Tuesday, 16 February 2010

It’s all Greek to me!

How hard is it to learn Greek? I am about to find out. I figure I have a bit going for me having a basic grasp of French, a reasonable grasp of Portugese and having managed to memorise enough Russian cyrillics while living in Moscow to make my way around the subway. Then again, the Cyrillic alphabet is based on the Greek. And, I might add, is equally as pretty. Like Chinese and Japanese, the letters are art forms in themselves.

Greek is said to be one of the most difficult of languages to learn. Sigh! But, having spent four years trying to master Portugese while living in Angola and emerging with very basic spoken, reasonable written and reading and varying levels of understanding depending upon the accent: Portugese, Angolan, Brazilian, it is hard to see that it can be much more difficult. Or is it?

The Greek alphabet has 24 letters and here are some of them:

Α α άλφα = alfa Άννα Like a in father

Β β βήτα = veta βάρκα Like v in Victor

Γ γ γάμα = gama γάτα Like y in yes

Δ δ δέλτα = thelta δώρο Like th in this

Ε ε έψιλον = epselon εγώ Like e in bet

Ζ ζ ζήτα = zeta ζωή Like z in zebra

Right. Well, I will say that it is a very pretty alphabet. The Greek alphabet has supposedly been in use longer than any other. As a lover of ancient history in general and Greek history in particular, perhaps the affinity will display itself in a natural absorption of Greek alphabet and language. I intend to remain positive. There is nothing one cannot do and learning a new language is, for the brain, like running a marathon is for the body. It is a great deal of hard work; it takes a long time to prepare one’s self; it requires endurance and a level of obstinacy and it is very good for one. If I can learn to read Russian Cyrillic and learn to speak French and Portugese then I can learn to speak and read some Greek.

One of the things I did learn with Portugese is that there is a difference between learning to speak a language at the vernacular level and learning to speak, write and read it. I think it is easier to just learn to speak. Somehow reading and writing makes it more complicated. But I do need to be able to read Greek so I doubt there will be an easy way out.

I rang Soula, the Greek teacher today and will begin lessons after Easter. I am travelling so much between then and now that I think if I delay it I will have more focus.

Soula laughed when I said:’I am not sure how I will go.’

‘You will be fine,” she chortled in that easy Greek way. Her accent is not heavy but she does have an accent. Is it harder to learn to speak English without an accent than to learn to speak Greek without an accent? I suspect it comes down to how good one’s ear is and how particular are some pronunciations in the mother tongue.

It is going to cost $55 a lesson so I want to be very focussed indeed. It will be interesting to see if the Greek gene has been handed down and I find it easier to learn the language than expected. I hope so.

And with the use of a free online English to Greek translation service, which doesn’t look to be perfect given the couple of English words which have crept in:

είναι πρόκειται να κόστοs $55 έναs μάθημα so εγώ θέλω σε να είμαι πολύ εστία πράγματι. αυτό θα να είμαι ενδιαφέρων σε βλέπω εάν the Ελληνικός gene έχει been κληροδότησα και εγώ βρίσκω αυτό εύκολα μαθαίνω the γλώσσα από αναμενόμενος. εγώ ελπίδα so.

Hmmm. It really is all Greek to me but hopefully not for long. This translation is rather fun. Here’s my name in Greek:

Roslyn Hilda Ross

And in Capital Letters:


It really is a very pretty alphabet. Then again, Charlie, like his wife, may also have been illiterate. Perhaps he could write his name and no more and the Greek alphabet may have been as ‘Greek’ to him as it is to me. I have no way of knowing.

One of the sad things about ancestry research is that by the time people decide to take an interest they are usually amongst the family elders and all those who would, or could have told them more of the family’s history are long gone. It is even more important where ancestors have been illiterate and there are no letters, notebooks or records which can survive the years.

If I had taken an interest in my twenties I would have had dozens of sources, including my father, upon which I could have drawn. But our twenties and our thirties and often our forties are about other things and our eyes are drawn toward the future and not the past.

Then again, having started this in my fifties when I have time as well as interest, perhaps the lesson is that the process is what matters and not the result. Like Ithaca, the poem, it is not about arriving but the journey that we make toward the place that we call ‘home’ whether that be literal, metaphorical, emotional, psychological or archeological.

It probably does not matter if we know the stories of our ancestors and yet I feel it might. One of the oldest traditions of human beings has been the telling of stories about the ancestors. In recent times we have forgotten to do this and perhaps forgotten how to do it. Who are we if we start with our parents and stop with our children? The threads which Fate has woven to make us who we are tangle through time and space and the weaving of our story, on the loom of our mind, creates an image, a pattern, a work of art which is unique.

Tolstoy may have thought that ‘happy families’ are all the same and only ‘unhappy families’ are different in and because of their unhappiness, but the truth is that every person who exists, or who has ever existed is, and was, unique and therefore every family story is unique and different. More to the point, it is our story and understanding our story helps us, I believe, to understand ourselves.

One of the most ancient aphorisms is Greek. ‘Know thyself’ was carved into the lintel at the Temple of Apollo, at Delphi. The words may have originated in Apollo's response to a question Chilon of Sparta asked: ‘What is best for man?’

Know Thyself formed the basis of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Held annually in honour of Demeter and Persephone, they were the most sacred and revered of all the ritual celebrations of ancient Greece. They began in the city of Eleusis, some twenty-two kilometres west of Athens, possibly as far back as the early Mycenaean period, and continued for almost 2,000 years. Worshippers would come from all over Greece (and later from throughout the Roman empire) in huge numbers to make the holy pilgrimage between the two cities and participate in the secret ceremonies. With the spread of Christianity, the Mysteries were condemned by the early Church fathers but they endured for hundreds of years with the rites still maintained and influencing the formation of early Christian teachings and practices.

Writers such as Aeschylos, Sophokles, Herodotus, Aristophanes, Plutarch, and Pausanias were all initiates and yet the true nature of the Mysteries remains shrouded in uncertainty because the participants did, with remarkable consistency, honor their pledge not to reveal what took place in the Telesterion, or inner sanctum of the Temple of Demeter. To violate that oath of secrecy was a capital offence.

Greek and Egyptian history both fascinated me as a child and I dreamed of being an archeologist but it was in the days before Australia had free university education, or even affordable university education, and my parents could not afford to send me to university. I excelled in written English at school, although grammar was a different matter, and so I became a journalist, writer, and I like to think, something of an archeologist of the psyche.

What is strange is that having lived and travelled around the world for much of my life I have not yet been to Greece, nor to Egypt for that matter. Perhaps the time was not right.

I first read the words, Know Thyself when I was in my teens and they resonated with me then and still do. To me they say that in ‘knowing ourselves’ we are able to become the best that we may be and the most conscious that we may be. And, in the doing, we are able to live with greater understanding of others and life. When we know ourselves we know the truth of ourselves, the best and the worst. When we know ourselves we are better able to live consciously in the highest expression of our being.

Without conscious awareness we are no more than receivers and transmitters of beliefs, attitudes, responses and expectations which have come from our peers, our society, our religion, our culture, our education and our parents and extended family.

The more we know about our family the more we know about ourselves. Family research is another quest for knowledge, understanding and wisdom. And out of those three things will also come compassion for the mistakes made by those who have gone before; the mistakes we have made ourselves and the mistakes which we see our children making.

When we know ourselves, the ancients believed, we can know the world. When we know ourselves we can also change ourselves and when we change ourselves, we change the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment