Last year a hardworking fiction student of mine in her early fifties, who didn’t know the Greek alphabet, looked at her breakfast Lurpak butter pat which had in capitalised Greek, BOYTEIPO. Transliterated, this reads as vouteiro, which is obviously close to the English word ‘butter’. Eventually she turned pensively to me, and asked why it was called Botty Po. Of course I fell about considerably, if only because ‘po’ is a quaint and antiquated word for ‘pisspot’, and the association of that and the baby-talk word for backside, is bound to be entertaining, especially when is has nil linguistic foundation whatever. Ditto an intelligent elderly Englishman back in the UK, who looking at my website, noted the capitalised MEPIXAS, meaning Merihas, the port of Kythnos, and blithely pronounced it Mepichas. Of course the teaching of Classical Greek vanished from state schools a long time ago, and they more or less bound and gagged the hopeless teacher at my Grammar School aka The Brothel on the Hill, when the highest mark for the end of year Fourth Form exam was 4%. They left him to his cheerful and innocuous sinecure of RE master, because as everyone knows Religious Education is usually taught by mind- and often soul-free PE teachers, as for some highly esoteric reason there would seem to be a correlation between sweaty physical exercise, rugby, hockey and Devotional Spirituality.

Nonetheless I would bet both Mrs Botty Po and Mr Mepichas, did Maths and Physics up to O level, and hence knew a few Greek letters like pi, rho, mu, nu, theta and more. The common fantasy abounds though, that Modern Greek is difficult, because the script is difficult. As one who studied Sanskrit and Old Iranian, and had to learn the Devanagari script for the former, and the Avestan alphabet for the latter…let me assure you that the script is laughably the least of it, absolutely nothing. Once you have mastered the Sanskrit Devanagari alphabet you immediately have to master the rules of Sandhi or Euphony. Basically every single word in Sanskrit has to euphonise, or fit sonorously and gracefully, with every other. So the final letter of any word, has to euphonise sweetly with the initial letter of the next. In case you are feeling bogged down, think cheerfully of ‘cats’ and ‘dogs’ and note that the first one has an ‘s’ pronounced as aspirant  ‘s’. The word ‘dogs’ though has its ‘s’ pronounced as ‘z’. The ‘z’ euphonises with the palatal  ‘g’ just as the ‘s’ of cats fits harmoniously with the dental ‘t’. So this is euphony or notional ‘English sandhi’ within a word, unlike the Sanskrit where it is all finals and initials.

Hence Sanskrit tat-sarah, but tad-bhaya and tan-maya, where I have put in my own hyphens to make things clearer. In the first, the  final dental ‘t’ of tat harmonises with initial aspirant ‘s’, next the final ‘t’ changes to ‘d’ to harmonise with initial ‘bh’ and finally tat becomes tan where the ‘n’ is nasalised to harmonised with initial labial ‘m’. There are 51 Sanskrit  Devanagari letters, and if they are final letters, they all have to harmonise with the following initial letters, vowels included, when usually the two words fuse (hence sa eva becomes euphonised saiva). So with 51 letters, imagine 51 x 51 variables or no less than 2551 sandhi rules.  And note that this is all just about linguistic sound effects, and we haven’t even started on the grammar or vocabulary, or even a single page of the beautiful Hindu spiritual classic, the Bhagavad Gita.

Getting back to Greek, once you have mastered the easy-peasy alphabet, you need to understand the pronunciation. This means you have to get your tongue round some quaint and tortuous vowel diphthongs, that you simply do not get in English. For instance voithia meaning ‘help’ is pronounced ‘vo-ee-thee-ah’, and ‘you help’ is voitheisete or ‘vo-ee-theesa-tay’. Harder still and damn near impossible when you first try it,  is the word for ‘stories’ as in those of the great Alexandros Papadiamantis. It is diimata pronounced ‘thee-ee-ma-ta’. But most tourists and travellers including those who are Hellenophiles, never get this far. Sometimes they candidly admit they are no linguists, and it isn’t worth the effort. Other times they blame the Greek language, and by implication the eternally problematic and obstructive Greeks. About a year ago I was in discussion with an English tourist, a man in his sober eighties, who came out with a remarkable statement. He said that the first thing the Greeks needed to do, to be taken seriously as members of the EEC  was ‘to get rid of their Mickey Mouse alphabet’. Impossible to know where to start in dissecting this spectacular neo-imperialist bravado. Admittedly at 85 and being, he told me, born in 1929, he was old enough to remember the Indian Raj and the palmy days when we Brits ‘owned’ a quarter of the world. Yet there was something so mutedly hysterical about the way he wrote off a whole European nation, with its magnificent and inimitable classical culture, as all being pivoted and debased around the pejorative totem of a Walt Disney joke character. The alphabet he was mocking was that used by Aristophanes, Plato, Thucydides, Euripides, Socrates, and yet for him they were altogether of the risible flavour and quality of a cartoon mouse. The truth was of course, and I affably hinted to him as much, he was too lazy to learn the alphabet, much less have a stab at the language. Therefore he would blame the Greeks for impertinently disturbing his inner peace, by surrounding him with words he could not even read, much less understand.

We all know what the toughest languages are, the apparently unwieldy and seemingly impossible Finno-Ugrian ones. Take note of my qualifiers ‘apparently’ and ‘seemingly’. This is both to avoid the ethnocentric arrogance of the snooty old English tourist, and also to point out the obvious. You and me might choke and asphyxiate in the attempt to learn Hungarian or Basque, but the native people who speak it piss it out effortlessly, as if there is no tomorrow. It is not that the language is difficult, it is that we, us monoglot Brits, do not get round to breathing it day and night, and loving it with our hearts and souls. As well as Finnish and Hungarian, this language group includes Turkish, Estonian, Maltese and Basque. They all agglutinate, which means they glue up into very long words. Behold the lovely word Szekesfehervar, which is the name of a town in Hungary. It looks very pretty doesn’t it, the kind of word you would like to take home and have dinner with? You might even know a bit of Maltese, if you have read Thomas Pynchon’s masterpiece V, where one of the Vs is Valletta, capital of Malta. Turkish likewise is full of big words. One you see everywhere on office fronts in Istanbul and copiously umlauted is mudurlugu. It means ‘management’.

Personally, I think it is onomatopoeic and expresses everything I have ever thought about management in all its guises. Mudurlugu. ‘Mud and glue’, geddit? My instincts are not only far left, but also good old-fashioned syndicalist anarchist. We don’t need leaders and hierarchies, we need ‘syndicalist coordinators’ who aren’t interested in hierarchy or personal power. Imagine a world where absolutely no one tried to exercise hierarchical power over any other person, including pisswise parents over their innocent children. In lieu of power there is this thing called democratic tolerance and even respectful love. Of course you say that’s all very well, but. Yes of course. Yes. Yes of course.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s