What are the benefits of learning Modern Greek?

By: | Post date: 2016-06-22 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek

My superiors in every way, Michael Masiello and Robert Todd, have given you the high-minded reasons to, and I commend them.

But whenever someone offers to convert to Judaism, it is a Jew’s duty to try and talk them out of it three times. And in that spirit, I assume that, by asking for benefits, you really do want to get into a calculus of pros and cons.

Well.

  • Communicating with the locals. Not really. Everyone you’re likely to communicate with as a tourist will speak excellent English. You really have to go to Upper Podunk and seek out someone’s grandfather to use your Berlitz phrasebook.
  • Successful business ventures in Greece. Yes for some kinds of business, and at some stages in history; the current stage isn’t it.
  • Gaining the good will of the locals. Yes. See my own gushing reactions to Martin Pickering on this very forum. They really do appreciate the gesture.
  • Accessing Ancient Greek literature. No. If you want to start with something easier than Thucydides, make like Robert did, and start from Koine. It’s still recognisably the same language, and there’s no shortage of materials.
  • Accessing Byzantine literature. No. Learn Koine and Ancient Greek for that too. For the purposes of this argument, I’m counting late mediaeval vernacular literature as Early Modern Greek.
  • Understanding English etymology. No. Go to the source for that: Ancient Greek. Unless your surname is Portokalos. In which case I should warn you: Greeks in Greece did not find you funny.
  • Learning a different language for the sake of it. Yes. But like my betters have said, if you do that, pick the language that intrigues you: you’ll be much more motivated to stick with it. All languages are wonderful, and all literatures are great, because humanity is great and wonderful. You won’t learn them all (though people like Judith Meyer and Philip Newton come close.) Learn what will reward you with warm fuzzies. That’s a benefit too.
  • Accessing Modern Greek literature. Yes. But beware: to get all the subtleties going on, you’re going have to learn enough Greek to pick up on not just what the authors are saying, but why they’re picking the words and grammar they’re picking. Language politics was always close to the surface in 20th century literature. Magister Masiello named Cavafy and Kazantzakis: they’re at opposite ends of the language debate, and the language debate informs their style.
  • Doing Modern Greek Studies. Yes. Google Translate will only get you so far, and it won’t get you far with Google Books, let alone actual Book books.
  • Understanding the Greek people. Yes. Language being the primary vehicle of culture.
  • Understanding the neighbouring people of Greece. Actually, yes, at least a bit. Not just because we share syntax with them, but because we’ve been their annoying neighbours, and (truth be told) their cultural hegemons for a fair while.

Btw (I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, I just didn’t have an excuse for it): if you’re learning Greek for its literature, and you get enough about the essence of the language debate, you’ll understand why Seferis lionised the unlettered prose of Makriyannis as a lost ideal of Greek writing. His fabled sentence Οι τούρκοι υποψιασμένοι· να ’βλεπαν ρωμιό, κιντύνευε—is Ebonics if you translate it into English. (The Turks be suspicious; they saw a Greek, he in danger.) And that’s not to denigrate African-American vernacular; that’s to point out how culture-bound (and prejudiced) stylistics is.

Once you’re enlightened, you can see why Seferis had had a gutful of hypotaxis and conjunctions in quotidian Modern Greek, and was yearning for a lost litotes represented by that sentence. And once you’re even more enlightened, you’ll realise (as came to me in a flash last night) that Classical Greek had that same litotes: ὑποψιασθέντες δὴ οἱ τοῦρκοι· ἑωρακόντων ῥωμαῖον, κινδυνεύοι.

I posted that because I felt like it; but if you’re going to appreciate 20th century Greek literature, that’s the level of language savvy you’re going to need…

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