Χάλο ντάλι μου! It was with these words that the luminous and beatific Kyriakos Gold of SBS Radio Greek program greeted the participants of the Greeklish Project last Saturday night. Said Greeklish Project as an event, held in the Greek Centre, is of historic importance, as it is arguably the first ever Greek Australian live game show to have ever been convened within our community, consisting as it did partly of questions, partly of music, stories of Greeklish experiences, banter, innuendo and high farce, the complex balance of which was expertly modulated by the ineffably prepossessing Kyriakos Gold himself, which is fitting, given that Kyriakos’ smile is possessed of sufficient lustre as to blind even the most ambitious of network game show hosts.
As a phenomenon, Greeklish, however, is nothing new. A hybrid of Greek and English, it has been with us almost from the very inception of our community – a corollary of our acculturation within the Australian zeitgeist.
There are in fact two forms of Greeklish:
The first, which is fading, was coined by the first generation in order to introduce into their everyday Greek speech, concepts or vocabulary that they were unfamiliar with in their home country. This Greeklish consists mainly of nouns, some of which have amusing connotations in Greek such as ρουφιάνος for roof-repairer, and βίζιτα for visit (which in modern Greek refers to an out-call by an escort). Evidence of linguistic genius can be found in the manner in which adjectives are created, for example, εξπείριος for experienced, or indeed verbs, such as μπαμπακίζω, meaning I lay on a barbeque for someone, the smell of which can be described as μπαμπακίλα. So ingrained was Greeklish in my own vocabulary growing up that I found it difficult to believe my recently-arrived Greek school teachers when they pointed out that ορράιτ, μαρκέτα, καρπέτο and κάρο were not Greek words. I still have reservations about the word κάρο. This word in modern Greek means cart, and if αμάξι, a word that is commonly used to denote a car also literally means cart, then κάρο should be perfectly acceptable. Similarly μαγαζί and χαλί are Arabic and Persian loanwords respectively and one wonders why ours are not to be preferred. The fact that they are not shows how subjective criteria can often shape language policy, and ultimately, the idiolect itself.
Nonetheless, Greeklish is so much a part of our psyche that it is unavoidable, and can often take subtle forms. Just the other day, reporting from the panigyri of St Panteleimon in Dandenong, Angelis Kalodoukas from 3XY exclaimed: “Υπάρχει έναν εξάιτμεντ στον αέρα …” The Greeklish here is not in the word excitement as this has been adopted wholesale without adaptation, but rather in the calque ‘in the air’, which is a purely English expression, literally translated.
This first form of Greeklish still waxes strong and will do so until such time as the first generation eclipses. Despite the advent of Greek cable television, which seems to be perpetually playing in elderly Greek Australian homes, this generation persists in utilising the words that it has coined in its daily speech. When I speak to my elderly Greek clients about a συμβόλαιο or a νοικιοστάσιο, they rarely know what I am referring to. Talk to them about a κοντράτο or a λήστ (instead of lease,) and immediately, one receives a nod of affirmation. One elderly lady who came to see me because her son was a ντράγκις gave me a look of incomprehension when I explained that I did not primarily practice in the ποινικό δίκαιο. Furrowing her brow in thought, she responded after a few minutes: “Α, δεν είσαι κρίμινα λόγιας.'”
The second form of Greeklish that exists is that primarily used by the second generation. It consists of English into which is interposed Greek expressions or Greek words or parts of words, usually to express concepts in English that can more easily be expressed in Greek. For example, a person who is fasting may say: “I’m nistepsying,” a person who has been delayed may say colloquially, “I got argisied,” a newly divorced couple has ‘horisied’, which term can also be used to mean something was made to fit, while a person who is the victim of a misunderstanding may protest that he has been ‘parexigisied’. If the misunderstanding is a particularly significant one, then he has been ‘parexigisied bad’. Here, the Greek root verb is retained and an English suffix is attached. A certain amount of linguistic dexterity is evident in the Greeklish word for λογοδοσία, where one provides a promise to be married. The proper Greeklish term here of course, is ‘to give logies’. Calques can also identify a person of Greek Australian origin, regardless of how Aussie their accent is. A key indicator is the expression: “I opened [or] closed the light,” which is a literal translation from the Greek. This second form of Greeklish reached its peak in the ’90s and is now in decline, as the latter generations either wholly espouse English with few Greek interpolations, or dispense with English in their spoken Greek altogether. Nonetheless, a few weeks ago, I did overhear a Greek Australian mother in the cosmetics section of Myer yell at her offspring, “if you peiraxei those again Tristan, I’m going to tsakisei you”, proving the enduring quality of the idiolect.
Kyriakos Gold’s inspiration for celebrating the linguistic genius of the Greek Australian community derives from his own personal experiences. Acting as an interpreter, he was greeted one day by a client with the expression: “Α, εσύ είσαι το εξπλάι,’ εξπλάι,” of course, being good Greeklish for interpreter. Thus commenced his fascination with the unique lilt of our own kultürsprache, one that deserves celebration in its own lifetime, as its terminal decline begins.
The Greeklish Project event was by all means a roaring success. On the packed mezzanine floor of the Greek Centre, contestants battled it out to prove their mastery of the Greeklish patois and win fabulous prizes, adjudicated by our own Victorian Multicultural Κομισιονέρισα Helen Kapalos, the urbane and linguistically-muscular George Donikian, and my own insufficiency. Assuming the role of a connoisseur of Greeklish, I determined to become a visual representation of same, donning a foustanella, girdled by an Essendon Football Club scarf, a football guernsey of same provenance and capped by a matching beanie. Now in multicultural Melbourne, one can walk down the streets wearing a foustanella in relative safety. The same cannot be said these days for those who have the effrontery to don Essendon garb in public.
The level of levity, jocularity and general goodwill pervading the mezzanine was intense, contributed in no small part by the expert Greeklish musical stylings of the divine Anthea Sidiropoulos, Iakovos Papadopoulos, Con Kalamaras and Ilias Chatziemmanouil. Much of that goodwill was directed towards the lustrous Helen Kapalos, whose appointment to her important new role has delighted our community. Her adjudication of the event was perhaps fitting, as Kyriakos Gold’s endeavour can be replicated throughout all of the multicultural communities of Melbourne, each of them celebrating in turn they way they have acclimatised linguistically to their new environment. There is much food for thought in comparing, contrasting and studying such an intercultural experience.
Despite the Greeklish Project’s few detractors, who proffered the argument that such events serve to corrupt our tongue at a time when our children are in danger of losing it altogether, I would venture to suggest that to the contrary, the Greeklish Project serves to honour our first generation for their linguistic genius and express our admiration for their dexterity. After all, that generation has managed, in a perfectly natural way, to accommodate loan words into its own tongue, having regard for all grammatical rules and strictures, something that its modern Greek counterparts in Athens have been unable to do. Instead they adopt English terms wholesale, without declension and even without transliteration. Arguably, ours is a ‘truer, bluer’ form of Greek than theirs and for all the opportunity for jokes that it provides, it deserves to be celebrated and studied in depth, το μπλάρρυ θίν.
Without wishing to kourasei the reader further, we seek to sygxarisei Kyriakos Gold and his team for their sensitivity, perspicacity and above all, humanity in choosing, at this critical juncture in the history of our community, to focus on the idiolect that has bound us all together for decades, and invite us all to rejoice in it and see its potential in binding other migrant communities to us. Του γκούτ ρε μάιτ!
* Dean Kalymniou is a Melbourne solicitor and a freelance journalist.