A page from Hippocrene Greek Basic Course - joining the dots, I realised it's one of the resources available on Live Lingua

Joining the (Typewritten) Dots

Sometimes you don’t end up joining the dots until years after you see the clues.

I had a bookcase tidy-up and sort-out this week. In one dark and forlorn corner of my shelves, I came across this unusual little volume:

I bought it in the early noughties, during the second of my three flirtations with Modern Greek. I can even remember where I picked it up – the long-gone Borders bookshop in Birmingham. There’s some extra nostalgia thrown in right away.

The reason for the book’s particular strangeness is that the whole thing is written in typewriter script. Odd, for such an outwardly modern-bound book. In any case, I must have thought it was cool and quirky at the time, as it certainly didn’t put me off buying it. It made a change from the usual sans-serif sameness of most courses.

Hippocrene Greek Basic Course

Those unusual typewritten pages…

Clearly, that vintage Murder-She-Wrote vibe suggested it was a reprint of a much older book. I didn’t think too much of it, except to note that the publisher, Hippocrene, was based in the US, and had a lot of older re-issues of other fairly obscure works in its catalogue. (It still does, incidentally, and is still going strong!)

Hippocrene Greek Basic Course

Publisher clues…

Wind forward over a decade, and I’m into online language learning resource hunting in a big way. I happen across the vast repository of language courses at Live Lingua. Predictably, I’m like the cat that got the cream. They’re vintage resources, for sure, having served to train US military and volunteering personnel for decades. But they’re free, and they’re still solid.

And also… a little familiar?

Joining the Dots

It turns out that my Hippocrene title is one of those reprints too. In fact, it’s pretty much a straight facsimile of the first volume of the FSI Greek course available on Live Lingua.

The dots were joined.

And it’s a good connection to make. All of the original course audio is available at Live Lingua. Now, for the first time, I have the listening material to go with that Hippocrene book, albeit via a slightly unusual route!

The book is still available even today, and, although you can find the same course for free, I must admit that it’s nice to read the physical item in your hands. I’ve always had a soft spot for it, with its strange typewriter charm.

And now I feel I know it even better.

Teach Yourself enhanced ebooks plus audio for Kindle

Teach Yourself Enhanced eBooks : Bargains Hiding in Plain Sight

I had a bit of Amazon credit to spend this week (from TopCashBack, no less), so I decided to treat myself to a couple of Kindle books I’d had my eye on for a while: the enhanced ebook + audio editions of a couple of Teach Yourself Complete titles.

As Greek and Polish seem to have lodged themselves firmly in my heart as big life language projects (did I choose them, or did they choose me?), it seemed only right to install both of them on my device. Although they’re hardly brand new editions, the ebook + audio range being available since the early 2010s, they’re my first in that format. They’re cheap, too – most are just £3.99 right now, with the odd one, like Cantonese, even cheaper.

Of course, I already have both of these books (in several versions, vintage and otherwise, as you’ll know if you’ve been following my recent compulsion!). But even though I’ve completed them both in other guises, I still love these titles for revision. I’m also stoked by the idea of a one-stop-shop mobile library – a single place for all that content, with no need for app-switching for listening material.

Teach Yourself enhanced ebooks plus audio for Kindle

Teach Yourself Complete Greek and Complete Polish on my Kindle app

Teach Yourself… To Be Compatible?

Confession: I almost didn’t bother with them at all.

The reason was the not insignificant number of negative reviews left for those products on Amazon. The big bad mark against them was the charge of incompatibility, particularly the audio. A number of users frustratedly left their one-star slaps-in-the-face stating that the audio simply didn’t work on their devices.

Thankfully, it seems like an issue on older Kindles, rather than the content itself. I’ve had no problems at all running them on the Kindle app for iOS on my two-year-old iPad. Audio prompts appear as little speaker icons, and a mini player pops up at the bottom of the screen when you tap them. There is full scrub / pause functionality too, so you don’t have to listen to the whole thing from start to finish.

Teach Yourself… to Read Non-Latin Scripts?

That said, there was another frequent review gripe that put me off plumping for them even more than the potential audio issues. Several users mentioned a lack of support for non-Latin characters in the dialogues. Instead of letter characters, some only saw blank boxes – clearly a font fail. Now that would be a deal-breaker for languages like Greek, Hindi and Russian!

Again, it seems to be a case of device support, not product support. Greek characters display perfectly on Kindle for iPad. Not only that, but they’ve used a really nice, readable font for the Greek.

If there’s anything to be said in the way of constructive criticism, it’s just a question of layout. Sometimes, vocab lists can look cramped, for instance, although that’s easily fixed by rotating to landscape. Elsewhere, some exercise tables are obviously images rather than text, with instructions to ‘fill in’ despite not being editable (as the image above illustrates). Nonetheless, they’re tiny quibbles given the convenience of the format.

If In Doubt…

All in all, my experience with the Teach Yourself Complete ebooks has been tiptop. It all goes to show that you can’t always trust reviews out of context.

If in doubt, though, you do have one tool at your disposal for a definitive answer on compatibility: the free sample. There are free samples – usually just the first chapter or so – available for all Amazon Kindle books. I made sure to download both the Greek and Polish samples above before spending my hard-earned (yet still bargainous) £3.99.

If you want trusty Teach Yourself content on your devices, these are a really good punt. They’re not available in all the Teach Yourself Complete languages, but most of the major learning languages are available (French, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese, for starters).

A dog with big ears. Phonotactics is what governs which sounds sound 'right' together in a language. Image from freeimages.com

Phonotactics Physio : When Sounds Sound Wrong

If there’s one thing I’ve learned on my ongoing linguistics adventure, it’s that there’s a fancy word for everything in science, and linguistics is no exception. Welcome, phototactics (from Greek, roughly sound arranging).

The phonotactics of a language govern how different sounds fit together within it: which can occur next to each other, which can start a word, which can end one, and so on. It’s thanks to the phonotactics of English, for example, that we don’t have words like ngrasn.

Unsurprisingly, then, it’s always fun and games when the phonotactics of your native language square up against those of your target language.

Phonotactic Fallout

Mismatched phonotactics result in the distinctive features of often stereotyped non-native accents. For instance, Spanish-speaking learners of English will often first add an e- before words beginning with sp- and st-. The reason? The phonotactics of Spanish don’t allow those combinations word-initially, so they’re anathema to Spanish ears. By contrast, cognates of English sp- and st- words in Spanish already have that e- built in: especial, especie, and even España itself.

Similarly, English learners of Modern Greek might have issues with particular clusters of sounds. The word mortal, for example, is θνητός (thnitós). When was the last time you heard an English word containing thn, at the start, middle or even end? Less alien is perhaps Greek ξ (ks), as there are plenty of English examples containing it: box, exit, exaggerate. In Greek, however, it very commonly occurs at the start of a word; ξέρω (ksero, I know), ξέχασα (ksehasa, I forgot), ξυπνώ (ksipno, I wake up). Early learners of Greek are often tempted to add a quick little schwa vowel between the sounds, like kǝsero for ‘ksero. The initial ks is so strange to English ears that we pronounce Greek borrowing ξυλόφωνο (ksylophone) as ‘zylophone’ to pander to our own phonotactics.

Phonotactics Physio

So how to cope with wildly different phonotactics in your target language?

Getting used to creating sounds unusual in your native language involves training muscle memory. Physio for phonotactics, if you will. That means practising individual words, as well as undertaking more involved speech tasks like shadowing.

It also helps to identify cases where your native language does come pretty close to the target language sound, noting that it might happen between words rather than within them. Take a couple of Polish words thrust into the topical limelight recently: szczepionka (vaccine) and szczepić (to vaccinate). That initial szcz, or /ʂt͡ʂ/ as Wiktionary so accurately puts it, simply doesn’t occur within any single word in English. The closest English gets is with broadly similar sounds across word boundaries, like wash cherries. But say that out loud a few times, concentrating on the sh_ch, and you get an idea of Polish szcz that you can transfer to your Polish pronunciation.

Tackle such words repeatedly, enlisting the help of your iTalki tutor or similar in topical chat related to them. Gradually, you will start building up a target language phonotactics  that doesn’t depend on your own native language judgements.

 

A brick wall, doing what brick walls do best - offering resistance! Image from freeimages.com

Cross-Language Tactics Resistance : Doing What Works – Everywhere

Sometimes, we know what’s best for us. But we still don’t do it. It’s a frustrating matter of resistance.

I notice this a lot cross-language. It’s that realisation that I’ve had great successes in some learning projects, but fail to carry over what I did right to another.

I think the issue can be that I tend to ‘bubble off’ a new language learning project into its own mental microcosm. And that’s quite necessary, of course; it helps maintain separation, limit interference and keep me sane as a polyglot learner.

But it also sets up brick walls that make it hard to transfer good practices as an automatic habit.

The Great Greek-Polish Divide…

I’ve been active with Greek and Polish concurrently since the first 2020 lockdowns (Polish a lot longer as a continuous projectGreek a resumption project from years back). However, with pretty much the same lesson-per-week pace, I feel conversationally fluent in Greek, but perennially clumsy in Polish. I gab away happily with my Greek tutor about all manner of nonsense. Polish, on the other hand, can still feel like wading through ungrammatical, uncolloquial treacle.

I’m tempted to put it down to the fact that Greek is, perhaps, simply an easier language to learn than Polish. Taking an external, objective measure, though, this doesn’t seem to be an excuse to let me off the hook. The FSI, in its difficulty ranking for learners, classes Greek and Polish both as Level III, or hard languages.

So what am I doing so differently?

It is mostly down to my different attitude towards learning materials in the two languages. For Polish, I try to use serious textbooks. For reading material, I aim for the news.

Now, I barely read the news in Greek; I follow TV chefs on Instagram instead (and pop culture is the healthiest of all guilty pleasures for language learners, of course). I don’t spend a lot of time with textbooks or grammars, either. Rather, I just do a few minutes of Glossika and Duolingo every day. Glossika in particular has been transformative; just blasting my brain repeatedly with everyday sentence structure has produced amazing results.

Similar “brief blast” treatment comes in the form of Instagram accounts which post short, snappy quotes in Greek. It’s just enough to activate the Greek brain and impart a couple of new words without the overload of hefty reading. X and Y are recommended for fellow learners.

Chat Habits

The nature of my chat – or what I want to chat about – differs similarly. In Polish, I started out with my head stuck in serious discussion mode. I feel I should be talking about weighty, lofty matters. Where that idea comes from, I do not know; but I do know that it hobbles my fluency, much as a bunch of ‘should do’ norms stop us from reading what makes us happy in the target language.

In Greek, my conversation classes are usually without formal structure, and I ramble quite happily about some very low-brow stuff indeed. Maybe it’s because Greek was a revival project under lockdown, so the stakes felt lower. I believe we all develop a different persona for each of our target languages, and Greek Rich is certainly a lot more laid back.

But even looking beyond Greek, there are healthy chat habits I have in other languages that I need to carry over to Polish. In Gaelic, for example, I have a regular, lively get-together with fellow local learners, albeit, temporarily, a Zoom meet rather than our pre-pandemic pub chat. I still don’t have a huge vocabulary, but I use what I have, and it works. Our ‘no English’ rule is fantastic practice for flexible thinking as a fledgling A2 speaker, forcing us to express what we want to say in alternative, economical ways. By contrast, in Polish, I probably tried to learn too many isolated vocabulary items too soon. A case of trying too hard, too soon; I’m spoilt for choice and a worse speaker for it.

Resistance Busting

Good news for me: I am redressing the balance between my Greek and Polish now.

Thanks to some extra group classes laid on by my Polish tutor, I’m getting more of that informal, friendly chat that bolstered my Greek so much. I’ve discovered cheesy soap Pierwsza miłość (first love), which is filling my Polish ventricles with light-hearted nonsense. I’ve cut back on going too hard, too serious with the dreaded news. And I’ve started to add a few minutes of Polish Glossika to my daily tactics (even though it feels, oddly, like I’m cheating on my Greek there).

Other remedies are harder to source unless someone points them out, of course. For instance, I’m still looking for fun and snappy Polish quote accounts to follow (any recommendations welcome!). And I’d still love a shot in the arm for my Polish pop culture socials generally.

But, happily, I’m turning the tide. Polish is a language I care about very much; it’s waiting for me to break that resistance and benefit from the techniques my other languages have enjoyed for so long.

Which of your languages seem resistant to the success you’ve enjoyed with others? And how do you try and overcome that? Let us know in the comments!

Greek flag. The Flag of Greece. Photo by Michael Faes, FreeImages.com

Your Greek Learning Library – for Just Over a Fiver!

If you walk into any high street bookshop, language learning can seem like an expensive business. Brand new, shiny textbooks are a not inconsiderable purchase for many, requiring careful deliberation. Modern Greek is no exception. A glance at off-the-shelf prices for some popular titles includes an eye-watering £34.99 (TY Complete Greek) and £42.99 (Colloquial Greek).

But brand new doesn’t necessarily mean better.

You might have followed my recent efforts to recreate the bookshop shelves of my youth. Buying (and in some cases, buying back) those old language learning titles made me realise something: there are some fantastic, used language learning books out there. Some are out-of-print; some of them are simply earlier versions of the same, expensive, new resources. True, a few references and social contexts might have been updated. But chapter for chapter, they’re often almost exactly the same.

And the best thing? They’re all cheap as chips.

Greek on the Cheap

So which three used book treasures should be at the top of your Greek learning list? There are quite a few to choose from, but here are some tried-and-tested favourites to set you on your way. They’re titles I’ve used – and am using – myself, and they’re all extremely effective in different ways.

At the time of writing, all of them were available for £2-4, including postage, on eBay.

COLLOQUIAL GREEK (N.WATTS)

Routledge Colloquial, the mainstay of many a serious language learner, still feature this excellent title by Niki Watts. However, the 1990s edition of the book, available for a snip at eBay, is just as solid a resource as the current print. What’s more, the dialogue audio is available for free on the Routledge website – and many of the dialogues are identical between the editions. Even where things differ, that’s a good opportunity for you to use your nascent Greek powers to make sense of it all on the fly!

TEACH YOURSELF Modern GREEK (S.A.SOFRONIOU)

The old version of Teach Yourself Greek saw reprints well into the 1980s, and is a traditional language manual with a much more old-fashioned, grammar-based approach than Colloquial Greek. However, that step-by-step route is methodically perfect for building up a sound knowledge of morphology and syntax, helped by the fact that the book is arranged into short, easily digestible chapters. Use it side by side with a more modern, communicative course book, and you’re hitting the language from all sides. I know iTalki teachers who still swear by this book!

Hugo’s GREEK IN THREE MONTHS (Z.Tofallis)

Like the Colloquial and Teach Yourself titles, there are alternative incarnations of Hugo’s Greek in Three Months. I recommend the older version for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the second edition was completely rewritten by Niki Watts, author of the Colloquial title, and it’s nice to have a variety of different educators on your bookshelf. Secondly, that older title is a little gem, containing some lovely list sections on colloquial and idiomatic Greek, and a unique taster of modern Greek literature in the appendices.

Brushing up old books – quick tips

Here’s the rub: shiny, new books can be attractive for that very reason. There’s nothing quite like getting an untouched, pristine copy of a language learning book in your hands. Used book are just that, and when they drop onto your doormat, they sometimes turn out to be quite obviously so.

But don’t let it put you off! It’s quite easy and inexpensive to spruce up tatty old books. As a self-confessed germaphobe and long-time OCDer, there are some techniques that clean and sanitise enough to satisfy even me (and I’m a right fusspot). There’s enough material there for a whole article, and I’ll most likely write one soon, but in the meantime, here are some quick tips:

  • use surgical spirit (rubbing alcohol) and a soft cloth to gently buff glossy book covers – this brings a real shine back to them, and the alcohol both evaporates quickly (not saturating the book) and has antibacterial properties
  • moisten cotton buds to tease out dog-eared pages gently, rather than ripping / breaking delicate damaged paper with your fingers
  • carefully sand the page edges of books with a nail file to lighten yellowing and remove small marks like foxing
  • leave books to flatten between boards topped with heavy items (like other books!)
  • deal with any ‘old book’ odour by leaving the book in a plastic bag with a spoon of bicarbonate of soda for a week or two (or longer)
  • invest in some plastic dust jackets to cover your books in – after you’ve given them a loving makeover, these will protect them for even longer!

There’s a real Zen about giving old books some TLC in this way. It’s both very chilled and extremely satisfying – especially when you marvel proudly at your learning stash, realising that you saved yourself pounds and pounds in the process.

A memory knot tied to a finger (image from freeimages.com). Greek passive verbs like 'remember' can be tricky to conjugate.

Greek passive verbs in the past – quick tricks

I’m all for pattern-spotting and quick heuristics for faster fluency. If something will help me communicate faster, it’s a win in my book.

That’s why I was recently chuffed to add a special new trick to my Greek arsenal. Specifically, it relates to the past tense of passive verbs. Well, I say passive, but many Greek passives correspond to active forms in English, and are quite high frequency:

θυμάμαι thimáme I remember
κοιμάμαι kimáme I sleep
φοβάμαι fováme I fear

Passive Knowledge

Passive conjugation is very different from the active in Greek. You usually come across it quite late in Modern Greek textbooks, too, so it can be an issue for many beginner to intermediate students.

Thankfully, there’s a shortcut that works for many of them. Namely, -άμαι (-áme) often becomes -ήθηκα (-íthika) in the first person past tense. Strictly speaking, that past is actually the aorist, the tense that expresses a single, completed action in the past. So we have:

θυμήθηκα thimíthika I remembered
κοιμήθηκα kimíthika I slept
φοβήθηκα fovíkthika I feared

Of course, that’s not the whole picture. But that -ηκα (-ika) fragment appears almost everywhere in other passive conjugations, like a variation on a theme. With a few extra rules, like -ζομαι > -στηκα (-zome > –stika) and -εύομαι > -έυτικα (-évomai > –éftika), you can cover even more:

ονειρεύομαι onirévome I dream ονειρεύτηκα oniréftika I dreamt
εργάζομαι ergázome I work εργάστηκα ergástika I worked

Once you have those active rules down, it’s pretty easy to extend it to other common conversational forms like ‘you …’ – for that, simply replace -a with -es:

θυμήθηκες thimíthikes you remembered
εργάστηκες ergástikes you worked
κοιμήθηκες kimíthikes you slept

As a rule of thumb, it works quite well for speeding up conversation forms. And of course, if you misapply it, or use it on a verb that doesn’t fit the pattern, the person-and-tense markers of -ηκα/-ηκες are strong enough that (hopefully) you’ll still be understood. There’s no shame in mistakes when you’re learning – especially if they don’t get in the way of communication!

I’m a big fan of learning frequent forms over whole verb tables generally – it’s a trick that just works. Hopefully, with this handful of –ηκα and –ηκες, you’ll be set to speed up your own Greek conversations too!

Greek flag. The Flag of Greece. Photo by Michael Faes, FreeImages.com

Greek Rules Rule! Understanding Adjective Pairs

Finding fluency in a foreign language is often a question of spotting heuristics – patterns, tricks and rules of thumb that help map out the shape of the language in your mind. They can help you mark the boundaries that most often lead to mix-ups and common ‘gotcha’ errors as a non-native speaker. Recently, I spied one of these in Greek, and it’s already helping me to avoid errors.

The tricky feature in question is the existence of Greek adjectives derived from the same root, but with subtly different meanings. They come in pairs ending in -ικός and -μένος, and you can get a feel for the pattern in the following examples:

κουραστικός tiring κουρασμένος tired
αγχωτικός stressful αγχωμένος stressed
ενοχλητικός annoying ενοχλημένος annoyed

For a while, I would tend to unthinkingly say one when I meant the other. It led to some classic Greek comedy moments: “I’m annoying” instead of “I’m annoyed” and such like!

Greek Columns

But by taking a moment to analyse how meaning matches up with form in those two columns, the rule bubbles to the surface. Grammatically speaking, the second of each pair here are passive past participles. They express the state a person is in when X has been done to them. In these cases, that equates to made tired, made anxious, made annoyed. Now, more often than not, these marry up with past participles in English (like tired or annoyed). In Greek, it’s -μένος that indicates that in the adjectival form.

By contrast, the first column adjectives relate more to the inherent properties of the person, thing or situation. That is, the potential effect on something else – the ability to cause to be tired, anxious or annoyed. English tends to form these in a variety of ways: present participles of active verbs like tiring or annoying, suffix formations like stressful, or often, clumsier adjectival / participial phrases like anxiety-inducing. However, in Greek, you’ll often get a simple -ικός, turning an active verbal root into an adjective.

So, it all boils down to one easy rule in Greek. Talking about how it caused you to feel? Then it’s -μένος. Talking about what it does to you? Then it will be the –ικός part of the equation.

It’s a neat example, and a good illustration of how taking the time to pattern-spot can sort out some real zingers in your language learning head. Of course, we all do this automatically and below the level of our awareness most of the time. But with those sticky mistakes, it never hurts to join up the dots out loud!

Greek flag. The Flag of Greece. Photo by Michael Faes, FreeImages.com

Greek Readers for Impatient Story Lovers

If you go as giddy for language books as I do, then you too probably came over all a-flutter at the release of the Teach Yourself / Olly Richards range of easy readers. They come in an exciting range of languages, covering not only the biggies like French, German and Spanish, but also some less well served languages like Icelandic and Turkish. Irish and Japanese are just around the corner, too.

To the frustration of Modern Greek learners, though, there’s still no title στα ελληνικά. The need for graded Greek learning material urged me to cast the net a bit wider, and happily, I found some excellent alternatives to curb my impatience.

Here are three favourites I’m getting a lot of use from in recent studies.

THE ROUTLEDGE MODERN GREEK READER

As a language buff, I thought I’d mined all that Routledge had to offer. I’m not sure how I missed this little gem, then, sitting outside of its better-known ranges like Colloquial and Essential Grammars

The book consists of 25 very short stories adapted from popular folk tales. In fact, the compendium was pulled together by a dedicated folklorist, Maria Kaliambou, lending a real sense of authenticity to the collection. Alongside each tale, there’s a Greek-English glossary, as well as a set of graded comprehension questions – just like the Teach Yourself stories range.

The cover of Routledge's Greek Reader.

The Routledge Modern Greek Reader is pricey – certainly more than the tenner the Olly Richards story books will cost you. But there’s little else like it with such great support for foreign language learners right now. Definitely recommended for moving your Greek up a notch!

From the Greek Web

Like in Iceland, many prescribed texts for schools are freely available on the Greek interwebs. If you have the patience to drill down the links at Παιδαγωγικό Ινστιτούτο, you can find Greek e-books on all kinds of subjects. Likewise, ebooks.edu.gr and openbook.gr are worth a look. There are two resources in particular that fill that Short Stories in … slot nicely.

ΚΕΊΜΕΝΑ ΓΙΑ ΝΈΟΥΣ ΣΕ ΑΠΛΆ ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΆ

Texts for Young People in Simple Greek

My favourite by far is actually a set of books aimed at young overseas and non-native speaker students from 11-15. Despite the target audience, the stories are fairly fun and engaging, and draw from a range of social topics that make good class discussion material. There’s also a good mix of dialogue and prose, across both colloquial and written styles.

 

ΑΝΘΟΛΌΓΙΟ ΛΟΓΟΤΕΧΝΙΚΏΝ ΚΕΙΜΈΝΩΝ

Anthology of Literary Texts

Despite the haughty name, Ανθολόγιο λογοτεχνικών κειμένων is a collection of abridged, lively snapshots from Modern Greek literature intended for native speaker schoolchildren. With both poetry and prose, it’s not only a bite-sized way to get more Greek reading in, but also an introduction to authors, styles and themes in contemporary Greece.

Both this and the previous resource are aimed squarely at schools in Greece, so there is no English vocabulary support, unlike the Routledge volume. That said, they make for pretty good TL-rich immersion!

And of course…

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention Harry Potter. If you can get hold of them, an honourable mention has to go to the J.K.Rowling series in Greek translation. They’re par for the course in polyglot circles, and if you know the originals, you’ll have a helping hand. I’m currently slaving my way through the third book myself.

So there you have it: three alternatives in the absence of a Short Stories in Greek. Of course, if Teach Yourself happen to be reading this: please give us a Greek version soon!

Have you come across any other easy reader gems in Greek? Let us know in the comments!

Exploring language family tree connections can be one of the most useful polyglot learning tools

Wiktionary Trails : Tracing Cognates

One of the greatest things about Wiktionary, the crowd-sourced, multilingual lexicon, is the wealth of etymological information included in its entries. If you’ve ever wondered where does that word come from? then Wiktionary is a good place to start.

I’m a fiend for digging into my vocab’s provenance. It’s a natural curiosity and desire to join the dots up. Once I start pondering on a word, I have to follow it right down the rabbit hole.

Let’s play Wiktionary

This week, it was the Greek παίζω (paízo – I play) that I randomly chanced to cogitate upon. If you have a bit of Greek yourself, you might well recognise the connection with παιδί (paidhí – child). That’s a self-explanatory etymology, since playing is something children are especially fond of. And from παιδί, you can see a host of other connections thanks to Greek’s generous donations of words to science and medicine: paediatrics, pedagogy and so on. 

What I didn’t know was how much deeper the interlanguage connections of παιδί go. At first glance, paidí (paidí) doesn’t look much like other Indo-European words for child, save perhaps the Irish páiste, which may itself be a borrowing from Greek via Latin. I’d assumed it might be a loanword from a neighbouring, non-Indo-European language. But the truth lies closer to home; the Wiktionary entry throws light on some hidden family resemblances.

Setting off on a Wiktionary track and trace, it turns out that παιδί goes back to a diminutive form of Ancient Greek παῖς (pais – child). That, in turn, has been traced back to a reconstructed Indo-European form *peh2w-, denoting smallness or few in number. The Greek, then, seems ultimately to have arisen from the notion of a small person.

The relevance of that might not ring any bells. That is, until you check out the Wiktionary page and peruse the raft of guises this root has been cast to across other languages. These are just a few:

  • Latin: puer (boy), puella (girl); paucus (few)
  • Spanish: poco (few)
  • Italian: pocco (few)
  • Norwegian: fá (few)
  • English: few
  • Russian: пти́ца (ptíca – bird)
  • Polish: ptak (bird)

It’s the idea of smallness that links all these. Suddenly, παιδί (paidí) doesn’t seem such an outlier after all.

Wherever the trail may lead…

You might wonder what all the point of this meandering is, of course. Well, I find it helps to create a bird’s eye view of related languages you study, especially if you’re a regular dabbler. If you know the wider terrain, and make connections between linguistic territories, there are more connections for your brain to secure those words and phrases in memory.

And that can only be a good thing!

Books for learning Greek

Get Ur Greek On : A Week of Word Play Fun

I continue to work on levelling up my Greek lately. And as ever, it’s trusty old word play and linkword fun that help me get a grip on new vocab.

Thinking up creative ways to break down new words into familiar, memorable sounds can be a challenge. Story-based methods have always helped me, creating lots of funny hooks to grapple with. That said, a couple of them this week have really stretched the limits of my imagination…

Here are a few recent off-the-wall ‘scenettes’ I’ve come up with. I’d ask you kindly not to laugh, but actually, that’s the whole point!

(I’ve just noticed they all begin with α, too – a complete coincidence, as they’re just words related to whatever I was chatting with my iTalki tutor about!)

αποταμιεύω – to save (money)

apotamiévo

The story: I know a girl, Tammy. She hasn’t got much money. A poor Tammy, if you will. And that is why she has to save money! A-poor-Tammy + évo (a pretty common verb ending in Greek) = to save money.

αγκαλιάζω – to hug

angaliázo

Hugs are great, but they can be awkward. Sometimes, I’ll go in for a bearhug and we’ll meet at a really strange angle. Angle + ázo (another common ending!) = to hug.

αηδιάζω – to disgust

aidiázo

I’m actually very good friends with Cameron Diaz (honest – not). But once, she did this really horrible thing. Seriously, I was disgusted. I just screamed AYYYY Diaz, OH! so my feelings were pretty clear. Ay-Diaz-oh = to disgust.

Multi-language Word Play

All fun and games, for sure. And honestly, it can really help with vocab learning.

But if you study multiple languages, one concern might be that your stories get mixed up. When thinking of ‘to save money’ in French, for example (probably something like économiser), the a-poor-Tammy story looms large, and might threaten to blow you off course. In this case, just add an extra layer of storytelling: Tammy lives in Greece, of course. When picturing her, she’s looking forlornly across the bay, ruing her lack of dosh, from the caldera of Santorini.

Sorted!

In practical terms, imaginative techniques like these aren’t exactly a one-stop shop for fluency. The catch is that retrieval still isn’t instant, initially; you have to access those funny memories. What they are, though, is a first leg up to remembering a content word in the flow of conversation – a set of extra grabbers for your word-by-word lookup mental dictionary. It’s the actual use of those words in conversation that really starts to cement their foundations in long-term memory and begin to make them automatically available.

Note to my Greek teacher: when my attention wanders and I appear to be looking into space blankly, I’m thinking of Tammy. Don’t worry – I’ll be right back with you.