*'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?’
‘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.