured apron. I was not scared, or even surprised, to see a complete stranger apparently banged up in the coal hole, and it was my composure as much as anything else that freaked my mother out. We went back upstairs and she wouldn’t go down there again for some time. Eventually we did go back down, probably because we needed clean clothes, and again I looked in the coal hole and again there she stood in the dark in her coloured pinny.

I have trotted out this story for every class I have ever taught, and once recorded it for a now out-of-print EFL coursebook. I leave the last part of the story for the students to complete. ‘Later, my mum related the incident to the neighbour, who said…’

Only one student ever said ‘they should take you to a psychiatrist’ - thank you, Panagioti. Everyone else gets it bang on. The neighbour said that the previous tenant of the house had been a rather strange old lady, who always wore a coloured apron, and who had been found dead in the cellar.


My father’s mother was as down to earth and stolid as my mother’s mother was fey and scatty. Most works of the imagination in books or on TV struck her as ‘proper daft’ and once, when some medium was doing his thing on the telly, dad’s mother was utterly mystified as to what was supposed to be happening. If it had been explained to her, she would have dismissed it as ‘codswallop’. Yet in the last month of her life she told my mother that at night, she heard voices calling her name: ‘Kathleen? Kathleen? It’s me, Nellie.’ They were voices of friends who had gone on ahead. ‘I know who it is, and I don’t like it’ she said. I found it strange that a woman so very grounded in this world with her Liberal club treasurer’s accounts, mail order catalogues, housework and total lack of interest in the imaginary, should even discuss this.


A few weeks ago I went with a friend to see a famous medium work a crowd. I had not been to such an event for nearly sixteen years. He had a stock of patter and little jokes, and the air of a stage-struck little boy accustomed to performing to indulgent aunts and grannies. (Takes one to know one.) It made me want to rip his head off. He did what every medium does, which is first to fish for leads;

'Anyone recently lost a mother?’

and then eliminate contenders for the message from the beyond;

‘Cancer? No, heart attack is what I’m getting. Round about April, May, June, July…?’

When the recipient is finally located, the message will be mind-bendingly banal;

‘She tells me you’re thinking of getting some new kitchen units, she says she loves you very much; I feel he was quite a character, wouldn’t suffer fools, always very outspoken, wasn’t he?’

Then, just as you feel justified in writing the whole thing off as horse-feathers, some small piece of information from the beyond will have the ring of truth, something hard, clear and individual will shine out among the soapsuds, and you wonder how he could possibly have known that.

Doesn’t prove the survival of death, of course. Still, I can’t bring myself entirely to believe or disbelieve. If we do go on, I hope to meet the old lady from the coal-hole, because after so many years of using the story in my lessons, I owe her a glass or two of whatever she’s having.


Read The Heresiarch on platform psychics here.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

And now for something completely different...

Something with heart and soul to take away the nasty taste of Westboro Baptist Church with their bright-eyed Schadenfreude and clunky, thumb-nosing doggerel. This is the beautiful Greek singer Savina Yannatou with El Rey de Francia, ' 18th century Sephardic version of a mediaeval traditional song from Asia Minor, "To Όνειρο της Κόρης: O 'Αρχοντας της Φραγκιάς" ("The Daughter's Dream: The King of France") or, in Spanish, "El Sueño de la Hija: El Rey de Francia".'

God hates Father Christmas

I am not alone with my grumpiness about Christmas, but follow the next link and see how the peculiar people of the Westboro Baptist Church take this dislike a bit far. As my grandma used to put it, there’s shiteing, and there’s riving your arse. Christmas might give you dyspepsia from an excess of Quality Street and Matchmakers, or a burst blood vessel or two from fuming at the patronising, moronic hogwash on the telly, but send you to Hell? Steady on.

The WBC are inspired, if that is the correct word, by Calvin, the gloomy religious one, unfortunately, rather than the underpants man. Bo, over at The Cantos of Mvtabilitie , gives a succinct description of Calvin's rebarbative theology. Perhaps not everyone who subscribes to this view of the relationship of man to God is as barking as the crew of WBC, but it is hard to imagine that they would be quite as gloatingly cheerful about it.

I have had the Westboro Baptist Church website in my bookmarks for a while now and check in every so often, to marvel. Just when you think they can’t get loopier, they go right ahead and get loopier. They are convinced that homosexuals rile God more than anything or anyone else on Earth, and that male-to-male sex is thus responsible for every ill that afflicts humanity, rather than a compensation for them, which is my own view. They write gleeful, thumb-nosing songs about the hell and damnation whither all but they are surely headed. They travel round the USA, holding insane pickets of events they believe bring down or demonstrate God's hatred of this world: soldiers’ funerals, Catholic conventions, Gay Pride events and the sale of Swedish vacuum cleaners. They are utterly, completely, totally bat-shit crazy and then some. What a pity that all that energy and zeal should be directed into an enterprise of such bleakness and ugliness, and that those little kids cannot be air-lifted to sanity.


Why does God hate Swedish vacuum cleaners? Well, in 2005 Pastor Åke Green of Borgholm delivered a sermon in which he characterised homosexuality as 'a horrible cancerous tumor in the body of society'. He was sentenced to a month in clink for inciting hatred, but he appealed and got off. His sermon's hyperbole commended itself to Fred Phelps of the WBC, who thought he recognised a kindred spirit, and the quashing of Green's sentence gave Ol' Fred an excuse to denounce the Swedes as lost to shame. Green would have no truck with Fred, however, and described Fred's pronouncements on fags as 'very unpleasant', which shows that Green can be moderate when he wants to be. In a nice example of righteous having-your-cake-and-eating-it, Green concluded his sermon on the horrible cancerous tumor that is us gay men and women with the pious 'we cannot condemn these people — Jesus never did that either. He showed everyone He met deep respect for the person they were (...) Jesus never belittled anyone.'

All of this goes to prove conclusively that God hates Sweden, and so WBC pickets outlets that sell Swedish-made vacs, those ambassadors of filth that masquerade as agents of cleanliness.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Animals in Translation

If you are not animal crackers, you might want to skip this post. I loved the attached video, but then I'm a total sentimentalist where animals are concerned. So, a serious-ish bit first, and we'll get to the gooey bit after.

I've been reading, and recommend, 'Animals in Translation' by Temple Grandin for anyone charmed by this video or by animals in general, or for anyone mystified as to why one might be charmed. Grandin is a high-functioning autistic woman with a marvellous gift for presenting to the 'neuro-typical' world what it is like to be autistic. Autism manifests itself in many different ways, so Grandin is not in any way typical, nor are her views wholly uncontroversial among autistic people.

Grandin says she has no verbal thought processes, and thinks entirely in images. For example, if, as she is driving, a moose steps out of the forest and onto the road, her options pass through her mind as a series of high-resolution pictures:

1. Accelerate and smash into the moose,
2. Slam on the brakes and get hit by the car behind her,
3. Decelerate slowly to prevent either of the above from happening.

She speculates that this may well be how animals, who obviously are non-verbal, might 'think', and that a deer paralysed in the headlights of an oncoming car may be experiencing the same kind of mental slideshow. Some autistic people are unable to generalise. An autistic kid who has learned how to buy a bar of chocolate in Smith's may be quite unable to buy one in Tesco, as the experience is related in his mind only with the one location. A similar rigid compartmentalising in animal minds might explain why a dog that has been taught not to crap in the kitchen or living room sees no reason not to crap in the bedroom. Anyway, I'm a great admirer of Temple Grandin, her fascinating insights into the connections between animal, autistic and 'normal' minds, and her funny, direct, utterly unpretentious writing style.

In my family, our cats and dogs were always treated like cosseted kid brothers and sisters. They are all dead now, Janey and Lucy and Jem and the whole crew of them, a list of names of dogs, cats and rabbits I remember from the age of six up to just last Monday when William, the cat I had for 14 years in Greece, transported to England at vast expense in 2005 to live at my mum's, had to be put down after he had injured his leg. He was seventeen, but barring accidents healthy enough to have made twenty or more. I'm still gloomy about it, after so long as his χαζομπαμπάς (doting daddy) This video of a cat and dog play-fighting reminds me of what I'm missing; all the delightful characteristic body-language of dogs and cats, and how when they live together from babyhood, dogs take on some feline movements and cats get ever so slightly more dog-like. And of course how any cat can whip any dog's arse good and proper, before settling to lick its own.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Πας μη Έλλην Βάρβαρος*

*'Pas mi Ellin varvaros' = 'Every non-Greek is a barbarian'. This is to be understood as uncivilised, inarticulate and unreasoning. Charmed, I'm sure.

I mentioned earlier the Greek love of bigging up the Greek language at the expense of other tongues. This is the sort of thing you get used to reading and hearing if you live in Greece for any length of time:

‘Greek is the basis of ALL the world’s languages.’ You mean like Chinese, Japanese, Lardil, Kivunjo…?

‘It is the oldest language in the world.’ Sorry, no. You can only say when a language is first attested in written form, and this is not the same as saying it's the oldest. Sumerian and Egyptian developed writing systems first, both appearing about 3200 BC and predating written Greek by some fifteen hundred years. Looking for the 'oldest language' is a waste of time anyway. This is linguist Larry Trask in an interview in The Guardian, June 26th, 2003: "There are no dividing lines. The speakers in every generation can understand their own parents and their own children without difficulty. In fact, the speakers in every generation could understand the speech of quite a few generations back, and quite a few generations forward, if they could hear it. You are separated from Chaucer's Middle English, and from King Alfred's Old English, by a series of generations all of whom could understand earlier and later speech. Once the time gap becomes suitably large, of course, comprehension becomes increasingly difficult, and it eventually declines to just about zero. But there are no breaks, no discontinuities. Those boundaries, like the 1500 dividing line between Middle English and Early Modern English, are arbitrary. There was never a moment when people stopped talking Middle English."

‘It is the most complicated language in the world.’ Why don't you have a shot at learning Inuktitut, and get back to me? Bear in mind that even if you find Inuktitut grammar fiendishly complicated, any two year old Inuit finds it easy as breathing. Complication is in the eye of the outsider.

‘The Greek alphabet, recited, is an encrypted prayer to the sun.’ Yeah, yeah.

‘You can say things in Greek that cannot be said in English.’ That is only because you don’t know enough English.

‘Learning Ancient Greek will make you a better, more generous and humane person.’ This is the view of one Panagiotis Zachariou (of whom it was once said 'who?') an irrepressible proponent of the superiority of Greek over other languages in the pages of Greek ELT News. Reflection on the content of what you read in any language has the potential to improve the mind and sweeten the soul, but the language in itself could never do that. You can be a classicist and a cunt, and you can be unlettered and have a heart of gold.


A few years ago at dinner in Plaka I was arguing with member of the company I’ll call Kostas about daft folk etymologies, which abound in Greece. He had just given me in all seriousness a megillah about the derivation of the noun θάλασσα (thalassa), Modern Greek for ‘sea’. It went as follows:

1. The sea is forever changing
2. The sea is salty
3. Salt changes (the flavour of) things
4. Salt is αλάτι (alati) or άλας (alas) in Katharevousa
5. 'To change' is αλλάζω (allazo)
6. The future iterative form ‘I shall change’ is ‘θα αλλάζω’ (tha allazo)
7. This sounds a bit like θάλασσα (thalassa) if you stretch and pull the pronunciation a tad.
8. So there.

I thought this was bollocks and said so. (Retsina can make you very outspoken) For one thing, the ancients in Athens didn’t say ‘θάλασσα’ but ‘θάλαττα’ (thalatta) and the modal particle θα, (tha) translated above as ‘shall’, is not found in Greek until the Middle Ages. It’s a telescoping of θέλω να (thelo na) = ‘I want to’, a pattern seen also in neighbouring Albanian where ‘do të’ also means ‘I want to’ and is used in same way as the Greek θα. Moreover, words are not coined by committees, musing over this and that pretty conceit before exclaiming ‘OK, done! Let’s call it that, then!’ Imagine it, a group of sages sitting in an olive grove, gravely debating and weighing the possible labels for all things:

‘What term, άραγε, were most meet for the liquid element, that big blue sloshy affair that starts where the sand ends?’

‘If a man dip his finger therein, shall his finger not as a consequence taste of salt?’

‘It is undoubtedly so’

‘May we not say, therefore, that it is the virtue of this liquid to bring about a marked change in the taste of whatsoever be dipped therein?’

‘Most assuredly’

‘And is it not the nature of this liquid to rise and to fall, and ever of itself to be changing, even as it changes that which might be dipped in it? Were not then ‘thalassa’ the only correct term?

‘It is most marvellous! That’s that one thrashed out. OK, then, moving on. What about those white fluffy-looking things floating in the other blue thing we decided we’d call ‘ouranos’ the other week?’

They’d be at it yet, most things still unnamed.

This mockery did not please Kostas, as no foreigner who is not, as he put it, ‘steeped in the language’ gets to voice a contrary opinion without provoking a sulk. I was not wholly sure about the non-appearance of θα before the Middle Ages – but Kostas couldn’t prove me wrong and was pissed off that my reaction to his explanation was one of scorn rather than dumbstruck admiration.


Another one is the debate over the origin of ‘OK’, which many Greeks are certain derives from ΄Ολα Καλά (Ola Kala) meaning ‘all’s well’. There are dozens of theories about this and I couldn’t care less which is true. I would just like the supporters of a Greek derivation to explain how it could come about that people in early 19th century Boston began to use the initial letters of a Greek phrase to mean everything was under control. They never do. You don’t need to explain what you know in your blood, you see.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Όσο κι άν ψάξω... (However long I search...)

Infuriating, chaotic and parochial as the place is, I will never get over Greece, and will probably always feel that mentally I’m living half way there whilst physically still in England. Like most long term ex-pats I was, and am, completely schizophrenic. Whilst in Greece I would be driven mad by the recklessness of the driving, the baseless conviction of most Greek men that they can turn their hands to anything (rewiring the house, teaching English, running the country) and the endless, ignorant, self-congratulating hyper-bollocks talked about the Greek language. A sample:

It is the basis of ALL the world’s languages.
It is the oldest language in the world.
It is the 'most complicated' language in the world.
The Greek alphabet, recited, is an encrypted prayer to the sun.
You can say things in Greek that cannot be said in any other language.
Learning Greek will make you a better, more generous and humane person.

There are dozens more such whacko received ideas on the subject. I might get round to working them into a post some time.

On visits to England, though, I’d be just as huffy about the needless caution, the obsession with foreseeing and preventing the tiniest accident, the fear of 'going too far' emotionally, the drunken boorishness of youth, and the lack of colour and spice in daily life. Now I'm permanently back in grey England, any Greek music, however hackneyed, instantly floods me with nostalgia for the edge, the intensity of Greece - the deafening music from bars, the smell of grilled octopus by the sea at night, kami-kaze taxi drivers, handsome, up front, horny boys, special foods for dozens of one-day holidays throughout the year, the greeting 'καλησπέρα'* which always seems to promise food, wine and conviviality, and the sight of the Parthenon illuminated by night, floating serenely above the nerve-frazzling racket of Athens.

This has to be one of the best known Greek songs, Τα Παιδιά του Πειραιά (Ta Paidiá tou Peiraiá ) by Manos Hadjidakis. The title means ‘The Children of Piraeus’, although παιδιά might be better translated as ‘lads’ here – girls didn’t get a look-in at the time this was written. Here it is performed by Melina Mercouri in the 1960 film ‘Never on a Sunday’. It might be pumped into the streets ad nauseam on the tourist-infested islands in summer, and inescapable in Plaka all year round, but finding it on You Tube brought a lump to my throat nevertheless.

* kalispera = good evening

Saturday, 6 December 2008


I’ve just been marking a bunch of essays. The title was not of the most inspiring: ‘write a brief description of your country for a student magazine’ but demanding enough if your level of English is just about intermediate. Two of these essays are verbatim copies of the Wikipedia entry on Libya. I had expected this. Copy and paste jobs are pretty common in the year of language preparation courses that our overseas students undertake before beginning their degrees. The extent of plagiarism can vary from nicking the odd sentence from a web page to printing out the entire page and submitting it undisguised. The innocent openness with which this is done, and the floods of tears from a lovely young lady from Thailand when it was gently pointed out that she had rather missed the point of the exercise, suggest that at least early in the year, there is no intention to deceive. If your culture accords the written word high status as something to be revered and left unchanged, or attaches snob value to the deployment of arcane vocabulary and clever conceits, you may well feel that you may not presume to commit your own lowly efforts to paper, lest they be shat on from a great height. Suppose that you find, trawling the internet, a text that expresses exactly what you want to say in what you assume to be perfect English. It says what you mean, you won’t offend the tutor’s sensibilities with your lousy English, and it takes seconds to copy and paste. The perfect solution!

All goes to show how wrong you can be... OK, I understand all the above, and God forbid anyone should ever require me to write an academic essay in Greek, but I’m sympathetic only up to a point. First of all, you have signed up for a language course, so why doesn’t the sheer bloody pointlessness of copying entire web-pages strike you with great force? If the language goes from your browser to Word without passing through your brain, what benefit do you derive from the exercise? We usually thrash this out early on, but plagiarism is a theme we keep returning to as the course progresses and essays become more demanding. This idea of ownership of information is probably a western one, and like any foreign idea you feel under pressure to conform to, it’s also a rather irritating one, and the rule against plagiarism is one people feel inclined to flout. If you slip in the odd sentence, even the odd paragraph, big deal. Who's going to notice, anyway?

Well, any teacher of EFL can tell native from non-native speaker production in pretty much any stretch of writing longer than five words, and if a suspect phrase is googled, its source is easily tracked down. Some students assume that even if you do detect plagiarism, you will surely not risk causing them loss of face by drawing attention to it. A group of Chinese Accounting Management and Finance students at Essex University a few years ago did my head in with the first drafts of their projects which were mostly unintelligible, and where briefly intelligible, heavily plagiarised. The only strategy open to me was to say bluntly ‘you didn’t write this’ and ignore the writer’s protestations and wounded dignity. If they protested too vehemently, I showed them the URL of the page they had copied. Game, set and match.

This summer I checked out some web sites of organisations that will do you a bespoke essay. You just say what your title is, what kind of institution or degree it is for, how long it needs to be, and they’ll cobble something together, promising that it cannot be rumbled by plagiarism detection software. Sample essays may be viewed. These must be produced in a sort of scribblers’ sweatshop, perhaps by CAE* holders from Eastern Europe:

‘James finds his girlfriend dead after committing a suicide overnight. Being struck by this dreadful discovery the main character still does not go to seeds; he decides to stay in Chicago’

Who was it that committed the suicide here? (Well, the girlfriend, obviously. Why are teachers so literal minded? Duh!) Cute misuse of a half-remembered idiom in the second sentence.

‘Returning to the main character and his friend Leonard we witness how their relations arise to its peak point and suddenly, Leonardo vanishes.’

Shazzam! What did he do, jump off the peak point?

‘Frey writes in short simple sentences, often neglects punctuation and thus creates easy reading that develops fluently. As a result we receive favourably distinguishable prose in the genre of memoir but with flavour of captivating fiction.’

How do you create fluent, easy reading by neglecting punctuation? What is ‘favourably distinguishable prose’? It sounds like a phrase created by a jargon generator. Possibly it is. It might fool software but is there a tutor anywhere that would allow this sort of thing to pass? I fear there may well be, or the bespoke essay sites would be out of business.

I lived and taught for fifteen years in a country where bootleg certificates for courses, seminars or degrees are as common as bubblegum wrappers, and plagiarism is jokingly referred to as ‘κλοπή-right’ (klopi = theft) and practised widely. I’m at a loss to understand why anyone would want, let alone frame and put on display, a certificate for a qualification they have never worked for, or why they would hand in as their own work an essay they possibly have not even read, but I have a feeling that I and those who agree with me are throwbacks, reactionaries, dinosaurs. But rather proud of it.


*CAE = Certificate in Advanced English.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Variations on a Theme

Last night I beheld the umpteenth variation on the classic teacher’s dream. Basic recipe and a few optional extras: you confront - no other word will do - a class, and find you have no idea why you are there. You might possibly have no trousers on, or you might detect sneering and contempt from the students, who know a lot more than you do about the matter at hand, for you know precisely nothing. Maybe you are performing like a real trooper but failing to engage any member of an icily unreceptive or openly contemptuous group. The key ingredient in the whole sickly cocktail is your humiliation at being unmasked; you were only ever blagging your way through your teaching career, and now it's common knowledge. You are like, totally pwned.

Last night’s version: I have a seminar to conduct about… something or other. I am not expecting anyone to show up, indeed hopeful nobody will, but in the event about thirty students arrive. I stand in front of the class and realise I know absolutely nothing about the subject I am supposed to be teaching. The show must go on, however, so I start busking with a language game, until the students start to get restive and cotton on to the fact that the Emperor is bollock naked. Eventually I throw a fit, push over the overhead projector, storm out of the classroom and lie down in the hallway outside with my thumb in my mouth.

Don’t try this at Home

A while ago in Greece I was watching Larry Clark’s movie Ken Park on DVD. Early in the film a boy asks his much older girlfriend ‘can I eat you out?’ This got into the Greek subtitles as ‘πάμε να φάμε;’ ‘shall we go for something to eat?’ The innocent subtitler imagined no doubt that the young man is gallantly offering to stand his lady friend a Big Mac. This not only highlights foreign learners’ perennial problem with English phrasal verbs, but also lends weight to a rumour I had heard that Greek subtitlers work under considerable pressure of time. Certainly anyone with the leisure to preview the film before adding subtitles would soon realise that nipping out to Macdonald’s is very far from anybody’s mind. Ken Park is, as the stuffy say, ‘controversial’, ‘leaves nothing to the imagination’ and strays into the realms of the totally uncalled-for. The Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification said the film dealt with sexual matters "in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults". There, now. If you are a ‘reasonable adult’ you had better leave this page at once.


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