Greece is at its most beautiful at this time of year. The tourists are gone, and have taken the raging heat with them, the parched mountains have suddenly turned green and have a dusting of snow on them, the streets are filled with the smell of woodsmoke from people’s fireplaces, and the days are about three hours longer than in England.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Greece, normally Christmas and summers, and occasionally some time over Easter. Greece is my second home, it’s the first country I ever visited at the tender age of 10 weeks, and it’s the first language I ever learned apart from my native English. I’ve always had a big soft spot for Greek. It’s the language of my childhood summer holidays, and reminds me of playing by the sea on lazy August afternoons. It reminds me of my extensive Greek family, and their wonderful weddings and reunions. It reminds me of the lullabies that my mother used to sing to me as a baby. However, I actually get very few opportunities to practise it, even when here, as I speak English with my parents.
Greek is quite a difficult language, and one that seems to get more and more difficult. With a lot of languages, particularly Romance ones, you cover the basics and then as you get onto more specified, advanced vocabulary it is often similar to English, or of a common Latin origin (e.g. Spanish ‘reformar’ – to reform). Modern Greek, however, takes these words from its Ancient ancestor, which means that whoever’s studying it has to become familiar with some Ancient Greek, and then how it is used in the modern language (to reform in Greek – ‘μεταρρυθμίζω’). I came across this kind of ‘academic’ Greek for the first time last summer, when I found myself working in the press office of the Greek embassy in Berlin, and suddenly having to use the language to express economic concepts I barely understood in English. This was a real struggle at first, but eventually I started to get the hang of it. ‘The recapitalisation of the banks’ was a common phrase I had to use: ‘Η ανακεφαλαιοποίηση των τραπεζών’, which I could break down to this:
re – capital – isation
ανα – κεφαλαιο – ποίηση
Greek, like German, is a language of prefixes and suffixes which helps a lot. Here we’ve got an example of it in action. The main word here is κεφαλαίο, or capital, which is like the word κεφάλι which means head (capital comes from the Latin ‘caput’, which also means head). The prefix ‘ανα-‘ is like the English prefix ‘re-‘, which means a repeated action. Finally the suffix ‘-ποίηση’ comes from the Ancient Greek word for ‘to do’, ‘ποιέω’, and therefore equates ‘-isation’. You can apply this to a lot of similar Greek words, such as one of the ones meaning ‘privatisation’, ‘αποκρατικοποίηση’: ‘απο-‘ away from ‘-κρατικο-‘ from ‘κράτος’ meaning state ‘-ποίηση’ denoting an action. Hence ‘making it apart from the state’, hence ‘privatisation’. It doesn’t always work like this, but it’s very useful for learners to understand how seemingly impossible vocabulary is constructed, and that way you can learn it more easily.
Greeks will be delighted when you try to speak Greek to them, although I’ve found this an uphill struggle at times in the tourist season when they’re firmly on English mode to anyone who isn’t very tanned with black hair and the stereotypical image of a Greek. I think it is a very beautiful language as well, and I am a huge fan of all languages that don’t have a prescribed word order and allow you to move things around to fit what you want to emphasise.
I feel very Greek, as well as English, although I’m very aware that I’m often seen as a foreigner here. This doesn’t bother me too much, as I live and have grown up abroad, my first language is English, and I think one of the most important things for defining your national identity is where you go to school, which I did in England. I’ve been gathering all the documents I need to apply for Greek nationality, and am going to make a trip to the Greek consulate in London in the New Year to finally lodge the application. I think this will help me to feel more Greek, as well as get me £20 off my Russian visa costs and hassle-free access to the Middle East.