When starting out with language learning, it’s tempting to assume a one-on-one correspondence between your native and target language for everything you come across. It seems like a simple game of equivalencies: X equals Y. But you quickly learn that it’s not always as simple as that. Different languages carve the world up in subtly different ways.
It’s most obviously the case with content words. For instance, ‘sad’ in English covers both the person feeling the emotion, and the situation causing it. In Greek, it’s two words: λυπημένος (lipiménos, the former, with a Greek passive adjective ending) and λυπηρός (lipirós, the latter). Now that would have scuppered Elton John’s sad sad situation.
But function words differ, too. Grammatical categories that have lexically crumbled into each other in English remain resolutely separate in other languages. Take the word where. In English, you can use this as an interrogative:
Where is the bank?
And you can use it as a relative:
I know where you are.
Same word, two completely different functions. It leads English monolinguals to assume that they’re equivalent, identical. For sure, their function is related – both referencing place – but they’re performing different jobs, respectively standing in for missing information and joining two clauses.
Something that took me a little time to get my head around was the same situation in Scottish Gaelic. The interrogative and the relative are different words here, càit(e) and far:
Càit a bheil e? (Where is he?) Tha fios agam far a bheil e. (I know where he is.)
Norwegian behaves in a similar way, although with a further complication. Generally, hvor is the interrogateive, and der the relative:
Hvor er du? (Where are you?) Jeg vil være der du er. (I want to be where you are.)
But when a question is implicit, the relative is just hvor, as in English:
Jeg vil vite hvor du kommer fra. (I want to know where you come from.)
Incidentally, it’s the same situation with Norwegian then, which is variously når or da, according to the rule above.
Interesting tidbits of language, for a geek like me / us. But they serve as a reminder to delve a little deeper into usage using a resource like Wiktionary when you learn a word that seems to correspond neatly to one in your native language(s).
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.
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!
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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!
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:
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!
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!
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)
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
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
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.
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.
Sometimes an old, long-neglected language project will rise up and demand attention again. “Remember me, old friend?” The reasons can be many. But the call can be hard to resist. Over the past few weeks, my former passion for Greek bubbled up from the linguistic Lethe, that river of oblivion where loved ones drift off to be forgotten. And the trigger? Food.This is fast becoming a theme…
Now, this taste for all things Greek is nothing new. I was always a bit of an unabashed Hellenohile. Some of my earliest solo expeditions, learning about the world as a travel-mad youth, were to Greece. In fact, my first trip abroad on my own was island-hopping back in 1997, armed with just a one-way ticket and a rucksack. Admittedly, it wasn’t a complete success – I had money stolen from my debit card and had to come home early and dejected (although a happy ending: everything was reimbursed by the bank on my return, thankfully).
On a Greek adventure in 1997.
But naive rookie tourist mishaps aside, there is no denying the touch of paradise to the region. Cast an eye over a Santorini or Mykonos sunset and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
And yes, Greece and Cyprus have brought some of my all-time favourite entries to the Eurovision Song Contest. You know me by now – Eurovision is always somewhere in the language learning mix. Before I even began to learn in earnest, I knew a host of terms of varying usefulness. These included αγάπη (love), άνοιξη (spring), αστέρι (star), ελπίδα (hope), Φωτιά (fire), θάλασσα (sea), σταφύλι (grape) and all the other lovely things people tended to sing about in Greek at Eurovision.
In fits and starts over the years, I cobbled together what you might call holiday Greek. Although I probably never strayed beyond A1, I have always been pretty proud of that achievement. After all, it was one of my very first self-taught language projects. Very few materials were available besides phrasebooks and basic primers back then, mostly tailored to holidaymakers. But it was enough for me to Get By In Greek, as one of those 90s titles went.
Learning Greek as a purely functional, transactional language for travelling meant that there was rarely much academic rigour to that study. But as a result, when I do come to use it, even today it seems more serviceable and everyday useful than some of my more ‘serious’ languages.
Also – and this is a consequence of the performance pressure we put ourselves under with close, considered study – I think I might even be a little less nervous about speaking a language I openly admit is (very) imperfect but useable. If it works when popping to the φούρνος (bakery), that’s enough for me.
A Taste of Greek
But back to food. And there is honestly nothing quite like Greek food. It is arguably the best comfort cuisine in the world. And a chance TV encounter earlier this year stirred that long-time love of Hellenic language and culture.
And he is ready for it – he has a ton of content online, from his own recipe website to the full gamut of social media feeds, full of foodspiration. But as it stands, much of that is in Greek, tailoring for that faithful home audience.
So if you really want to access his edible world of wonder, you would do well to dig out the Ελληνικά.
As far as social media is concerned, live content streaming is one of the best and most accessible sources of authentic materials for language learners. Watching in real time is a brilliant way to feel connected to your target language right now, in the real world. And throughout lockdown, Akis* has been live-streaming from his kitchen regularly, making – and eating – the tastiest samples of Greek cooking for his fans. Let me tell you, it is hard not to get hooked back into the country and culture when a plateful of πορτοκαλόπιτα (orange pie) is staring you in the face.
Not to mention the fact that Greek, at least to my ear, comes across as one of the most clearly articulated European languages. It has a staccato, precise flow that somehow matches your perception of the word written on the page, without everything mushing together as it comes out of the mouth.
(As an aside – I have no academic backup at all to claim this of Greek. I’d love to hear of research into the clarity of Greek speech patterns if you are aware of any!)
As a perpetual Greek beginner, this makes it easier to pick out familiar words in normal, free-flowing and sometimes very complicated speech. Listening to those feeds, that handful of familiar words just pops out: γάλα (milk), φράουλα (strawberry), ψωμί (bread)… and it is so satisfying to feel like you understand. Even just a little.
So whats does my Greek revival look like? Well, a bit of Duolingo now and again is a good (if predictable) start. Appropriately, food vocab one of the first things you’ll learn in many of these courses. That has been immediately useful!
You probably know what comes next, fellow language enthusiast. With the Greek bug taking hold, out came all the old books, including one of my first ever language learning purchases, Linkword Greek.
But was that enough? Of course not. My copy of Essential Greek Grammar arrived in the post today. Incorrigible, I am.
Aren’t books almost as delicious as food, though?
Has anything inspired you back to your language learning roots lately? Please let us know in the comments below or on Twitter!