Καλή Χρονιά. Owing to the indifference of my educators, up until the age of ten, I labored under the misapprehension that the term ‘Οράιτ’ (alright), optionally suffixed with ‘ρε μάιτ’ was acceptable Greek.
Similarly, it took a visit from Greece from my grandmother when I was thirteen to disabuse me of my deeply held conviction that μαρκέτα was not the Greek word for market and that similarly καρπέτο would not be understood in the motherland as signifying a shag pile. Travelling to Greece for the first time at the age of fifteen, I was astonished to ascertain that good Greek words such as χήτα (heater), ουέντζα (wage), ταξέσιο (tax), πενσιούχος (pensioner) and εξπήριος (experienced), as employed by generations in my family, were unintelligible to the modern Greek. Furthermore, exhortations such as ‘Λουκ, δεν είναι έτσι’, were met with quizzically raised eyebrows. It was then that I determined that the idiom I believed up until that point was Greek, a language my family had painstakingly preserved since 1954 amidst the Scylla and Charybdis of assimilation and monolingualism, was in fact a corrupted, cacophonous conglomerate.
Returning to Australia, I set about establishing myself as the family censor, puritanically bent on purging even the slightest of foreign words from the familial idiolect. While the removal and replacement of Hellenised English words with their Greek equivalents took time, it was, grudgingly, and through attrition, accepted by my antagonised and somewhat incredulous progenitors, who, raised in this country, found it extremely hard to believe that the word φρίζα (fridge), among others, was not Greek. What was not accepted however, was my attempt to purge the overwhelming number of Turkish, Albanian Slavonic and Latin words from our daily discourse, a pursuit which, had I been permitted to bring it to its ultimate conclusion, would have rendered our speech unintelligible to all. (The preponderance of Turkish loan words in Samian have stood me in good stead however. They appear to be in common usage throughout the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans, facilitating communication with a number of other members of our local community.)
In this vein, it proved impossible to convince my grandfather that the word ‘ντόμπρος’, a Slavic word meaning good, used in Greek to denote a reliable, forthright person, could easily be replaced with ‘καλός’. A similar quandary was stumbled into when I discovered that the Samian word we used for bucket (μπαγκράτσ) was in fact Turkish and that Neohellenes employ the term κουβά instead. This term proved eminently unsuitable for my purification purposes, for it too is Turkish and to this day, I have not been able to find a workable equivalent. As a corollary, though one may reject the term μπουτ or μπούτι as denoting a car boot, how does then one justify the equally foreign modern Greek term: ‘πορτ μπαγκάζ’?
‘Purifying’ one’s spoken language is one thing. Being intelligible to others is another thing entirely. For within the Greek Australian linguasphere, Greeklish, or Ausgreek, abounds, especially among the older generations who discovered such household items as fridges, stoves, heaters and the like only in Australia and thus were not privy to any Greek equivalents. I thus find in the course of my daily profession that when I attempt to employ, for the benefit of older Greeks, the proper Greek terms for legal concepts, I am met with blank stares. Mention the term ‘ενοικιαστήριο’ and the brow furrows as the mind attempts to decode the unfamiliar word. Use the word ‘λήστ’ (for some reason older Greeks almost universally consider the word lease to be the same as list), and one is met with nods of approval and comprehension.
Neohellenes may dismiss our uniquely crafted idiom as quaint or flawed. As an indication of divine nemesis, I recently had the pleasure of a newly arrived couple from Greece pontificate on the flaws in my own usage. According to them, the Samian idiomatic expression ‘δεν τον θαρρεύομαι’ (i.e. I do not have confidence in him) is somehow not Greek, while my tendency to call my daughter ‘μάνα ‘μ’ or ‘μανίτσα’ provoked howls of mirth. In like manner, I tend, in my unguarded moments, to hold forth upon the iniquities visited upon the Greek language by its underserving speakers in the motherland. While we here in the Antipodes at least have the creativity to take foreign words and assimilate them within the Greek language (which any linguist will tell you is symptomatic of a vibrant, flexible and ever changing tongue), our Helladic cousins seem to be importing English words into their language wholesale.
Words such as ‘ζάπιγκ’, (zapping, i.e. flicking through TV channels) are a case in point, where the word is imported wholesale with no consideration of the appropriate verb suffixes in Greek. This of course can be contrasted with ‘γουγκλάρω’ (I google), a perfect, though rare, example of proper word assimilation). Not only are the Helladics not adapting loanwords so as to conform to the rules of Greek grammar, they are not even going to the trouble of transliterating them. What ensures is a disturbing agglomeration of sentences recorded in both the Greek and Roman alphabets, juxtaposing unaltered terms such as shopping, marketing and concept in stark contrast to the Greek text, sending the illusory message that Greek, as a language, is becoming ossified and unable to adapt to the modern world. Rather than accepting this to be true, one could argue that, on the contrary, it is its proponents and speakers who have become lazy.
Here in the Antipodes, we tend to adopt such disturbing Helladic linguistic trends wholesale and without question. Take the expression ‘Πάμε Ελλάδα’, for example. Twenty years ago, no self-respecting, upright Greek Australian would have used this phrase, knowing that the sentence is nonsensical without use of the article, thus: ‘Πάμε ΣΤΗΝ Ελλάδα’. Nonetheless, our frequent trips abroad and exposure to the debasement of the Greek language by the Helladics has caused us to lose our linguistic innocence…
This March, unique in the annals of Greek history, our community will celebrate a ‘speak Greek’ month, a month in which we will all, as much as is humanly possible, attempt to speak Greek to each other, to the exclusion of other languages we may speak on a daily basis. This is a Herculean task, considering that nowadays, members of our community in their sixties struggle to remain monolingual in Greek and furthermore there exists among them and the generation before them, the infuriating social convention that dictates that it is polite and proper to address the younger generations in English, thus negating any attempts we make to preserve our mother tongue down the generations. Regardless, as we prepare for a month of Hellenolingualism, let us revel in the breathtaking diversity, maddening contradictions and innumerable facets of one of the oldest and most intriguing languages of all. Whether our Greek is tinged with English, Gringlish or more besides, let us rejoice in the syllables that emanate from our mouths and breathlessly imbibe the syllables of those who do the same. To this effect we humbly submit some valuable Greek words that we believe are indispensable to the modern Greek vocabulary: φασκώλαρκτος (koala), φασκωλόμυς (wombat), ορνιθόρυγχος (platypus) and φασκολογαλή (possum) and which must be used in a Greek sentence at least thrice a day after meals. If that is not enough to stimulate a deeper delving into things Greek, then why not join me in my quest, this March, in rendering Fatboy Slim lyrics into the Neohellenic tongue. So far I’ve been able to come up with:
Right about now, the funk soul brother…
τώρα, ο ψυχάδελφος του φανκ…
(Or do we use instead, ο ψυχάδελφος της μπόχας, given that funky has its semantic roots in the Kikongo word ‘lu-fuki’, which means ‘bad body odour’?)
Check it out now, the funk soul brother…
Δέστε τον τώρα, τον ψυχάδελφο του φανκ…
A reward to anyone who can render George Clinton’s We Want the Funk into convincing Greek during the Hellenic ides of March.
*Dean Kalimniou is a
Melbourne solicitor and