Mary Norris: ‘One of the things that you learn from Greek, it teaches you to appreciate nature’

With her latest book 'Greek to Me', former copy editor from The New Yorker, Mary Norris is hoping to inspire us to fall in love with the Greek language

Mary Norris has been making headlines in recent months, following the release of her second book ‘Greek To Me’, in which the retired copy editor of The New Yorker shares her passion for all things Greek, from the gods, wine, men, but with a special focus on language of course.

The self-confessed grammar nerd, who boasts a career over 40 years, returned to New York just this week after six weeks abroad touring.

Included in her itinerary was Australia, making an appearance at The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne for a sold out Q & A with Penny Modra last month – ironically the very same week it was reported that 46 million bank notes had been printed with a spelling error.

“I would pay $10 extra for anyone who would give me one of those,” Norris exclaimed to the audience with a chuckle.

Whether the audience had read her latest offering or not, Norris’ love affair with Greece, particularly its ancient past, was undeniable, kicking off the session by offering libations to the goddess Athena.

“This is my habit before I drink, mostly it’s alcoholic beverages, but water is important too. I offer gratitude to the gods for being here, and I especially always offer a libation to Athena so that I don’t say anything stupid,” she laughed.

Norris has a long held love of languages, which would have been fostered earlier had her father agreed to allow her to take part in Latin lessons with the nuns on Saturdays, for which she had been handpicked when she was in fifth grade. But alas he did not share her vision.

She finally got around to pursuing her interest while at College, and again gained momentum in the 1980s while working at The New Yorker, where she convinced management to pay her tuition fees. But it wasn’t without push back.

“They had a very benign policy of paying for employees to take any class that helped them with their jobs. But when I submitted the bill for classical Greek they bulked, I was surprised, they didn’t see the relevance. I was appalled!” she recalls.

“I was on the copy desk so I started keeping a dossier of words that crossed my desk that had Greek roots and that I could help spell that were misspelt. And then I got the head grammarian, the legendary proof reader and copy editor Eleanor Gould to write a letter for me to the executive editor attesting to the value of knowing Greek, and they caved,” Norris says victoriously.

It was while writing her first book, ‘Between You & Me’ that she was offered a spot on a press trip to Greece. Meant to be staying in her New York apartment to work on her grammar book, she says that she couldn’t resist – and still has little self control when it comes to Greece.

“Give me eight seconds and I will be ready to go to Greece! So while I was there to dissuade my conscience, I wrote a little bit every day about Greek things, about the Greek alphabet,” however it didn’t make it into the book. So when it came time for book number two, her editor, aware of Norris’ love of Greek, offered her the chance to devote a whole book to it. Needless to say she jumped at the chance.

“I had been at the time to Greece seven times and studied Modern Greek originally to go to Greece, and while I was in Greece I fell in love with the Aegean and wanted to read everything that had been written by the people who travelled this sea so I kept switching back and forth [between ancient and modern Greek].”
In fact Norris’ revealed that “it was Greek that got me through my 30s”.

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Unlike other languages with Latin characters, she recalls finally realising that the Greek alphabet, the letters, could be penetrated, and urges others not to be intimidated by it.

“If you once learn the Greek alphabet, it first of all opens your mind, there’s nothing really that scary about the Greek alphabet – it gave us our alphabet. Then if you can make the jump to learning the language, and that’s always mind opening to learn a foreign language, the words will teach you so much about English; there are examples all over the book,” she explains.

‘Greek to Me’, Norris’ second book is about all things Greek.

Norris says she truly realised how special the language was when she learnt her first word in Modern Greek, ‘Elios’, meaning sun.

“… to get a mnemonic device, find something to help me remember the word, I thought of ‘Helios’, which is the sun god. And it just really amazes me still that something that in English is a god is in Greece still the sun; it teaches you to appreciate nature is one of the things that you learn from Greek – this is a divine thing in a way,” she said.

While writing ‘Greek to Me’ Norris undertook extensive research on the Greek language and its development, presenting this knowledge through the book, piquing the reader’s interest to delve further.

“There’s a theory that the Greeks developed writing solely in order to set down Homer. So they brought the alphabet from Phoenicia and they added vowels and vowels were what made the alphabet sing that gave the breadth to writing,” she explained.

In her travels through Greece and its narratives, Norris naturally found herself drawn to mythology, which she says she was first exposed to through movies in the 50s like Ulysses with Kirk Douglad and The Cyclops. Later in College she was lucky to have an inspired lecturer, who presented among others, the myth of Persephone and its implications, with relevant lessons for us still in 2019.

“It is a sad myth because even though there’s a rebirth in the Spring, there’s knowledge that it’s going to end and Persephone has got to go back [to the Underworld] and then there’s winter. But during the winter there’s hope, there’s faith, there’s knowledge that Spring will come again – we always hope that in the winter. This myth I found very inspiring,” she recalls.

“What I think the gods do now is express things that are states of human … they’re models.”

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In fact during her studies, Norris also had the chance to take part in ancient Greek plays, in which she would memorise her own parts in the ancient language, one of which was Euripides’ Elekra – when she had her very own moment of anagnorisis – deep realisation.

“I was in the chorus and I knew what I was saying but I could not read the whole play, so I would just listen and I actually heard Orestes say to his sister ‘but I don’t want to kill mum …’ but then she compels him to do it anyway. And of course I had a younger brother who I was always trying to get to do things. So for me it was cathartic to be in these plays, and they are ancient therapy … they would go altogether to the theatre and watch tragedies, and what happened on the stage was so much worse than anything that had happened to them.”

Despite only being released a few months ago, Norris says she has already had feedback from a number of readers who use to study Greek, and have been re-inspired. She admits this is in part her mission, and says children should ideally be exposed to the language and culture from very early on.

“There’s this beautiful thing – I think it’s Plato where they talk about the best way to raise a child … and the best way would be to always have beauty wherever the child looks so that the child is raised in an abundance of beauty and has good taste.
“I fervently hope and wish that my book will inspire people to study Greek.”

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