It’s (not) all Greek…

Γ – Gamma is for Greek

Any visitor to Greece will immediately observe that the Greeks don’t use the Roman alphabet. No problem: airport signs, road signs, street signs are also in English. If you can’t read the leading Greek newspaper in Greek, there’s a shorter daily English version. But if you want to tell flour from sugar in a supermarket, it helps to know what αλέυρι and ζάχαρη mean. There’s probably an app for that now; there wasn’t 20 years ago. And what do the Greeks say for “It’s all Greek to me?” Kinezika einai– to them it’s all Chinese. Most Greeks speak basic English and some excellent English, even if they’ve never lived abroad. Language schools are as common with them as donut shops are with us.

As for Greek names, I remember calling the roll for my first class. The names were mercifully printed in English characters for me, but there was no mistaking their Greekness. Themistocles, Achilleas (Achilles), Aristotle, Athena, Dimitra, Eleni, Agapi (that’s Love), Areti (Virtue), and a young man named Byron – gods, saints, heroes, philosophers, abstract ideas, and an English poet. It made for interesting group work: “Menelaus, could you work with Paris and Helen today?” (That’s Homeric humor).

As a written language, Greek is more than 3000 years old, and although it has changed through the years, there is a high degree of linguistic continuity, especially in vocabulary. Modern Greeks can’t curl up with Sophocles or Plato, but they do study ancient Greek in school, and they can understand the Greek of the New Testament, which is what the Orthodox Church still uses (more or less) in its liturgy. The modern language is a combination of ancient Greek, Byzantine Greek, and popular or demotic Greek, based on the spoken language, which incorporates quite a few loan words from Turkish, French, and increasingly, English. Surfaro to internet. Na paroume delivery.

Gamma is also for Ge, as in geology. The spine of Greece is the southern extension the Balkan mountain range. Greece is also at the junction of the African and European tectonic plates, which makes it seismically and occasionally volcanically active. A 6.3 earthquake hit Lesvos ten days ago and there have been six other quakes in the 4 and 5 range in the past week, which is more than usual. I felt a few of those myself while living there. Istanbul and Athens got hit in 1999 in quakes less than a month apart; the countries helped each other out, producing a thaw in bilateral relations. The last big earthquake to hit Thessaloniki struck in 1978. The city is due for another…

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